Editors at Work: Is There Any Poetry in This Story?

By Jack Limpert

The first time I watched Genius, the new movie about legendary book editor Max Perkins, I was turned off by all the shouting—mostly the noise made by Jude Law playing Thomas Wolfe. Watching it a second time, focusing this time on the subtitles, helped me see some poetry in the movie’s dialogue and made me appreciate the movie a lot more.

Then I found a post on the Los Angeles Review of Books website by playwright and filmmaker Ian McAllister-McDonald about the pleasure of reading plays and finding the rich language of poetry.  He said:

Yes, there’s something a little strange about reading plays—they tend to be pretty talky, comparatively slow-paced, and require the reader to do much of the heavy lifting in terms of imagining how the scene actually looks and moves. But there’s also a special joy to reading plays that you’re not going to find in a novel, short story collection, or book of poems. At their best, plays marry the probing characterizations of a novel with the rich language of poetry—so much so that it’s become common practice for playwrights to break up their dialogue into fragmented stanzas. And then there’s the time element: because plays are intended for performance, brevity is generally of, at least, some importance. Creatively-speaking, this tends to force the work to find its narrative and linguistic essence, which heightens the poetic effect.

Looking further, I found an essay, MacLeish in McLuhan’s World, by Bill Knight. He said:

What distinguishes poetry from journalism, aside from obvious distinctions of form uses of words, patterns of words, sequences of words is not a difference in kind but a difference in focus. Journalism is concerned with the look of the world; poetry with the feel of the world.

Looking back, I worked with good writers at the Washingtonian who tried to give readers a feel of the world. I thought of their articles as human interest stories—mostly people overcoming obstacles in their lives. As an editor, I think we also tried to work some poetry into heads and decks.

One of my favorite stories, by John Pekkanen, was titled “Hope All Things, Endure All Things.”

The story’s deck as it appeared in the magazine:

Dr. Paul Adkins glanced at the clock above the lightbox.

It was 3:10 p.m. on Wednesday. He took

a final look at his x-rays and the thought hit him:

“I am looking at my own obituary.”

Would it have been better this way, cutting “above the lightbox”?

Dr. Paul Adkins glanced at the clock.

It was 3:10 on Wednesday.

He took a final look at his x-rays

and the thought hit him:

“I am looking at my own obituary.”

In the current Washingtonian there’s a good story, “Nightmare in McLean,” by Jason Fagone. The deck:

Andrew Schmuhl forced his way into Leo Fisher and

Sue Duncan’s home, torturing and then nearly killing them before

being arrested wearing nothing but an adult diaper.

Was it a calculated act of revenge—or an addict’s rampage?

As poetry, it might have worked better without the three names:

The doorbell rang and a man in a black coat

forced his way into the suburban home,

torturing and nearly killing the husband and wife

before being arrested wearing nothing but a diaper.

An act of revenge or the rampage of a drug addict?

Fagone’s lede had some poetry:

Sue Duncan was roasting

a chicken for dinner

when she and her husband

heard the doorbell ring.

It had been a quiet night.

A very good pull quote on the opening spread:

“Home invasion,”

Sue said to 911.

“Home invasion.

Please come right away.

We have two cats.

Please save them.”

That pull quote was drawn from this part of the story on the third page:

“Hello,” Sue said to 911 at 9:44 pm, giving her address. “Home invasion. Sue Duncan and Leo Fisher. Home invasion. Please come right away. We have two cats. Please save them.”

As an editor, I thought pull quotes were important to getting the reader into a story, and as the Washingtonian did here, I always thought it okay to paraphrase a little. And sometimes writing the pull quote, trying to give it some pulling power, led me to change a few words of the story.

What an editor learns from all this:

As you work on a story

look at how you might add

a little poetry.

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