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From Verse to Better
by Slyford T. Rabbit
©2005 Slyford T. Rabbit -- all rights reserved

Poetry: the fiction-writer's underestimated friend.

Writers are a dedicated, self-directed folk. It's a good thing, too; putting out pages of fiction is a long, often thankless process, the results of which are never guaranteed. A serious writer will spend countless hours improving on the craft, reading more fiction, writing from different perspectives, playing with theme, perspective, and setting... the whole nine yards. Phil's columns do a great job of exploring the craft, but I'm here to leave the world of strict grammar and plot arcs and explore another side of the written arts: poetry.

It's a scary, enigmatic thing, this poetry. It exists in hundreds of forms: sonnets, sestinas, limericks, haiku, free verse, imagist, modernist, confessional poetry... you name it, someone's tried it. Poetry is emotion or imagery, narrative or meditative, and every shade between the extremes.

It's hard to break into the art, but writing poetry can make you a better fiction writer. The reasons for this are twofold:

First, writing poetry forces a writer to pay closer attention to word choice. Instead of simply describing a scene with whatever words come to mind, poems demand that a word fit in with mood, rhythm, connotation, and sometimes rhyme. This process forces a poet to make more careful word choices, the labor of which will show in their fiction writing. If you're lucky, some of the smooth, jarring, or otherwise intentional plays on rhythm that make poetry so wonderful will find their way into your prose, enhancing the reader's experience.

Second, imagery becomes paramount in a poem. Instead of creating a story arc first and the scene details later, the scene can become the subject. Short poems especially allow you to focus on and develop one strong image to its full potential, a task that's often difficult within the text of a narrative. From personal experience, I know that my stories lack imagery. I'll get caught up in the dialogue and forget to develop the world around the characters. Poetry allows a chance to bone up on the skill of painting by word without worrying about what the characters are saying or doing.

Beyond simple wordcrafting, poetry also forces a writer to rethink what constitutes a piece. A story needs characters, definable conflict, a rising action, climax, falling action, and conclusion, just like they teach at schools across the world. In poetry, though, these necessities fall away to two simple rules: the subject and the turn. The subject can be anything, from star-crossed lovers to a red wheelbarrow. The turn transforms the imagery into a thought-provoking idea that the reader to cogitate after the poem is ended. The change of pace can help a writer to think outside the box and open up to new, interesting direction for their stories.

Writing poetry is simple. Take an image/idea/metaphor, write out a collection of words that express it, and use a turn to give a sense of dynamic in the poem. There are few rules to follow, less you want to get into form poetry. You don't have to sound like the 'experts', or cling to any specific 'market idea'. Every poet has their own style, like a thumbprint that separates e e cummings from Allen Ginsburg or Wordsworth from Keats. Don't worry about making perfect sense, or making sure that your participles line up with their antecedents. Say what your mind says.

Good poetry, especially contemporary poetry, lies shrouded in enigmatic imagery. Important details are often left out of a poem, creating ambiguity in the reader's interpretation. This is perhaps the most difficult barrier to overcome when trying to write poetry, and the one that most desperately needs to be overcome to get good at the craft. In fiction a writer is supposed to make his or her most important points painfully clear. In poetry, on the other hand, ambiguity is welcomed and encouraged. Who is the figure lurking in the darkness? Is it Kristen's abusive stepfather or is it a metaphor for the evil that haunts us all? By creating ambiguity, you put the weight of interpretation squarely on the reader's shoulders.

Then again, you might want to be painfully clear about every single detail. You may decide to paint a beautiful picture bound by rhythm and rhyme. That's fine too.

Most importantly, good poetry is what you like to read and what you want to write. If you like reading sonnets, write sonnets. If you like the imagist poetry of William Carlos Williams, write about your favorite red wheelbarrow. If the work of Sylvia Plathe catches your interest, write deeply introspective poetry.

You simply have to stop thinking and start writing. Perhaps this is what poetry best helps a writer overcome. Too many times we find ourselves searching for the right word, the proper situation, the best way to handle imagery. Poetry teaches us to stop worrying and trust our unconscious minds. In poetry you can write the way your mind talks to you.

In closing, I leave you with a poem to get your mind churning. Happy writing!

The Voice You Hear
When You Read Silently

is not silent, it is a speaking-
out-loud voice in your head; it is spoken,
a voice is saying it
as you read. It's the writer's words,
of course, in a literary sense
his or her "voice" but the sound
of that voice is the sound of your voice.
Not the sound your friends know
or the sound of a tape played back
but your voice
caught in the dark cathedral
of your skull, your voice heard
by an internal ear informed by internal abstracts
and what you know by feeling,
having felt. It is your voice
saying, for example, the word "barn"
that the writer wrote
but the "barn" you say
is a barn you know or knew. The voice
in your head, speaking as you read,
never says anything neutrally -- some people
hated the barn they knew,
some people love the barn they know
so you hear the word loaded
and a sensory constellation
is lit: horse-gnawed stalls,
hayloft, black heat tape wrapping
a water pipe, a slippery
spilled chirr of oats from a split sack,
the bony, filthy haunches of cows...
And "barn" is only a noun -- no verb
or subject has entered into the sentence yet!
The voice you hear when you read to yourself
is the clearest voice: you speak it
speaking to you.

Thomas Lux

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