Poetry as character development

Among the defining characteristics of Hope and Pride, my current Work In Progress, is literature. It’s one of the things the hero and heroine have in common. The heroine has a particular fondness for poetry. The current draft only has a few references to that, so it’s one of the elements I’m trying to beef up as I edit. Which means I’m reading a lot of poetry lately.

flying dove hope

© Sheila VooDoo * stock.xchng

This occasionally proves difficult. I do have a good poem about Hope from Emily Dickinson:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all…

But good luck finding a poem about Pride that’s not negative. I’m still looking. If I don’t find one soon, I may have to resort to the Illiad. Suggestions are welcome.

Much of the story takes place in a garden, and I happened across a great excerpt from a poem about a garden on a calendar. Of course, before I go quoting it in my book, I want to read the whole thing and see whether it’s still under copyright. Problem: when I found it in Google Books, the text didn’t match the excerpt. Whether this is because the author published two different versions of the poem, or whether it’s because some of the books reprinted it incorrectly, I can’t guess.

I did finally find the version I wanted in a book that’s likely to have belonged to my heroine’s grandmother. But I couldn’t get a preview of the whole poem in Google books. The volume, if not the individual poem, is apparently still under copyright. So I checked the book out from my library so I could read the whole poem and continue my rights search. Since I intend to quote three lines out of a twenty-line poem, this could be an issue.

Likewise “Do not go gentle into that good night,” by Dylan Thomas, which is definitely still under copyright, so I’m only quoting the title and the final line. Hopefully that’s a small enough sample to fall under fair use.

The problem with fair use where copyright is concerned is that it’s partly determined by how large a percentage of the original you’re quoting. So with song lyrics and poems, you reach a pretty high percentage pretty fast.

I have been questioned as to whether including all this poetry is wise — but for other reasons. For example, commenting on a scene in which the heroine cites “Stopping By Woods,” a critique partner asked, “Will the average reader understand a reference to Robert Frost?”

I replied, “I think it’s fair to say that you can define my target market as ‘readers who will understand a reference to Robert Frost.’”


About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

3 comments on “Poetry as character development

  1. […] Poetry as character development (newauthors.wordpress.com) […]

  2. Poetry’s one of those things I know I really should read more of. I think it really adds richness to a story, though, as long as it doesn’t go on forever. That’s one thing I liked about the first couple of Mitford books, because Father Tim is always reading Wordsworth.

    • Yes! I find I enjoy anthologies of old poetry more than new poetry, probably because they’ve been curated to contain only things that have stood the test of time.

      My favorite is “The Top 500 Poems” edited by William Harmon. It contains poems popular among scholars and anthologists.

      The one I got from the library that I mention in the post is “The Best Loved Poems of the American People” edited by Hazel Felleman. It contains the poems most requested by readers of The New York Times Book Review in the early part of he 20th century. Some of them are kind of sappy doggerel poems, but their themes obviously resonated with people.

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