How is The Road by Cormac McCarthy like poetry?

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Though Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road has all the basic qualities which would classify it as a novel (a long work of narrative written in prose, with a typical focus on character and action), it is in some ways an unusual example of the genre. Like McCarthy’s other fiction, it is written in very sparse language in a very literal sense. There is a lot of white space on the pages of The Road, many of which are filled with short lines of character dialog. Take this example (from page 147 in my edition):

Warm at last.

Warm at last?

Yes.

Where did you get that?

I don’t know.

Okay. Warm at last.

Short, spare lines of text like this look like poetry, at least lyric poetry. It might seem a trite point to say that the pages of The Road at times literally look they contain passages of poetry, but the spare style connects to another way in which McCarthy’s novel is like poetry. Unlike narrative (short stories and novels, typically), which focuses on plot and action, poetry is often centered on description and vivid, expressive details. Poetry suggests something more often than it tells something, as you would expect a novel to do.

The Road contains numerous passages which are primarily descriptive in nature. Here’s a good example:

He sat looking around. An old doghouse sleeper behind the seats. Papers in the floor. The glovebox was open but it was empty. He climbed back between the seats. There was a raw damp mattress on the bunk and a small refrigerator with the door standing open. A fold-down table. Old magazines in the floor. (45)

The Road says very little about what caused the post-apocalyptic scenario that provides the novel’s setting. Instead of getting a long backstory, readers are given descriptive details that paint a picture in their minds. The passage above makes clear that the world as we know it has been abandoned in the world of The Road. Instead of coming out and saying this directly, the details (like the open refrigerator, old magazines, and decaying mattress) suggest this to readers, in a rather poetic way. In this sense, the very short lines of character dialog in the novel, precisely because they are so sparse, serve to heighten the effect of the poetic details that end up doing most of the “storytelling.”

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