A few years ago, while plodding through a revision of my novel (revisions require the writer’s equivalent of heavy-duty hiking boots), I got bored by my writing. It was too literal, too realistic, too earnest, and too flat.
Most writers are all too familiar with this feeling after a red-eyed reading of a draft. I needed a way to literally jar my narrative sensibility. I needed jazz, punk rock, Jackson Pollock, Merce Cunningham, something.
Around this time, I read a quote by Emily Dickinson that remains among my favorite writing advice: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”
I started reading poetry avidly and discovered that by focusing on the exquisite “slant” poetry offers, the “truth” I was trying to capture became more piquant, surprising, nuanced, playful, and meaningful to me.
So, in honor of National Poetry Month and Poem In Your Pocket Day, here are my 10 reasons prose writers should read—and hopefully write—poetry.
Mood: Many poems are almost incantations or prayers in the way they use techniques such as repetition and alliteration to establish atmosphere. Of the fiction writers who best use such techniques, I think most immediately of William Faulkner (who started out as a poet, and no, there’s no relation).
Mystery: In general, poetry is more focused on nuance, on the elusive gaps of life rather than on the objective connections that much prose is dedicated to. It’s easy for a prose writer to write toward linkages instead of writing toward the interludes where a different kind of tension resides.
Personification: Poetry gives life to inanimate objects in a way that fiction all too often doesn’t. Animating objects is a good exercise for any writer, but I think the applications for writers of science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism are endless.
Detail: Poets delight in specificity—in fact, you might say some poems’ narrative tension is formed around the drama of minutiae, forcing the reader to parse phrases as if reading with a microscope. As a writer who lacks Nabokov’s or Updike’s obsession with detail, poetry helps me pause and notice.
Sensory engagement: Poems are so often awash in sensory details, and details captured by all five senses, not just sight, which so many writers (including me!) can privilege. I cherish a good dose of synesthesia.
Brevity: Poetry is a craft of compression. Poems don’t have many pages to make a point, so their narratives tend to move through fragments rather than exposition. I love reading Kay Ryan’s miniatures or Basho’s haikus. Brevity inspires suspense.
Intensity: I think poems usually hit higher pitches than most prose, so fiction writers can benefit by studying how such intensity is created. I think of Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath. What words, line breaks, rhythms, etc., produced a poem’s steeped moment? How can such intensity be captured in prose?
Exploration: I’ve never heard of a poet who uses an outline. I imagine poets to be more like jazz musicians, who wend their way through riffs to create, taking risks in their word choice and line breaks, and conceiving in the moment (like many Wrimos!). Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara write as if following their pen on a playful romp.
The art of play: Poetry, especially free verse, can be more playful than prose, which finds itself hemmed in by paragraphs and sentence structure. If you want outright surreal wackiness—to the point that every word in a poem surprises—check out Dean Young’s Elegy on a Toy Piano (the title tells it all).
Attention to language: It’s a cliché to say that poets paint with words, but they do. Poets strive to write against cliché—scrutinizing and challenging each word—and perhaps even creating new words, a la E. E. Cummings.
So my question is, do you read poetry? If so, how does it influence your writing? Share in the comments below.
The Office of Letters and Light is celebrating Poem In Your Pocket Day (I’m carrying Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”) with our good friends the National Writing Project, the New York Times Learning Network, and Figment. Check out their poetry resources for more:
- NWP’s Poem in a Pocket Activities
- Ways to Celebrate National Poetry Month with the Times
- Figment’s Poetry Page
Image by Josh Flores