Previously, a post mentioned how reading poetry can make any writer better at their craft. Today I’m going to tell you why that is, and why that fact makes me buy poetry.
I buy poetry books every once in a while because I love them, but also because think they can offer a number of lessons of how to construct stories and evoke feeling. A workshopping buddy of mine told me that she believes people can be taught craft, but not how to tell a story. You have to learn story telling on your own. I am inclined to agree. The very nature of poetry makes me inclined to agree because poetry can violate all the rules of craft but still support a powerful story. A poem is as versatile as a piece of elastic. You can use it to hold a crown in place, to make pants more comfortable, or to make a foot tambourine(that’s a thing I learned that existed last night). The nature of a poem is something you can alter into whatever shape you need. The accouterments, whether they be crown or tambourine or the elements of the story telling and the evocation of feeling, are an essential part of crafting a story.
When you know how to cut, define, hide, and comfortably place elastic you have learned skills you can apply to nearly any fabric. Yet elastic is a structural component, what catches your eye is how the accouterments are presented. Does the crown look janky as hell? Does the rhyme scheme break without,pardon the pun, rhyme or reason. Knowing Iambic pentameter won’t necessarily make you a good poet. Hell it could make you a worse one if you only follow those rules. But knowing how minimalist elements produce vivid clear imagery that moves you in a poem using iambic pentameter is something you learn by consuming poetry. And when you don’t look at the pentameter, when you look at clear word usage, or even page formatting you learn far more about story telling than reading some novels or short stories. Writers often focus on writing craft over story craft when even the best writers should expose themselves to the craft of story telling. Poetry reading is an excellent way to do that. You learn how to convey the raw story in a dozen or more different ways.
In that last post I told you:
I am proud to say I write great dialogue because I read and wrote poetry starting from 10 years old. Actually maybe even younger I remember reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings at some point with my mother’s help. How did poetry help me write dialogue? A good insult should be as sharp as a good poem and just as heavy with the punctuation. A proclamation of love that, I believe, has the most effect can be as simple as one line when you craft to context well. Poetry has done a lot of me as a writer, as a human being, and I know I’m not alone.
Dialogue is poetry. The stupid things we often say can be poetry especially if we’re clever. When I write a powerful moment, especially in a script it is closer to poetry than prose. If I have character who has finally had enough say “I hate you. Go away” to another it can be powerful. But it can be more powerful to have them laugh with tears glistening in their eyes and say “Loving you is hell. Just let me be free.” Poetry also has a lot of contradictions, long verses interrupted by short ones, odd comparisons, and both broken and praised conventions. The sheer variety can show you so many tricks to showing emotional reactions, foreshadowing, and character building in neat little ways. More so than with novellas, where a period is in a poem or whether that poem uses periods tells you a lot of information. Read some of my poetry here and all the punctuation and line length is intentional. Why? Because even the punctuation has to do work in a poem.
Poetry has so many forms and variations, but I promise you even the variations you can’t stand have moved some one else’s emotions. There will be poems you won’t understand. Some poems may simply not be meant for you to understand, and that’s ok. Regardless, reading poetry provides a guide to understanding story telling and story crafting. Not the craft of writing, but the craft of learning to tell a good story. You can spend $500 on a seminar, download $100 worth of ebooks on writing, and learn every grammar rule by heart. None of that is going to make you a better story teller without a diversity of reading. They can help you learn the craft, and understand how to convey things in a improved way.
BUT reading poetry gives you examples of how to convey emotion, setting, story telling, and how to line craft in beat by beat punches. Even the longest poems have an economy of words and structure vastly different than novels.
Specifically, the lyrical nature of poems can radically improve your writing in specific genres. Experiencing poetry especially as a romance or horror writer can vastly improve your story telling. Why do I say this? A good horror story should sing like a poem. Do you know why so many children’s rhymes are morbid? Besides as a coping mechanism, there is something pointed about morbid things. They don’t require long explanations. I joined wattpad and have been reading some great horror stories, but have been coming across far more awful ones. The awful ones lacked feeling, suspense, scene, and sense of character. But let’s look at a lyrical example of a good horror story:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Were you surprised I used that one? In four lines we have a character, an event, and a conflict/realization, and then a choice. Slow it down and have children skipping rope to it and gets even more morbid. There’s a beautiful simplicity to that rhyme and the fact that this story has been told as a children’s jump rope rhyme even adds to the character. You have a woman who “whacks” her mother with an axe, and then the line is she sees what she’d done. Whether you think she did it in anger or not doesn’t matter because she saw the blood, the gore, and then not only killed her father but did so more violently.
We spend a lot of time critiquing flowery language and purple prose, but sometimes we misunderstand why. The problem is when flowery language detracts from a story or reads as fake. If flowery language reads wrong it comes across as an insincere way for the author to show off their talent. Good poetry flows, and good sentence should flow like good poetry by the last revision of a piece.
Lyrical poetic language isn’t about how many ways you can describe the night’s sky though it can help you diversify your descriptions. It isn’t about ego though I will say a lot of poets love to show off their egos in their poems. Lyrical poetic language is a means to tell a story in an immediate way to get a reaction, which is something many authors struggle with. It’s hard and let it be said that you may not always get what a poet is trying to do. It may not work for you. Still when written form a sincere place poetic language is incredibly potent. Understanding that potency is something that can greatly add to any written word. It pushes you to think in a different way than short stories and novels. The best thing a writer can often do is have exposure to everything under the sun. Not to copy, but to learn from.
That is why I read poetry. That is why I feel all writers should pick up a poetry book every blue moon. You can learn so much about how to craft a story.
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