Guy Gavriel Kay – Thinking in Poetic Prose

Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven is a book that fascinates me both as a reader and a writer. Though I started the book because of the strong recommendation of a good friend, I was quickly enthralled by the pure potency of Kay’s skills. Under Heaven posed a refreshing change from the genre fiction I had been consuming. Not only is Imperial China a new and interesting milieu, the poetic prose Kay is known for is both beautiful and inspiring.I agree with Brandon Sanderson’s assessment. The man is a genius.

Though there are a number of authors to whom I can point to as exemplars in the use of poetic prose, I believe Kay does it the best. The difference that sets Kay apart is the extent to which poetry influences not only his authorial voice, but his stories. Though not strictly necessary in the third-limited perspective, I have often found that matching the narrator’s voice to the PoV character is very effective. In this way, the narration demonstrates the PoV character’s world view, adding a subtle layer of characterization. Indeed, Kay chose to use this technique with his protagonist in Under Heaven. Shen Tai studied to enter the Kitai Imperial Bureaucracy before the events of Under Heaven, and therefore was a poet by training and inclination. Poetry is such a strong part of the culture of Imperial China that Kay depicts that it makes sense for Shen Tai to think this way. Where as other characters take a moment for poetic ruminations on a piece of memory or scenery, Shen Tai’s entire point of view feels like poetry.

Like any other technique, the use of poetic narrative has benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, poetic language is very immersive, creating a tableaux in the mind of the reader. The cost, however, is that poetic language can add opacity to the text. The author’s words should be a window into the world he/she has created, and like any good window, the view should be unobstructed. At times, the poetry was so beautiful that I stepped back to admire the words themselves, rather than the story they told. For Kay, this wasn’t a problem as he was able to skillfully manage the effect, but for my own part, I need to practice and improve. I intend to read his other works as a model and eventually take the time to read Under Heaven critically in order to dissect his narrative style. The goal, however, will be worth the effort. It will allow me to add beauty and depth to my text, layers and nuance for my own readers to enjoy and admire.


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