3 Reasons Novelists should Read and Write Poetry

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By Whitney Jones

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.

As novelists, we should try to use words with the right sounds and rhythms. Our work might not rhyme, but we can use sounds and rhythms to create moods, setting, and character. Are you writing a scene set in a dark forest? Then use heavy, dark sounding words with a plodding rhythm. If you are a scene on a boat, use words that skip and skirt around the page, leaning heavily on “s” sounds.
When we pay close attention to the rhythms we create and to the words we use, we ensure that we pair the exact right word with the content it represents.


2. Play within a highly structured form. 

Have you ever tried your hand at writing a sonnet? At fitting a single yet complex idea or message into fourteen lines of iambic pentameter with a strict rhyme scheme? It’s hard. Or what about something even more difficult? A sestina has six stanzas with six lines each and ends with a three-lined stanza. Each line in each stanza ends with the same six words in a different order. The final three-line stanza includes all six words in whatever order you desire, but they ALL must be there. Look at the first two stanzas of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina”:
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,
What’s wonderful about this form is that it allows you to really emphasize theme through the repetition of key words.
 
If we can practice using and reusing images and themes in meaningful ways in such a strict form as the sestina, then we can prepare ourselves to do the same in the more expansive form of the novel. 
 
I suggest you try writing your novel as a sestina. What six words are most crucial to your narrative? What six acts are most crucial to your plot and how do those six words figure in each? As you write the final three lines, ask yourself this question: how are my themes resolved and how has my use of those six thematic words evolved since stanza (chapter) 1?

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 slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The 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. 

What’s your relationship with poetry?

6 comments

  1. I had no relationship with modern poetry until I started writing it two years ago. It was a tentative beginning but I started appreciating others who publish their poetry for the world to see. It can be a bit demoralising when someone says, “Oh, I can’t understand what you mean.” Of course, poetry is all about teasing or testing the imagination. xo

    Like

    • I understand what you mean when you say that it is frustrating when people don’t understand your meaning. I always think of the lines from the Auden poem, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”: “The words of a dead man /
      Are modified in the guts of the living” AND “He became his admirers.” Artistic work becomes what our readers get out of it… or don’t get out of it, as the case may be… also, I love the idea that poetry teases the imagination. Poetic in and of itself!

      Liked by 1 person

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