Sunday, 10 July 2016

Poetry emotion, by Ben Jeapes

If slapped, turn the opposite cheek.
You'll inherit the earth if you're meek.
Though priests will defy me
And then crucify me
I'll be back in less than a week.

Okay, it’s just possible that isn’t what is meant by the poetic structure of Jesus’s teaching, but follow that link and you’ll get some interesting insights into how the teaching of Jesus is structured in the New Testament, using clever devices like symmetry of theme and repetition to get his points across.

Patterns of speech are the substructure of a piece of writing. The most obvious example is that people don’t generally speak on the page exactly as they would in real life, with stammers, elisions, repetitions, getting lost mid-flow so that the sentences kind of trail off … But nor do (or should) they speak like automata, reciting their words in neatly phrased, perfectly grammatical sentences, always remembering the difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom’. Authors write in a kind of shorthand which people instinctively understand so that they know the person speaking this way on the page is the kind who speaks that way in real life.

It used to be de rigeur to transcribe characters’ accents phonetically. Cheerful cockneys dropped their aitches (or should that be haitches?). People of African heritage … actually, let’s not go there, because nowadays attempts to render an African accent phonetically are so offensive you just want to hurl the book across the room. Thankfully people don’t generally do that any more, but there are older writers who are almost unreadable today because of the habit. The reader’s eye needs to glide effortlessly across the page, and their brain can make the necessary adjustments. If you have to stop and think “huh?” every few lines, the flow is broken and you are thrown out into the real world. As we used to say in my writers’ group, “reality is no defence”.

Because, we are not transcribing reality. We are presenting an illusion designed to entertain and be memorable. We don’t necessarily write poetry but our writing should be viewed as a work of art. I don’t mean to terrify anyone into not writing another word from now on, but there is a structure to it. Our own words, the descriptive bits, the stuff between the spoken lines, all combine to create a beautiful thing. Beauty is truth, truth beauty, and that is how a piece of written work becomes real.

Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of 5 novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher, and technical writer.


  1. That's interesting about transcribing accents. A while ago, I reviewed a book of Suffolk folk tales, and one of my complaints was that I couldn't hear the Suffolk accent while reading it. It wasn't that I wanted the author to somehow transcribe the long vowel sounds, more that there's a turn of phrase, a cadence, a choice of one word over another that was noticeably missing.

  2. Interesting post. I'm trying to recreate the voice of a Syrian boy who's not been learning English for long, but without knowing precisely what kinds of errors might be likely for a Syrian (such as verb endings/tenses/plurals etc) it's guesswork. I may need to do further research. Thanks for the post.

    1. That's a challenge - sounds like you need to befriend a Syrian! I remember my French teacher telling me that I didn't make mistakes like an English person - all my mistakes were French. I took it as a compliment...

  3. As a reflective, non-fiction writer leaning toward the poetic more often than not, I was intrigued by the idea of a degree of poetic structure being evident in parts of the New Testament. The Psalms are pure poetry in many places. Their repetition and cadence lend themselves well to phrases becoming embedded in our memories.
    And I could ponder for hours on your closing words: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, and that is how a piece of written work becomes real." A challenge and an inspiration all in one. Thanks, Ben!