Confession: I am not a poet.
That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate poetry. I do!
Poetry, to me, is like a cherry tree. I admire the delicate coloring and the profusion of the blossoms. I pluck and eat all the fruit I can reach. And yet, no matter how many cherries I consume, I do not become a cherry tree. I don’t flower or bear fruit.
So it is with poems. I admire many little turns of phrase, EE Cummings writing that “nothing, not even the rain, has such small hands” or Anis Mojgani concluding a poem about his wife with “like honey and trombones, like honey and trombones.” I consume the poems that my mind can grasp, nourishing myself with Pablo Neruda’s assertion that “my love feeds on your love, beloved” or Rudyard Kipling’s urgent, “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken / Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools / Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, / And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools…” Occasionally, I go so far as to imitate poetry—but my “poems” are as artificial as origami next to a living flower.
I cannot produce poetry.
And that’s okay with me. I am another type of tree, something very prosaic, like maybe a maple. Still, staying in touch with the world of poetry has taught me a few tricks to improve my prose.
Not all poems rhyme, but all poems do follow some meter—and wouldn’t it be lovely if all prose did the same?
Poets are pros at running their words together smoothly, even musically. When I read poetry, I am reminded of the importance of placing my words carefully. Sometimes, I even discover new ways to tweak my meter, like inverting nouns and adjectives, repeating phrases (as In Walt Whitman’s “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking / out of the mockingbird’s throat, the musical shuttle / out of the ninth-month midnight / over the sterile sands”), or breaking a long paragraph into shorter sentences, reminiscent of Frida Kahlo’s visual poetry.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Maybe that explains why prose is usually so much longer than poetry! Prose tends to use less imagery.
I am reminded of the impact that imagery can have on a message when I read brilliant poets like Emily Dickinson (“the brain is deeper than the sea / for hold them blue to blue/ the one the other will absorb as sponges buckets do”) or EE Cummings (“it’s you who are whatever a moon has always meant / and whatever a sun will always sing is you”). Statements may bridle the mind and drive it towards a point, but images awaken the imagination and ride it into a world of new significance.
Poems are shorter than works of prose, yet they get their point across—even if that point is no more than an emotion.
Reading poetry whets my appetite for editing my own work. Poets are masters of efficiency. They include not a word in their poems that does not enhance communication of the central message. Take Robert Frost’s poem “A Minor Bird,” which, in eight lines, tells a story and leaves readers with a poignant message: “of course, there must be something wrong / in wanting to silence any song.” For how many works of prose could the same be said?
And then there are the poems that leave you wanting more.
Take, for example, William Carlos William’s infamously enigmatic red wheelbarrow, which so much depended upon. Hundreds of essays have expanded upon the origin and fate of that wheelbarrow. Or what about “Invictus?” Can one help but wonder about “the strait gate, the scroll charged with punishments” which the valiant narrator faces? Or take the end of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, “I think I should have loved you presently:”
I, that had been to you, had you remained,
But one more waking from a recurrent dream,
Cherish no less the certain stakes I gained,
And walk your memory’s halls, austere, supreme,
A ghost in marble of a girl you knew
Who would have loved you in a day or two.
That “ghost in marble” haunts my own memory to this day. I would not be surprised, someday, to find that she has snuck into one of my works of prose!
As a writer of prose, I try to graft elements of poetry into my work. I believe that many of the most prolific writers of prose have done the same. Just look at the images used by Nabokov (describing the sound of a lover’s name, “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo-lee-ta”) and Fitzgerald (introducing two of his main characters “They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. […] Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor). Or study the meter in Stuart Dybek’s, “we made not doing it a wonder, and yet we didn’t, we didn’t, we never did.”