The Poetry and the Prose

Leonid Tishkov‘s Private Moon project

April is National Poetry Month, so let’s talk about poetry. The point I want to get around to is that, if you’re a writer, it’s important to read poetry. But saying poetry is important is such a complete buzz kill. And it’s not only important, it’s demanding. Poetry requires more from you, the reader. It requires rereads and contemplation and mulling. So, it’s important and demanding –ugh! Poetry is starting to sound like some horrible memo from management that you know you should have read, but you’d rather just fake it and hope you don’t get fired for missing some action item in the third paragraph.

I truly believe anyone who gives poetry half a chance will be rewarded by the effort, but poetry has even more to offer writers. Matt Debenham makes an excellent case for reading poetry in his post: What Prose Writers Can Steal From Poets. He talks about the special way that poets use language (and how they often don’t use adjectives and adverbs very much) to create a powerful experience. 

“[Poets] don’t have, usually, dialogue and scene to convey character. Their main tool is the image.”

Poets do this to communicate to the reader across great distances or centuries or class lines or gender. They do it to find an emotional connection, to share something visceral that rings true and reaffirms our humanity. Wait, that’s what we’re all trying to do when we write.

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson

Poets may not be concerned with narrative devices such as plot and character (though you might be surprised how often those elements show up even in the shortest poems), but there’s a world of things a writer can learn simply by regularly reading poetry: economy of language and density, how to manipulate metaphor and simile, and how to work in images. The line is as important as the whole and how words sound is often as important as what they mean.

My favorite way to train my ear for rhythm and style, for the sound of my writing, is to read long form poetry. My favorites include classic epics such as John Miltion’s Paradise Lost and Beowulf, and other long poems such as William Wordsworth’s The Prelude and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but I’m the first to admit that these require a lot of the reader.

There is another class of long poem called verse novels, that is more conducive to — well to just reading at the end of a long day. And I believe that just reading this stuff with a modicum of attentiveness (which as a writer, that’s how you read everything, right?) will train your ear, and it will begin to show in your writing without conscious effort! The other advantage of verse novels is that they are big enough in scope to be concerned with creating a world, and usually have the narrative devices we enjoy in prose such as characters and plot, even suspense. 

Writing science fiction and fantasy is about exploring the unknown, invoking the alien and making it immediate, visceral, human. Poetry, long or short can show us new and different, and often brilliant, ways to accomplish great things, and if some of it is a little challenging, well, the greatest pleasures are often those we earn. 

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