As part of my MFA program, I was told I had to take a class outside of my comfort zone, which happens to be in fiction. I signed up for a poetry class not expecting to like it. And while I don’t consider myself a poet, delving into poetry changed my writing and my thinking about writing in unexpected ways.
1. Poetry forces the fiction writer to get to the point.
Fiction editors often say writing should be “tight”: writing poetry is the ultimate and perhaps most extreme way of learning to employ efficient syntax. Less talk, more meaning. Nowhere does this become more evident than in editing poems. Excess words are stripped and discarded. And while fiction writers are known to moan about the horrors of -ly, poets often eschew -ly, -ing, -ness, -tion and many other suffixes. Every letter, every morpheme, every word, every punctuation mark is either necessary, or it’s gone. Good fiction can also be like that.
2. Poetry teaches the prose writer to choose words that multitask.
When you’re forced to use as few words as possible to convey your point(s), you must explore every possible reading of a single word. This compels the writer to explore word choices that are rich in meanings, associations, and nuances. And while a multiplicity of meanings seems like it might muddle otherwise clear writing, the result is (paradoxically) word choices that are as distinct and dramatic as cigarette burns on a page.
3. Poetry expands ideas.
Writing a prose moment as a poem can illuminate invisible “light waves” of feeling that are not always detectable on the normal prose spectrum. Often, poems dwell in a space where prose is ineffective-where that word-on-the-tip-of-your-tongue probably isn’t a word at all. Lingering in this undefined, creative space helps expand ideas as far as they can go. It gives the writer the time and the permission to commune with her own subconscious. The results can be surprising.
4. Poetry gets to the core meaning.
Looking at prose through poetry can be like examining narrative under a microscope: a fascinated search for the deepest fundamental meaning. When we’re writing a book or story, it’s sometimes hard to know the real weight–or what matters most–about a character, a passage, a scene. By writing poems-by distilling language until only its core meanings are left-we can sometimes discover where the singular, nucleic energy of a given work lies.
5. Poetry challenges prose traditions.
Experimenting with poetry can force expression that is outside of the expected chronologies, orders, logics, and reasons often associated with prose traditions. In other words, because poems don’t necessarily follow the rules of narrative, writing poetry can compel us to take creative risks with our usual formats or forms. Though it’s both cliché and ironic to say it, poetry makes us “think outside the box.”
6. Poetry is fun.
Dabbling (secretly or not) in poetry gives the prose writer an unrestricted, unstructured, un-judged space for (word)play. If you designate your poetry-writing as an endeavor not intended to entertain anyone but yourself, you reserve a place where you can “let yourself go,” where you can be free of the insecurity and self-doubt that accompany more serious writings. Doing this, of course, loosens-up creative impulses and enriches prose.
A prose-writer pursuing poetry is something like a quarterback studying ballet.
On the surface, it may feel unjustified and clumsy to do it. But it’s the
interaction-and the difference-between the two forms that forces growth and
improvement on both sides of the divide.
About the Author:
* Lisa Dale has been published in many national literary magazines and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for Best New American Voices. She also writes romance/women’s fiction novels for a major New York publishing house. Seminars and lectures (including a FREE audio download) are available on her website, http://www.lisadalebooks.com. Her blog, http://www.lisadaleblog.com, dissects, scrutinizes, and tinkers with “how books work.” Comments welcome.