Part way through the film Chocolat, Judy Dench gives a poetry book to her estranged grandson. He reacts in the way many children (and adults) would. Says thank you with a glazed expression, wishing the present was a new puppy or the next Assassin’s Creed. His grandmother notices this of course, and replies ‘It’s not that kind of poetry.’
I’ve always remembered this statement because it sums up the difficulties many people have with this kind of creative writing. Today we’re going to look at ways to get past this in order to awaken the poet within. You might decide poetry is not for you, or you might decide that it suits you more than prose. You may also realise, as I did, how much it can help develop your prose fiction! By the end of this article you will:
- Learn how poetry can inject musicality into your prose fiction.
- Know how to be a discerning writer with regard to word choice.
- Know how to improve craft at word level.
- Learn how to be a better editor.
There are readers and writers alike who find the world of poetry self-indulgent and unapproachable. To be honest, once we’d moved from prose to poetry in my course, I felt a little uncomfortable with it myself.
As a reader, I’ve always enjoyed poetry. As a writer, it was the first time I didn’t feel in control of the craft; unsure about the constrained world of metre and stanza in fixed verse.
Yet in being ‘forced’ to study and write poetry in an academic setting, the tools it’s given me to improve my prose fiction is beyond measure. So with a bit of shopping around to find ‘not that kind of poetry,’ read as much as you can and discover the pieces that make the puzzle of this craft fit together.
Have a go at writing some yourself and I promise that if you’re serious about it, the next time you write prose, you’ll be a haute precision writing weapon. Let’s take a look at 5 ways future you will rock…
1. I Have a Musicality I Never Had Before
If you’re British, you’ve no doubt been grilled in Shakespeare at some point in your young life (and may still have the scars to show for it).
‘Iambic pentamenter,’ the metric line the Bard predominantly used in his sonnets may be recalled as a faint ghost from English lessons past. It’s a line consisting of 5 stressed and 5 unstressed syllables; 10 syllables altogether.
There are of course other metrical lines to learn about. Yet before you start feeling scared as I did, I can confirm it does become easier with practice. You can even have fun by messing around with the lyrics of your favourite songs. Let’s take Paloma Faith’s I Just Can’t Reply on You:
I—just can’t—rely—on you.
With both the stressed and unstressed syllables, this creates a beat of 4 rather than 5, which is called tetrameter.
Rhyme and alliteration of course, also have a big part to play. Once you’ve spent time concentrating on these elements, future you will be aware of a music in the English language you couldn’t pinpoint before.
Prose is different in the sense that we often require a diluted version of a poetic cordial (it would be too exhausting for every sentence to be as charged as a line of poetry). It should still have musicality however, and you’ll know how to work the system; with possibilities you can push further to create your perfect symphony.
2. I’m a Fine-Tuned Instrument With Word Choices
Although the same principle applies to prose fiction, i.e. expressing as much meaning as we can in as few words as possible; poetry is even more extreme. There’s simply not enough time for waffling.
Writing poetry forces us to focus on essential meaning and this kind of training will help enormously when writing prose fiction. Future you will know that those four sentences describing how the light falls on the garden every evening at 7pm, can be reduced to one sentence or less.
3. I Know How to Keep All My Craft Options Open
Alliteration, slant rhymes, eye rhymes and whatever else you want to throw into the poetry salad, are all techniques of writing craft that can be honed and improved. Often in books about the art of prose fiction, writing craft at the level of the word is replaced in favour of studying plot, characterisation etc.
This is of course, just as important; but disregarding the building blocks that create them is like making an amazing cake decoration around a dry sponge. Future you will not only be practised in the art of storytelling but in slight of hand at the language level that drives the magic home for the reader.
4. I’ve Been to Writing Hell and Back: There’s Nothing You Can’t Throw at Me
Learning the craft of poetry and writing yourself out of it can feel like you’re Houdini writhing in a straightjacket. We can’t just write whatever the hell we want, how we want, in the same way we can with prose.
All our thoughts and imagery (encased within theme and subject) have to be accordance with metrical beat, line breaks and form; particularly if we’ve chosen something more traditional like the sonnet or the villanelle.
But Sophie, I’ll just write in free verse! Well, free verse is not strictly as ‘free’ as its name suggests. Highly acclaimed poets that utilise this form may seem as though they’re doing whatever, but not surprisingly, they’re not.
Study their poems closely and you’ll still find the same laws of physics that govern all poetry, it’s just not as obvious or as tightly controlled. Future you however, having practised various forms is now able to tackle writing challenges in a way that frightened you before.
So the next time you’re struggling to express something concisely, you’ll be able to do it in a hot minute (or at least feel confident that you can).
5. I’m a Highly Discerning Editor
This relates to the point about word choice; in which I discussed how you’ll be more discerning about what you say to express meaning.
In not having the luxury of time or space, not only are we forced to be choosy, it means future you will be less sentimental when it comes to ‘killing your darlings‘ in prose.
When doing the latter for uni, there were times when I left in sentences that didn’t need to be there. For the poetry module, I couldn’t do this, I didn’t have a choice. I was forced to cut out great imagery for the sake of making the poem work and it’s this kind of tough love we need to learn.
Tip: If you’re struggling with editing/revising, I highly recommend that you give yourself a strict word count for a piece of work. When you overwrite you’ll be forced to take out the things you love that shouldn’t be there.
Conclusion: Trying New Vegetables
If there’s one thing to take away from this article, it’s that it’s good to try new ‘writing’ things. Remember when your parents tried to feed you something alien in the hope you’d be free of deficiencies and turn out a reasonably sophisticated adult?
Well it was traumatising at the time, but I bet you’re grateful now that you can talk about the subtle differences between different mediterranean olives. I’m discovering the same with writing.
So next time you have the opportunity to read or write something different, don’t push the fork away. Sniff it, lick it and stick it on a pizza. You might be pleasantly surprised.
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So what has been your experience of poetry thus far? Is it something you love but don’t know how to approach? Maybe you can’t stand the stuff and want to throw it and this article out with the rubbish bin!
Whatever your thoughts, jot them down in the comments section below. I wonder if there are some brave ones amongst you who might even share some poetry in progress?
Until next time,
The Breakfast Club Writing Routine Update:
So I’ve been doing this for over a week now and I’m already feeling the benefits. In fact I’m thinking of increasing my writing time to 30 mins instead of 15! I love the moment I’ve carved out for myself and it’s something I look forward to when I wake up.