Confession: I am not a poet.
That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate poetry. I do! I admire many little turns of phrase, EE Cummings writing that “nothing, not even the rain, has such small hands” or Anis Mojgani concluding that his wife makes him feel “like honey and trombones, like honey and trombones.”
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. 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”)
- 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.
Reading poetry whets my appetite for editing my own work. Poets are masters of efficiency, getting their point across with less than a thousandth of the words a novelist must use. Poets are sure to:
- remove unnecessary words (even commonly overlooked words like “a, the, that”)
- distill their images (a towering gray storm cloud can just be a storm cloud)
- cut out distracting ideas (no subplots for poets!)
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 “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!
Next time you find yourself in awe of a novelist, pause for a moment and look for the poetry in the prose.
Whether it’s an image like The Great Gatsyb’ys Daisy and Jordan “both in white, their dresses rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house” or a trick of meter like Stuart Dybek telling us “we made not doing it a wonder, and yet we didn’t, we didn’t, we never did,” you will be sure to find the giants of prose tipping their hats to poetry!