It's been a long time since I wrote poetry. Like the last time I really tried successfully was a college poetry writing class. My poor professor will be so disappointed in me. In fact, I'm disappointed in myself.
Writing a good poem (and if you think a good poem goes something like roses are red, violets are blue, please do yourself and me a favor and pick up The Making Of A Poem by Eavan Boland and Mark Strand) is tough, but it's out-of-this-world rewarding.
Getting the exact right words, images, and syllables or meter is often a good deal harder than writing prose. However, I think if I always put as much effort into prose-writing as I do poetry-writing, my prose would be much better off.
It's easy to think that just because words written in prose flow fast and free that this type of writing doesn't need the same hours of rewriting and calibrating and fine-tuning that poetry does. But, news flash, if we focused as much on the fine-tuning of our prose as poets do on poetry, our writing would be more readable, easier on the ears, and overall a better experience for our audience.
I recently had the opportunity to write a poem for a composer friend to set to music. Since it's been so long since I wrote a poem, the process was difficult and made my brain feel like one blob of mush instead of the vocabulary machine I thought it was. But, in hindsight, the experience could have the potential to change my prose for the better. Here's why:
Poetry is concise. Ever read Ezra Pound's "In A Station Of A Metro"?
In two lines and fourteen words, Pound sums up a moment in time: a train whizzing by and the ghostly faces on board.
How many times do we write in 1000 words what we could say in 500? Practicing poetry in prose means cutting unnecessary words. And trust me, it's harder to do than it sounds. I was recently working with a client who wanted a shorter form article for their website. When I got all the information written out, however, the piece was around 500 to 600 words longer than they wanted. Cutting the article down to size while keeping the meat took almost as long as the actual writing. Crazy, right? What I found out, though, is it was a much tighter piece when it was shortened.
Writing a good poem demands that you look at something from a fresh perspective. For instance, perhaps you want to write about an overarching theme like love. If you've ever taken an English class, you're well aware that almost every poet (and non-poets who think they're poets) has written on this theme. Your job, then, as the writer, is to look at love with fresh eyes.
Instead of writing about love as an abstract concept, instead you could write about a moment in time when an old man gets down on one knee, opens a small box, and hands his wife of fifty plus years a pill that's part of her cancer treatment regime. Or you could choose an object or event that symbolizes love and write about it on the surface while the underlying narrative goes much deeper.
Regardless of how you choose to write about your topic, writing a poem means you have to look at the world in a new way. It's been so long since I wrote a poem that it was almost like I put on a stronger pair of glasses and everything was a bit fuzzy, but then the world around me gradually refocused. It was truly an enlightening experience.
Take for instance "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop:
You or I probably wouldn't consider losing an art until we read this poem, and the point is, it's not an art and it isn't hard to master. But Bishop's perspective changes how we look at the theme of losing and loss in general.
Show, Don't Tell
In my college poetry class, my professor repeated over and over, "Show, don't tell!" As writers, we think we can explain everything if we just pile more words on it. We aren't painters or photographers. Our craft is writing and our tools are words. But when we think in images instead of words our writing, and our readers, will be better off.
As an example, in "Chansons Innocentes: I," e.e. cummings doesn't tell us what spring is, instead he gives us a vivid word picture of spring:
A good writer grabs his readers by the eyes, the nose, the taste buds and shows them what he is writing about. This goes for poetry and prose. It's all about being concrete, giving the audience something they can feel or see or smell or taste.
Lazy writers dabble in the abstract. Great writers sculpt.
Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" has been one of my favorite poems since the first time I read it, and it's not because of his themes but because of the sounds.
When you really get into it, this poem is kind of depressing - it's all about death and dying and fighting the inevitable. But the party in my ears when I read this aloud. Part of it is its form, a villanelle, by nature requires lots of rhyme and repeated lines. But not all villanelles stick in my mind like this one. This one sounds mournful but defiant, even if you didn't understand a word of the poem.
When it comes to sound in writing, prose writers don't need to (and probably shouldn't) rhyme every other line. But it wouldn't hurt to give the readers a splash of meter every so often, or maybe a dollop of similar vowel or consonant sounds once in awhile.
Have you ever tried your hand at poetry? If not, now's the time! And even if you never write a poem, try to read it once in a while to absorb some of the style.