5 Authors Whose Prose is Pure Poetry

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“Reading this was like reading poetry,” I said to Jacqueline Woodson as I passed her my copy of Another Brooklyn for signing. I was at the library, where I had just watched her in conversation with Tayari Jones. My head was still thrumming with all of the titles she had made reference to, and all of the books she had written that I had not yet read. I couldn’t wait to start adding things to my hold list.

Another Brooklyn was my first Woodson book. Within the first page, I was transfixed by the lyricism of her prose. Her sentences and her paragraphs had a rhythm to them. In this way, they carried me through the book, making it impossible to put down.

“Our words had become a song we seemed to sing over and over again. When I grow up. When we go home. When we go outside. When we. When we. When we.” – Jacqueline Woodson, Another Brooklyn

When I saw that Woodson would be appearing locally, I jumped on that fast. During the event’s Q+A session, several attendees asked Woodson about poetic influences, and about the things she often left unsaid. “I’m very intentional about leaving white space,” she said in response to one question. “I want the reader to come to me.”

Which made me think of the other books I had loved over the years, books with a similar sense of white space. I don’t often read highly lyrical books, but the ones I’ve loved, I’ve really loved.

Lorrie Moore’s Self-HelpI was introduced to Moore’s work during my very first college writing workshop. I told the professor I found Moore’s words to be beautiful. The professor pushed back, pointing out the simplicity of her writing style. I eventually realized that what I found so attractive in this collection of short stories was its sparing prose.

“When you were six you thought mistress meant to put your shoes on the wrong feet. Now you are older and know it can mean many things, but essentially it means to put your shoes on the wrong feet.” – Lorrie Moore, Self-Help

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They CarriedThis is the first O’Brien book I read (I later read them all), and it was also within the context of the aforementioned writing workshop. Now that I think about it, that professor had a definite type. O’Brien’s work was similarly restrained and rhythmic, and he later became the first author I met in person. I saw him read at the Boston Public Library and, when I had him sign my copy of Going After CacciatoI wasn’t really sure what to stay. So I just stood there awkwardly, trying not to make eye contact, as he scribbled on the title page. To be honest, not much has changed.

“They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity.” – Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

Claudia Rankine’s CitizenThe subtitle to this book is actually a nod to its lyricism. “An American Lyric.” It’s a meditation on race, written in lush prose poetry, and it manages to hold both beauty and ugliness on its pages simultaneously.

“The past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow.” – Claudia Rankine, Citizen

Roxane Gay’s HungerThe most recently-published book on this list, I read it in one, large gulp, again carried along by the cadence of the lines, even as I winced away from everything that was horrifying and repugnant and familiar. It is about sexual violence, and about the body’s attempts to protect itself, and about the way in which we see ourselves, for good or bad. How we live with that. How we live with all of it.

“I wonder if I would tell him what I became, what I made of myself, what I made of myself despite him. I wonder if he would care, if it would matter.” – Roxane Gay, Hunger

What are your favorite works of lyrical prose, whether fiction or nonfiction?