The other day, over at wordswordswords my friend Alison launched a challenge: to write a very short story (100 words) or poem suggested by the words "She was just frying an egg when she expired". Always up for a challenge, even at an hour when sensible people are thinking of bed, I had a bash, and for the purposes of this post I'm going to replicate the result. Story first - because at this point I hadn't seen that a poem would be acceptable:
‘She was just frying an egg, when she expired!’ Bella’s voice was redolent of Morningside, though she currently occupied a room in a flat in Canonmills.
There was a touch of the Ancient Mariner about Bella now that she had a story to tell. The egg-frier, it transpired, had been the owner of the flat, and that morning Bella had found her lying on the floor, the egg blackened in the frying pan.
‘It was the smell, you see.’ And you could tell by the frozen horror on her listeners’ faces that they weren’t thinking of burned egg.
Now, I found that quite difficult. I don't really write stories these days, and in the absence of a class full of weans to challenge in this fashion it's been 3 years since my last micro-story. But then I saw that I could try a poem, and bashed on:
‘She was just frying
an egg, when she
expired!’ And that
was that. No time
to worry about
clean undies or
what the ambulance man
Just the smell of
hot fat and the
cosy sputtering as she
sputtered to the floor
with a fish slice
in a clenched hand.
Death came too
early in the day
for her to be making
the nice scone more
suited to her station
than a vulgarly
I see I left the original quotation marks in, and shall continue to do so - think the beginning of Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" or Larkin's "Poetry of Departures" (where I prefer the demotic spoken interjections in italics) - because the original remit contained information about accent, and this was an important feature in both attempts.
But my point is really that in doing this I was reminded forcibly about what poetry does. For I was well over 100 words in the story before I realised it, and was nowhere near my point, that the genteel Bella was now going to be homeless and that it might be hard for her and that no-one was going to notice this in their reaction to the death of her landlady. I had to prune wildly and then rely on the title to suggest this theme, and my ending relied on black humour for its effect rather than anything more subtle.
The poem, on the other hand, has information in the spaces between the lines. Somehow it seems easier to suggest the sudden pangs of death in one word, and to create the scene by the repetition of 'sputtering' when no-one is expecting me to spell it out. The reader supplies the knowledge about the worry of having an accident in grubby undies - do people still talk about that, or is everyone fussier anyway in these days of ubiquitous washing machines? - and the realisation that a scone might be seen as more typical fare for a genteel lady of a certain antiquity than a fried egg. And somehow it doesn't matter if the reader wonders about the accuracy of their assumptions, because this is a poem and speculation is part of the game.
So when poetry doesn't rhyme of even necessarily have a recognisable rhythm, here is something which defines it: the potential of what isn't said, the context suggested by a word or a juxtaposition.
And finally, on a teacherly note: if I were in a classroom right now, I'd be setting my students to enter that challenge - unless of course the Education Authority in its wisdom had barred blogs. And I'd love to see what came out of a rush of micro-stories here. So I'm passing on the challenge to anyone who reads this - follow the link at the top of this post and put your efforts in the comments. Go on - it's not bedtime yet!