I’ve said it before, and I’ll likely say it again. We fiction writers can learn quite a bit from poetry. So in honor of National Poetry Month, I thought I’d take a quick look at how poetry can better shape our fiction. Also, I’m going to throw down a challenge (don’t worry, nothing as crazy as Writer’s Digest’s “Poem A Day” challenge).
WORDS MATTER: Stephen King insists that you should make no effort to expand your vocabulary (by any means other than reading, and reading a lot). That is to say, he’d probably advise you not to buy that Word of the Day calendar at the mall, or to subscribe to Dictionary.com’s similar service. While I’m guilty of doing both, I think he makes a good point: If you include words just because they’re big and sound cool and make you look smart, you may want to consider revising the word to something more approachable to your audience. The issue, as we can see in poetry, is that not all words are created equal. And while some multi-syllabic marvels may look great on paper, they may not sound great in the ear. Worse, they trip the reader up, slow them down, and break the illusion we’re trying to relate. Hard to be fully invested in our poems or fiction if we’ve got to check the dictionary every other paragraph. Instead, find the right word. More often than not, the right word is the one you think of first. Poetry teaches us the same idea. The right word is often times the easiest, most approachable word.
SOUNDS MATTER: One thing the right words have in common is the proper sounds. I remember once, when writing a poem, I used the word rock. My friend suggested I change it to stone. Same thing, but different sounds. The “ck” gives rock a harsher sound, where the “one” is much softer, easier to say. When trying to emphasize beauty, softer words carry more weight. However, if you’re writing a violent scene, one where another man attacks another with a rock, rock is the right word. You want the harsher “ck” sound. The sound of the words does help create tension and ease. Use them mindfully.
RHYTHM MATTERS: When you get to the point where you’re counting syllables, you know you’re on the right track. Meter, something often employed only in poetry, can be a powerful tool, especially when you slow the action down. Meter can help a slow scene move more fluidly. It can also slow down a scene rife with action. The result is a dichotomy that will resonate with the reader, even if they’re not aware of it. If you don’t know much about meter and rhythm, take a moment to check it out at poets.org.
POEM A WEEK CHALLENGE—My students generally have a distaste for poetry. Then, after we go through several exercises where they read good poetry, and we break it down together, and they write their own, they learn that they actually do enjoy poetry. Perhaps you’re in the same boat. Maybe you’ve avoided poetry your whole life because you don’t understand it, and you find it boring. I challenge you to spend time over at poets.org, learn a few forms (sonnet, villanelle, rondeau, sestina maybe) that you’re unfamiliar with. Then, read several examples of each, and try penning your own. I’ll give you this whole month to come up with them. They don’t have to be good (few first poems seldom are). But perhaps you’ve a practiced hand in the art of poetry, or maybe you have a stroke of genius and pen an incredible poem. Post it here, in the comments. Also, maybe tell us what form it is and a little about the process of writing it. I also find that poetry can be about nearly anything. It is not confined simply to tales of love and loss. Try to think of a unique topic, one not often written about in verse. Sometimes that in itself is enough to get your poetic juices flowing. We’d love to see your work! Until then, good writing!