Eureka! On Poetry

I was about to try to write a blog post, and then I get this bang. Right in the face! And then I wrote the first poem I’ve written in years. I need to write more poetry, if for no other reason than to practice my prose.

I honestly do feel that there’s a lot that poetry can teach prose writer. Of course, prose doesn’t need meter or stanzas, but even practicing these can help you write better prose. Far more than flash fiction, poetry values conciseness. Every word has to punch imagery and visceral experience into your gut. Every word has to make the text come alive for you. But when you write prose, it becomes easy to forget that imagery and metaphor that paints a scene into something vivid. Without it, prose is airy and bland.

Mastering meter means adding a rare element to your prose: musicality. Musicality modifies the tone of any prose piece, much like a musical score modifies the tone of a movie. Becoming aware of it can help you to add a next layer of meaning to your story. There’s a reason that Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta respects the letter V, and it’s not just because it’s in the title. It’s the character’s soubriquet, it’s the Roman numeral representing the number five (for fifth of November and the room that V was kept in), and it means virtuous vengeful victory. It also looks like the outline of an arrow, the point directed down towards the people. The people are both the target of totalitarianism’s arrow and the direction where the true power in the state lies.

Just imagine—your piece of literature could be the subject of this level of academic scrutiny! All you have to do is acquire the invaluable ability to alliterate adeptly.

Practicing poetry-writing can help you develop good habits. For example, you’ll step into a new scene immediately concerning yourself with setting and how it affects the emotional mood of the scene. You’ll focus on using words that add to the mood that you’re trying to create (e.g., “The prince rode a stallion”—not mustang—“into the ballroom," but "the prince rode his mustang over the cliff."). You’ll learn to use consonance to modify the mood when something different happens (e.g., from “the princess lowered her head in greeting” to “the knight’s dagger clinked against his belt buckle when he ripped it from its sheath.”). You’ll do this all the time, and not for only a few sentences while you’re specifically trying to make a point!

Clearly, I want to follow my own advice—and I have in the past! But I want you to do it too! I’ve seen it do wonders for others’ writing. And if nothing else, you learn more about the most ancient form of writing known to man (aside from tax records and vulgar graffiti).

Take a course online, like one from The Great Courses. This one, “Lives and Works of the English Romantic Poets” with Dr. Willard Spiegelman, is a good start and a study of one of the most influential periods in history of English literature. Then take a college course and go further! Or, just look stuff up on YouTube or Wikipedia. Educate yourself.

Until you get there, I’ll start you off with “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins.

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.