Remember when Julie suggested last week that novelists should write short stories, and that doing so would improve their novel craft? Well, this week I’m arguing the same for poetry.
At heart I’m a poet. And even though it may seem the antithesis of the novel, I suggest that reading and writing poetry has a lot to offer the novelist. As a lover of poetry and a practitioner of the novel form, I have noticed three ways in particular that novelists can benefit from the study and writing of poetry.
1. Learn the rhythms and sounds of language.
One of the lovely things that makes poetry unique is its emphasis on rhythm and rhyme. Poets like Dylan Thomas and Langston Hughes (to name a very few) play with sounds in a way few other artists (besides musicians, perhaps) do. Take, for example, these lines from Thomas Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain”:
“Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?” …
The moon-eyed fishes speak to us, using a bubbly-sounding language that mimics the sound of air bubbles rising to the surface. The word “vaingloriousness” trips off the tongue like ripples over water. Hardy finds the exact right words to depict his content.
2. Play within a highly structured form.
September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,…
3. Immerse yourself in vivid images and complex metaphors.
Finally, poets are masters of imagery and metaphor. From John Donne’s conceits to William Carlos Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow,” poets have to make their images and metaphors perfect simply because they have so little space to explain them. A single image might be all they have to communicate their meaning. While you could read any number of master poets for examples of this, the one I particularly like is “Digging” by Seamus Heaney. It’s a poem that needs to be read in its entirety to truly appreciate the beauty of how Heaney using “digging” as an image to connect him to his father and grandfather, but I’ll put its final lines here to give you a taste:
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slapOf soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edgeThrough living roots awaken in my head.But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.Between my finger and my thumbThe squat pen rests.I’ll dig with it.
The image of digging in various places and for various reasons saturates the entire poem until finally the poet speaker, an intellect instead of a farmer like his father and grandfather, revises the image for his own use. “Digging” becomes a metaphor for getting at the truth of the world through poetry.
What images are central to your novel? Are you planning to play with metaphor? Take that metaphor or that image and explore it in a poem. Because of the brevity of the genre, you will have to excise all but the words and concepts most important to that image or metaphor. This way, when you return to your novel, you’ll be able to use your images and metaphors more effectively.
By reading and trying our hands at writing poetry, we sharpen our writing strategies by learning how to craft a concise image, to work within strict structures, and to make good use of the splendid rhythms of language. Just because what we write doesn’t rhyme, doesn’t mean we aren’t writing our own sort of poetry.