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Elena Ferrante: ‘If people still told their stories in verse, I would be too embarrassed to write’

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Writing prose with the rhythm, the harmony, the images that characterise a poem is a death trap

I grew up with the idea that being a poet is for truly exceptional people, while anyone can have a go at prose. Maybe it was the fault of my school, which instilled a sort of awe for anyone who writes poetry. Schoolbooks and teachers portrayed poets as superior beings, with great virtues and sometimes fascinating vices; they were in permanent dialogue with the gods, thanks to the Muses – able to look at past and future as no one else did, and naturally they had an exceptional talent for language. I found this paralysing, and so at a certain point I reduced their status in my mind. But I became an assiduous reader of poetry.

I love the connections poetry makes, so unexpected and bold that they become indecipherable. I’m sure that writing mediocre poems is a mortal sin; if people still mainly told their stories in verse, as they did for many centuries, I would be too embarrassed to write. But even if, after a long battle, prose now occupies almost all the narrative space, deep inside I feel that it’s a constitutionally inferior form of writing. This is probably what has driven me since I was a girl to exaggerate with language; part of me aspires to the poetic and hates the prosaic – I want to prove that I’m not inferior.

Related: Elena Ferrante: ‘I don’t believe people who swear they’re not the jealous type’

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