Writers tend to excel at either poetry or prose. Usually, we struggle a bit with one, and it’s a rare writer who is truly accomplished at both forms. However, poetry should be essential study for prose writers.
Poetry is all about feeling and mood. In a few precise words, a poet can strike any emotional chord. This is something that prose writers may not be as adept at achieving. However, if a prose writer understands or has some experience with poetry, he can utilize its techniques to help set mood.
Even though, the vast majority of the time, we read silently, the sound of the words is crucial. First of all, at some point, someone will read your work aloud. If the cadence, tempo, or any other element to the sound is off, it will dampen a listener’s experience of the story. Alternately, even though we usually read in our heads, our brains possess a sense of the sound and rhythm of the words, and fiction or nonfiction that violates that will jar or set a discordant component in a reader’s experience of the story.
Further, the sound of words can play a significant impact on the mood, emotion, tension, and just about everything else in a scene. Certain words have softer sounds. Others are hard and direct. Often, using such subtle techniques is unconscious on the writer’s part, but a poet is more aware of them and can bring intentionality into the sound of words.
Whether it’s a comma or new paragraph, breaks in writing should be strategic. Their frequency creates a sense of speed and tension. Prolonging them creates a slowing effect. Poets must be keenly aware of breaks of any sort. This awareness can improve a prose writer’s use of tension and pacing.
Some writers use them liberally while others avoid them. Whichever way you choose, literary devices are a staple of prose and poetry. They have long traditions and can act like fingerprints for a writer. Metaphors, imagery, similes, assonance, hyperbole, and irony, among many others, are standard fare in writing, but by understanding their use in poetry, a prose writer increases his knowledge and affinity with them, thus allowing him to make better use of them.
Implication and Omission:
Prose allows us to expand and expand and elaborate and explain and... Prose contains few if any limiting factors. We can go on and on and, ultimately, shoot ourselves in the foot. Poetry, on the other hand, cannot yield to this temptation. Poetry, in its concern with form, must adhere to structural rules, and those rules require the writer to learn restraint, precision, and the power of implication and silence. Sometimes, what isn’t said is more powerful than what is. Poets must grasp this to master their craft, and prose writers could certainly learn from this technique.
Because of all its rules, poets must choose their words with extreme care. A poet might fiddle and experiment with a single word until it’s perfect. Prose writers can get away with being a touch sloppier. But imagine the power we might have if we were as precise in our language and word choice as poets. Imagine the power our prose would wield.
Now, this isn’t something all prose writers want. Some writers tell very impactful stories and become known for their sparseness or their direct, plain language. That’s perfectly fine. But other writers enjoy the elegance of language and the beauty it can create for setting mood, conveying descriptions, and awing readers. There is a place for both types of prose.
But for those who enjoy writing a beautiful sentence, they would do well to study poetry that is also written to be beautiful, for it will provide many lessons and fill their heads with the sound and grace of words. Alternately, those who write sparsely ought to consider studying poetry as well. Not flowery poetry, but poetry that can say a great deal with very little. This type will improve their ability to do this exact thing in their stories while keeping their style.
The Birth of Fiction:
For fiction writers especially, studying poetry is essential to understand what came before. Until recent centuries, the bulk of fiction was written in some form of poetry whether Beowulf or Shakespeare or Dante. Poetry is the infancy of modern fiction, and it does us good to understand our roots.
Has poetry helped you become a better writer? If so, how? Do you read both poetry and prose or just one or the other? Is there anything else you know that poetry can teach prose writers?
Be sure to join me on Monday for the first part of our read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.