What poetry can do for your fiction writing
One novelist found it improved her word choice, tightened her prose, and fostered a more creative approach
Published: September 1, 2010
|In high school, I wrote a ton of poetry. I scribbled and fussed about love, democracy, God and cafeteria lunches. Eventually, I realized my poems stunk.|
Ten years later, settled into a life of prose as a professional novelist, I became intrigued by poems once again. As part of my MFA program, I took a poetry class with a professor sometimes called “The Slasher,” on account of her vorpal red pen. Returning to poetry was like running into a high-school flame—that nostalgic and panicky attraction. Would I embarrass myself again?
Luckily, poet Renée Ashley helped me shuck old insecurities even as her red pen did its worst. And while my verse may never win a Pulitzer, learning poems challenged my fiction in startling and valuable ways. Here’s why:
Poetry eschews ‘writerly’ writing. Everybody knows fiction should be tight, but poetry takes the concept to extremes. I turned in a two-page poem on my first day of class; by semester’s end, the poem was just 12 lines long—and yet, nothing substantial had been lost! Readers hacked fat from my already trim sentences until there were few actual sentences left. When you practice poetry, you practice wielding both ax and scalpel; now, I bring that ruthlessness to my prose.
Poetry is about getting the most bang for your buck. In prose, it’s easy to get into the habit of using multiple phrases to get at multiple meanings. But in poetry, words must double or triple their load-bearing capacity. Poets explore (and exploit) every possible reading of words, including wonderfully ambiguous words like cleave, oversight and bank. Practice poetry, and you practice word choices that stand out in prose like cigarette burns on a page.
Poetry forces you to give up control. When I was a kid, English teachers drilled it into my head that you should have a plan for what you’re writing before you sit down to write—and it was easy to transfer that lesson to fiction. But with poetry, intending to mean something specific is rarely a good strategy.
My early poems were prosaic in every sense. I prepared to lay out a poem the same way I might outline the plot of a book. But poets must shed the urge to identify and grip their own intentions too firmly. Poems often dwell in a space where prose falters—where that word-on-the-tip-of-your-tongue isn’t a word at all. Learning to trust my muse, even when I don’t know what she’s getting at, has significantly enriched my prose.
Poetry doesn’t define. Try to explain meaning by definition, and the results can be comical. For example, Merriam-Webster says sex is “reproduction marked by the union of gametes,” and yet that’s not even close to what sex is. Define something—a character, a plot point, the goal of a scene—and you remove its fundamental essence, like trying to demonstrate a butterfly’s beauty by pinning it to a board. Poetry doesn’t seek to define meaning, but to inhabit it. Prose can do that, too, and poetry can teach prose writers the way.
You write poetry for poetry’s sake. Writers face the pressure to publish, meet deadlines and promote—all while battling rejection and other disappointments of the writing life. Such demands can set the muses’ labor union on strike. I love writing novels—I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t thrive on pressure. But dabbling in poetry has given me an unrestricted, unstructured, unjudged space for (word)play. Poetry isn’t about making a name for myself; it’s about taking risks, about dancing naked and falling on my face, about sitting quietly in a space I’ve blocked off only for the pure love of writing—deadlines be damned.
Practicing poetry isn’t necessarily about becoming a better poet; it’s about becoming a better writer. A prose writer diligently pursuing poetry is something like a quarterback studying ballet. On the surface, it may feel like a waste of time. But it’s the interaction—and the gap—between the two forms that forces growth and improvement on both sides of the divide.
Lisa Dale’s short prose has been nominated for the Best New American Voices series and a Pushcart Prize. The author of two novels, she has an MFA in creative writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J., and is a former assistant editor of The Literary Review.||