A friend, who happens to be an excellent writer and editor, has a rule I would like to share with everyone because I think it is very good. Her rule is to read some poetry before you sit down to do any editing or re-writing. My only change would be to simplify it. I think it should read: read some poetry. Period.
But…but…I can hear the objections already…I don’t write poetry. I don’t even write fiction. Why should I spend my precious time reading poetry?
Another quiet voice says what many are also thinking: I don’t even get poetry.
I know, I know. I understand. I’m nowhere near a great poet myself and I haven’t made poetry (particularly modern poetry) a central part of my studies. However, I do read poetry I like and I will tell you why, then you can decide whether you should too.
Years ago, when I was in college and trying to get my feet wet in this writing gig, my roommate suggested I take a poetry writing class. The reason? My writing, though adequate for the beginner I was, lacked magic, lacked the music and beauty of language. He thought a term or two spent studying and writing poetry would help improve my prose.
He was right. (He was a very intelligent man. I was intelligent enough to see that and take his advice). After studying and writing poetry for a while, I began to write prose that was more poetic, with more of the beauty in language. Better.
Cool. But you still don’t write poetry, you say, or fiction. You still don’t see how reading or writing poetry can help you.
Consider this, whether you’re writing a humorous blog about the perils of family life, or a four-volume annotated history of The War of The Roses, you write description. You write scenes containing action. You may even write scenes containing dialogue. Wouldn’t these scenes be improved if they were more poetic?
The study of poetry (even if “study” just means reading a couple of your favorite poems to open your writing session each day) can help your writing in three important ways:
It teaches you to think and write in metaphor and simile.
If you don’t know what metaphors and similes are, I suggest you look up the definitions. Even in the driest of academic papers, the use of metaphor and simile can imbue (I always wanted to use that word) your work with deeper shades of meaning. It can also save time and space. “Walking through Bagdad on an August afternoon was like walking through an oven on broil.” gives the reader a richer mental picture than a hundred descriptive words about temperature and dust.
It teaches you to harness the native power of the rhythm inherent in language.
There is a rhythm to every language. The rhythm differs depending on what the language is trying to do. A speech to a political rally is going to have a different rhythm than a description of a peaceful mountain meadow, which is going to be different than an argument between spouses. Since the poetic form is usually short and consciously uses rhythm and meter, it is easier to see how the poet uses it to reinforce the message of the words she’s using.
It teaches you to write concisely, making every word count.
Poetry, by definition, is the use of supercharged language to evoke an emotion or idea. Thus, more than most other forms of literature, the poet searches intensely for the perfect word for what she wants to say. It not only has to have the right definition, but must have the perfect connotation and associations, the perfect allusions, and (see above) the proper rhythm. Reading good poetry gets your mind in the habit of writing with the fewest, most powerful words.
So, let’s say I’ve convinced you to try reading a little poetry as part of your writing habit. Now you ask me, what poetry should I read? There are thousands of poets. Shelves full of poetry books. Which ones should I read?
Well, read the ones you like. Don’t torture yourself. It will do you no good if you dread picking up the book every day. (Actually, if you don’t like it, you probably won’t pick it up much at all). So, go down to your local bookstore and find a collection. There are hundreds of them too, with titles like “A Treasury of Poems,” or “Best-loved Poems.” Something like that. Read a poem a day and mark the ones you like.
Personally, I like the English Romantics: Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Byron, with a little Tennyson thrown in for kicks. I also like e.e. cummings, Sylvia Plath, and Emily Dickenson. All have much to teach us. That’s why they are considered “Great” poets.
And then there is Shakespeare. Many of his plays, particularly the dramas, are written in verse.
Most of all, find some poetry you like and read a little—say one poem—every day as you sit down to work on your writing and see what effect it has on your work. I’m willing to bet it will be better.