If you are anything like me, then you will not be particularly fond of poetry. We studied it at school but I guess I never really saw the point. There probably was a point, I figured, otherwise why even teach it? But the teachers at my school never bothered much with the reasons for learning anything. I suppose I could compare my attitude to poetry with my opinion on opera. They both have some interesting moments, but they are generally not to my taste.
I carried this attitude with me right into my thirties, although I did notice a softening of that opinion. Perhaps, through exposure, my catalog of bearable poetry/opera had been allowed to grow. Or perhaps (gulp) I had acquired a taste for the stuff. I now have a number of operatic pieces that I listen to on a daily basis (Chants d’Auvergne being one of them) and there are some poems that really move me (I Have a Rendezvous with Death, by Alan Seeger for example).
A couple of years ago I enrolled in a degree in Creative Writing. The first-year syllabus looked interesting. It covered all the aspects of the writing process that I wanted to know more about. There was, however, one thing that caught my eye. Lurking near the bottom of the list was a word that put a vague knot in my stomach: “poetry”.
I laughed a nervous little laugh but figured it couldn’t be that bad. The course was “writing” not “poetry”. And, let’s face it, poetry isn’t really writing…is it? I filled in the application form and paid the fee. A few weeks later a lumpy box arrived. I started reading through the course material. Imagine my horror when the very first lesson was. . .poetry. Somewhere in the back of my head, I could hear my English teacher cackling. “That,” I could hear her say, “will teach you to daydream in my class.” I racked my cobweb-strewn memories for the things I’d covered at school. Rhyming was a part of it, I was sure. Roxy Music’s “On the Radio” came to mind….to the rhythm* of rhyming guitars….and then I realized I could remember little else. Sure, we’d read quite a few poems. And we’d analyzed them. But, as with so much of what we were taught at school, I had no idea why.
So, being the soldiering-on type, I soldiered on with the course. The first exercise was to take an object and describe it. It didn’t have to be a particularly interesting object, but it had to be worth describing. The idea was to use all five physical senses to paint a picture of the object. How did it look, feel, smell, and taste? What did it sound like when I tapped it, scratched it, or bounced it off the wall? The next exercise was to reduce those descriptions to as few words as possible. Next, I had to tweak those descriptions and make sure they were interesting. Here’s my own set of descriptions, for a mug.Bulbous, bulging, smooth and round Solitary, simple drooping handle Casual, cool, modern – uncluttered Solid, smooth, elegant curves Colour like cooked (burnt?) orange
The end result? Well, believe it or not, but this is basically a poem. It isn’t a very good poem (all right, it’s rubbish), but it isn’t that bad for a first attempt by someone with a general aversion to the subject. It touches on the essence of what poetry is, namely the aesthetic use of words with the aim of evoking an emotion or a meaning, possibly by telling a story. You could almost see it as a condensed form of prose, using words sparingly and to maximum aesthetic effect. And, like prose, there are different genres of poetry including satirical, elegy, epic, and narrative. There is even a genre termed Speculative, which deals with the “weird stuff” :-).
So what’s the point? Why bother with something like this? As writers of prose, do we need to take the time to try something like poetry? For me, the answer is a resounding (and very surprising) yes! When I look at writing, I see a spectrum. There are user guides on one end and poetry on the other. A user guide is a series of instructions designed to teach the reader something. Poetry, on the other hand, is meant to evoke a strong emotion or awaken some deeper understanding. We, as writers of prose, sit somewhere between these two extremes. We need to guide our readers with clarity along the plot points of our story, but we also want to make them feel something. If we pitch our writing too close to either end, we will have something either too bland or too intense.
We could tell our story as if it were an instruction manual. Or we could go to the other extreme and drench the reader in aesthetic wordplay. After 80,000 words of either of these, however, the reader will likely be asleep from boredom or from fatigue. Prose should be clear, but there is always room for rich language. Personally, I like to aim a little towards the poetic side, but not too far. What I try to do from time to time, especially if I feel my writing is dry or needs more description, is write a poem in my head. I cut the scene right down to its bare bones and have some fun with the words. Once I’ve done this, the prose I’m looking for usually follows.
As an exercise, try writing a descriptive scene the way you normally would. Then, take it to one side and get poetic. If it’s a building that needs spicing up, imagine it standing there, and then just describe it using all of your physical senses. Keep in mind the emotion you want to convey. Is it a wedding chapel? Use light, airy, words that evoke positive emotions. Is it a crypt? Then use dark, threatening words that will make your reader feel the fear you are trying to show. Really go to town with your vocabulary. Use the thesaurus if you get stuck. Now go over it again and ratchet up the intensity. Trim off anything that breaks the flow. Try adding some metaphors. Move words around if it helps. Listen to the sounds and how they interact. Do you feel the emotion? Now go back and write your scene the way you normally would, but keep hold of that emotion. Hopefully, some of that poetry will find its way into your prose and make it feel a little less like a user manual.
I recommend everyone try a little poetry, even if you don’t really like it or never really understood the point of it all. It can help get those creative juices flowing and add a little colour to your prose.
* “rhythms” is (or used to be) the longest word in English without any vowels.