Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Ways Poetry Can Improve Your Prose

A few years ago, while plodding through a revision of my novel (revisions require the writer’s equivalent of heavy-duty hiking boots), I got bored by my writing. It was too literal, too realistic, too earnest, and too flat.

Most writers are all too familiar with this feeling after a red-eyed reading of a draft. I needed a way to literally jar my narrative sensibility. I needed jazz, punk rock, Jackson Pollock, Merce Cunningham, something.

Around this time, I read a quote by Emily Dickinson that remains among my favorite writing advice: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

I started reading poetry avidly and discovered that by focusing on the exquisite “slant” poetry offers, the “truth” I was trying to capture became more piquant, surprising, nuanced, playful, and meaningful to me.

So, in honor of National Poetry Month and Poem In Your Pocket Day, here are my 10 reasons prose writers should read—and hopefully write—poetry.

Mood: Many poems are almost incantations or prayers in the way they use techniques such as repetition and alliteration to establish atmosphere. Of the fiction writers who best use such techniques, I think most immediately of William Faulkner (who started out as a poet, and no, there’s no relation).

Mystery: In general, poetry is more focused on nuance, on the elusive gaps of life rather than on the objective connections that much prose is dedicated to. It’s easy for a prose writer to write toward linkages instead of writing toward the interludes where a different kind of tension resides.

Personification: Poetry gives life to inanimate objects in a way that fiction all too often doesn’t. Animating objects is a good exercise for any writer, but I think the applications for writers of science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism are endless.

Detail: Poets delight in specificity—in fact, you might say some poems’ narrative tension is formed around the drama of minutiae, forcing the reader to parse phrases as if reading with a microscope. As a writer who lacks Nabokov’s or Updike’s obsession with detail, poetry helps me pause and notice.

Sensory engagement: Poems are so often awash in sensory details, and details captured by all five senses, not just sight, which so many writers (including me!) can privilege. I cherish a good dose of synesthesia.

Brevity: Poetry is a craft of compression. Poems don’t have many pages to make a point, so their narratives tend to move through fragments rather than exposition. I love reading Kay Ryan’s miniatures or Basho’s haikus. Brevity inspires suspense.

Intensity: I think poems usually hit higher pitches than most prose, so fiction writers can benefit by studying how such intensity is created. I think of Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath. What words, line breaks, rhythms, etc., produced a poem’s steeped moment? How can such intensity be captured in prose?

Exploration: I’ve never heard of a poet who uses an outline. I imagine poets to be more like jazz musicians, who wend their way through riffs to create, taking risks in their word choice and line breaks, and conceiving in the moment (like many Wrimos!). Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara write as if following their pen on a playful romp.

The art of play: Poetry, especially free verse, can be more playful than prose, which finds itself hemmed in by paragraphs and sentence structure. If you want outright surreal wackiness—to the point that every word in a poem surprises—check out Dean Young’s Elegy on a Toy Piano (the title tells it all).

Attention to language: It’s a cliché to say that poets paint with words, but they do. Poets strive to write against cliché—scrutinizing and challenging each word—and perhaps even creating new words, a la E. E. Cummings.

Tebowing: A Found Poem

Sometimes you don't know where a poem is going to come from. A poem can be such a mystical matter, after all. The poem below, a "found poem" that uses the text of several different news articles, holds its own mystical matter (if only because it is about the other worldly Tim Tebow), but it was actually written on a lark, an assignment/challenge from the esteemed Times editor Katherine Schulten based on a poetry prompt at the New York Learning Network blog.

I have to say, however, there is something mystical about putting together a found poem. You're using others' words, and it can feel like an act of criminal plagiarism, yet other forces guide you. Perhaps that's the lesson I take away from this: Poetry is an engagement in a life that's sometimes not yours, an immersion in others' language and thoughts, and no matter the poem or the subject, it can open up mysteries to ponder.

Here's the poem:


What does it mean to be Tebowed?
To meet defeat by God’s grace on a clunk of an arm?

Somewhere within all our reptilian hearts
lurks an instinct for trial-by-combat

Tebow flounders, and it looks like the Living Water Bible Church
out on Route 17 is wrong about pretty much everything

Did a receiver drop a pass?
James Dobson just choked on a nacho.

Did Tim throw an interception?
Daniel Dennett just chest-bumped Richard Dawkins.

Tebow's ability to complete a 15-yard out pattern to Matt Willis
is a referendum on the Book of Deuteronomy

It means something for the blue knight to kill the green knight
only if God is moving the swords.

“Whatever gets more people over to the cross,” Tim says.
One nation under God.

You never know when you're in your fourth quarter,
when you're in your two-minute drill