The Musicality of Prose (or Writing in the Lyric Register)

Much to my father’s chagrin, I studied poetry in college. Yes, I’m that guy. What’s worse, I studied it at the post-grad level as well. Pops likes to remind me that poetry is what people write when they can’t write novels. I like to say that novels are what people write when they can’t write a poem.

But as I spoke with an old student via Facebook the other day (thanks for the idea, btw, Renato), I was reminded how little I actually say about poetry on this blog. Perhaps it’s my innate fear that my followers expect to see something about crafting fiction. He suggested I write more about the interplay between fiction and poetry, which I’ll do to a small extent tonight.

Before I delve into that, however, feel free to leave me a comment and let me know what you’re currently working on. I’d be interested in knowing how many of you are working on novels vs. poems vs. short stories vs. novellas. I’d like to tailor my next few blogs toward what you guys have in the works.

Now, on to the poetry aspect. My father may not remember this the way I do, but here’s how this scene plays out in my mind: While still working toward my BA at CSUSB, my father called me to tell me about a line he’d just written. He read it to me, excited about how beautiful it was. He couldn’t say why he loved it so much, just that it sounded right. I looked over the line and, with my fancy new college-learning, told him he’d penned a line in perfect iambic pentameter.

“Watch your mouth, College Boy,” he said.

Okay, he didn’t say that, but it felt right for the story. The point is this: while you may not be able to tell me what iambic pentameter is, you know it when you hear it. It sounds right. Why? Because it mimics our normal speech patterns. Poetry and fiction have a lot in common. But, for whatever reason, people think prose is an excuse to ignore poetic elements.

Think of music, of timing and rhythms, of swells, crescendos, pianissimos. Think of the sound of the words, the high-tight vowels, the bass note, full bellied vowels (ohs, uhs). Your poetry should sing, as should your fiction.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I’d really suggest practicing some poetry. Learn the language. Read the greats (I’m a fan of Frost, Bishop, Moore, Plath, Rich). Try your own poem (something more than a Dr. Seuss impersonation). Enroll in a beginning poetry course, or an analysis of poetry course. Better yet, you can start here. Some great resources available free.

Until next week,

Good singing.

5 thoughts on “The Musicality of Prose (or Writing in the Lyric Register)”

  • Ahh, poetry. It’s so terrible and so wonderful all at once. I don’t know how many times I’ve written a poem, been proud of it, and then asked myself “What the bleeding blue blazes is this?” upon looking at it later. On the other hand, I have several poems I feel rather good about. Perhaps all I really need to do is get more practice and consider taking some classes.
    As you probably know, my current project is a novel I’ve been slaving away at for the past three years or so. Even when I can’t move forward with the darn thing, I go back and revise certain scenes. (I have killed one particular character about seven different ways… And I’m still not happy with his death!)

  • Great thoughts! Since I attended the Blue Ridge Mountain Conference, I’ve actually read some poetry, even bought a book. As far as what I’m working on, short stories are a favorite, one I turned into a novella. I love to read tips on novel writing also…thanks for asking.

  • My friends and I are currently sharing our poetry with each other, like messaging random prompts to each other at random hours . All our poems are free verse . Should we as poets open up to forms and styles like iambic pentameter and the ones listed on the link?

  • Also, is there anything wrong with writing free verse against forms?
    We feel it’s too restricting . O.o

    & You’re welcome!

  • Renato: glad to hear you’ve got a writing group. Groups are great for getting things done and holding each other accountable. In context of free verse, there’s nothing wrong with it at all. But, most “poets” claim to write free verse because the forms are “too restricting” (as I did when I was in college). What I learned is that writing in forms helps to ensure that your “free verse” poems are not free from rhythm and meter etc. I’d say every poet needs to write a few form poems before moving to free verse. It will give you a taste for the rules, and teach you when it’s okay to break them. Rules are there for a reason (and not just to be broken). The better you know the rules, the better your poems will be. Long story short (too late!), yes, I’d highly encourage you to practice the forms. 🙂

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