February 1, 2016

Talking Shop: Poetry as a Tool for Better Writing

In college I took a couple of creative writing classes geared specifically towards poetry and poetic analysis. I generally find the subject of poetry is not well-appreciated outside of certain demographics within the writing community, and often early writers of literary fiction and prose may not appreciate how much poetry, as a written art form, can benefit them.

Much of the time poetry is viewed as fleeting, frivolous, or only for the true poetic genius. If those of us in the writing industry think “making it big” with a novel is tough, doing so in poetry seems downright impossible. Face it, not many poets ever achieve fame through their poetic works.
We also find poetry is not so easy to place when it comes to literary submission. Outside of poetry contests and vanity presses, a serious anthology of poetry is difficult to find sometimes, and it doesn’t offer the sorts of potential a fiction anthology does. And many, many calls for submission include within their terms, “No Poetry”.
So it comes as little surprise to me that the average aspiring author doesn’t pursue poetry with a great deal of passion, or at least, not the same kind of passion as that driving them to finish their novel. To some extent I think all writers at least dabble in poetry, but it’s difficult to appreciate the complex, creative forms in poetic presentation when the field is dominated by fiction stories and very few calls for poetry are widely publicized. That being the case, I think we mere dabblers are usually comfortable to play with simple forms, or no form at all, and rarely seek out a better understanding of poetry as its own art form, or analysis of poetry as readers.
Now, let me stop and make one thing very clear: poetry is a beautiful form of written expression. I very much envy poets who can spin verse with a talent much more intuitive and developed than my own (see examples throughout this post). I certainly don’t mean to imply poetry is anything less than legitimate creative art. Your average writer of prose, however, may not realize how important it is.
One thing I learned in my early poetry classes is that exercise in verse benefits a writer in many ways beyond the sphere of poetry itself. Even if it isn’t your preferred genre, what you learn from poetic composition translates into your prose just as well. Elements of poetry, especially poetic device, sharpen your awareness of your literary voice and the way we shape things to be heard by our readers.
One of my personal favorite lessons from poetry is the use of rhythm and meter. I think it’s a mistake to believe poetry and songwriting are one and the same, but there’s definitely an element of music in poetic composition that translates well into prose writing.
When training yourself to write in rhythm and meter, you become more attuned to the way your sentences and dialogue sound to the ear. Bringing this musical quality to your writing can help you make efficient and more striking use of words and syllables. One element in my writing I’m proud of is my ability to create good back-and-forth dialogue when it is called for, and I have to say an ear for rhythm makes all the difference. It makes for some especially memorable one-liners: something which slips smoothly into a reader’s brain and frames itself to be easily recalled. You can make things snappy and impactful with good use of efficient meter, or you can create naturally flowing, unfolding imagery which builds upon itself in a crafty, skillful way. Meter and rhythm are very good for finding and accentuating your pacing, directing reader attention or immersing them in a relaxing image.
Short, staccato rhythm in the first two lines sets the pace.
Rhythm and meter are not the same as syllable count or rhyme scheme, which many poetic forms require. Rhythm and meter, though, exist and are utilized in all forms of poetry, whether rhyming or free-form, structured or open. Consider this: when you have a well-honed sense of rhythm, you exert some control over the speed and influence of what your reader experiences. Rhythm is all about beat, stress and unstress (or, as I like to think, de-stress).  Using a rhythm with short, strong beats increases pacing, makes a scene or description faster. What you choose to stress gets attention; what you leave unstressed gives the reader a breath between beats. This all breaks down to the very syllable, which works for me in scenes or sentences I want to give supreme impact, or it stretches things out to give the reader’s brain a place to rest and take it all in.
And of course, there can be an overuse of rhythm. If all your sentences follow the same rhythm and meter, you create a monotony. Your sentence structure becomes repetitive. You can inadvertently give your readers a “sing-song” feeling. Developing an ear for rhythm—something which study and practice in poetry makes almost natural—heightens your awareness of the effect you give your words and sentences.
This is how poetic structure strengthens your skill in prose narrative. It provides deeper understanding of how you build with words. It gives you a sense of architecture in art.
Learning to read and write poetry also makes you aware of the ways in which we most effectively use metaphor, imagery, and sensory detail. In many cases, and especially in early or beginner poetic study, you’re taught to express your meaning in a more confined space than you may be used to in prose. This means learning to say more with less. The skill may not be precisely necessary later on in fiction, but it is valuable.
Some folks often think of poetic language as flowery and over-descriptive. To the contrary, poets often learn how to create the most impactful image in the most limited space. Consider a famous British poem, The Tyger, from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 
In the forests of the night; 
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
~Stanza 1

The Tyger is only six stanzas long, each stanza composed of two rhyming couplets. That’s only 24 lines, total, in which the poet describes not just the physical appearance of a tiger, but its elemental power and place in God’s plan for the earth. These 24 lines actually spend almost no time on what a tiger actually looks like, but the effect its individual characteristics have on our response to the tiger. It makes excellent use of show, not tell in other words. Blake doesn’t tell us how or why we should react to the animal; he appeals to our deeper, visceral response with images of storms, dark skies, a blacksmith’s forge, fire and stars. Use of imagery and metaphor at effective work.
Another point learned from those early poetry classes is this: learning to read poetry is equally as important to learning to write it.
Poetic analysis asks you to identify many elements of a poem’s construct, first and foremost of which is the speaker. Whose point of view does the poem reflect? Is it the poet himself, or is it a character within the world of the poem itself? Why is this difference important?
Who is the speaker in this poem? What is his situation?
Something important I learned: the point of view matters intensely. This is an integral lesson poetry taught me that prose narrative must keep in mind.  When you think about who is expressing the feelings, opinions, and details of the subject, you must also think about the lens through which the speaker views things. An older man, one with greater experience and knowledge of the world, is going to have a very different opinion of that tiger than a young girl, and it can make all the difference. Here, you can become aware of skew. Who’s telling the story? What elements of their character are affecting the report they send to the reader? Consider this: can you rely on Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, to offer an entirely unbiased view of the characters he observes? Whom does he favor? From what standpoint does he report the events? Is it the same standpoint as Tom, the bullying husband? Are there elements of the story which Nick might misunderstand, or misrepresent, based on his position within the story?
I make good use of this sort of awareness myself. It’s what helps me create red herrings and mislead readers when I want to hide the true motives of my villains or set up a surprising twist. The eyes through which my readers view a story naturally paints the story in certain way, one which may or may not be entirely honest, or entirely well-informed. Or it might be utterly omniscient, giving the reader a completely neutral position from which to observe...though this is more rare and (in my mind) less compelling. This is an element of the craft I learned, though, in poetry, not prose.
Structure—especially the ways in which structure can limit you—is another highly prized benefit of learning and using poetry. There are poetic structures of extreme limitation in structure—haiku, for example, where your lines and syllables are strictly limited and strictly sparse—and those with a more variable length but a grounding in place with rhyme scheme or meter, like a sonnet. Finally, there is free-form which, as the name suggests, puts very little restriction on length or rhythm at all. Each form conveys the value of its limitations and hones a writer’s skill to work within the boundaries. One of the most personally meaningful poems I ever wrote, and one which expanded my understanding and reflection on spiritual matters for many of my subsequent paranormal stories, was written under one of the more extreme set of limitations I think I’ve ever been assigned. Each student was to select three newspaper headlines without knowing how we would use them. After selecting the headlines, our teacher instructed us to work them, ver batim, into the poems.
I still remember my three headlines:
Drug cuts shrinkage of the brain
Quietly, the glittery home-run record falls
Growth drowns gains in recycling
Being a writer of predominantly paranormal or spiritual material, each of these appeared far too modern and secular to have a place in anything of mine. The trick was to find ways to write around these necessary elements and make them work to my ends. While the resulting poem was, to my current mindset, somewhat simple in terms of theme and expression, it was still a poem about dark spirituality and paranormal experience. The exercise of working in three lines with highly disparate tone worked for me, in the end: each brought a sense of modernity, even a little bit of cynicism, to the piece which otherwise might be too wildly unanchored from a realistic, modern-day point of view.

Exercises such as this teach us to write within limitations, and force us to create new ways of saying things. A priceless talent for avoiding cliché and trope! And immensely useful for helping develop your unique voice.
These are only a few examples of the translation of poetic device into more advanced prose, and there’s no way to go into a fully detailed lesson on the different poetic devices and their uses. This is why I encourage all writers to study the subject themselves. Take a class or two on poetry, not just writing it but reading it as well. Expand your understanding of writing with structure and melody, and keep your brain sharp by jotting down serious poems of your own in between bigger projects. Even if they aren’t submissions for an anthology or part of a book you mean to publish, the exercise of writing them will continually sharpen and strengthen your skill.
Below are a few examples of poems by fellow erotic authors, posted with permission:
Threshold, by Adrea Kore
Yield, by Adrea Kore
An Eye of Deepest Blue, by Jason Whittle

1 comment:

  1. Brantjwin, thanks for featuring my poems as part of your insightful discussion on poetry, and for making those gorgeous graphics. I've written poetry from a very early age, as well as studying it intensively through drama / theatre training and I agree with you that poetry's insistence on limits - saying more with less - and stretching for new ways to express things felt and observed, does help one avoid cliche and obvious tropes in all forms of writing. Also it trains the ear to listen for rhythms in writing - such an important element to evoke both emotion and atmosphere in writing.

    I hope many eyes land on this post - it makes an intelligent argument for developing appreciation and understanding of poetry.


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