Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in our three-part series on Harnessing the Power of Poetry, which explores the insights and techniques novelists can glean from poets. You can read the introduction here and the second post here.
When you think of poetry, what comes to mind? Language strung together that you don’t understand but somehow exemplifies the standard of literary beauty? Sentences that drop off in the middle and flow onto the line below?
If your only experience is browsing the front page of Hello Poetry or the three-sentence version on Instagram, poetry may seem like a mediocre art form. Aren’t you trying to hone your fiction? Why would you devote time to a new format if you’re already busy developing emotion, characters, and theme?
Because poetry contains those same core elements, it can help you practice on a smaller, less overwhelming project than an 80,000-word novel. Tolkien himself was a poet, and he even mingled his poetry with his fiction. Maybe, while experimenting with this wonderful art form, you’ll craft a piece that will become lore your characters recite on their journey. But even if you don’t, I promise that you’ll make new discoveries about compelling writing.
1. Evoking Emotion
Emotion binds reader to story, reader to poem, reader to writer. Each word, syllable, and phrase is intentionally chosen to stir the reader. In the “Song of Beren and Luthien,” Tolkien draws out the romance with his imagery and diction:
Enchantment healed his weary feet
that over hills were doomed to roam;
and forth he hastened, strong and fleet,
and grasped at moonbeams glistening.
Through woven woods in Elvenhome
she lightly fled on dancing feet,
and left him lonely still to roam
in the silent forest listening.
Is enchantment enough to heal weary feet? Can the speaker truly grasp a moonbeam? I’ve never attempted it, and I hate to be a pessimist, but probably not. Tolkien strategically uses figures of speech and words like enchantment and moonbeams to show how Beren views Luthien. She’s so captivating that he hardly feels his aching feet.
Poetic language saturates every page of Tolkien’s works. He is a master at setting the emotional stage with imagery, and this was cultivated through both fiction and poetry. The more poetic your prose, the more your descriptions will come to life—and the more you’ll touch readers.
Applying This as a Novelist
Study poetry closely! Choose a poem that handles emotion expertly and note the specific words that convey the desired intent, then crack open a thesaurus and write your own version. Since nonfiction is harder for me than poetry, this trick helped me when I drafted my first article. I rewrote a popular article from the site in my own voice, considering each of the points and how they fit into the structure. You can do this with poetry too.
Poetry has no room for glossed-over generalizations. You’re forced to pay attention to the impression of every word. Copy a poem this week, or even better, write your own—and spend time weighing the impact of the emotional language. This exercise will bring your prose to a level that enhances your novel’s pivotal scenes.
2. Crafting Characters
Considering the vast number of narrative poems written in third person, this commonality between poetry and stories is unsurprising. Mary Howitt’s children’s poem “The Spider and the Fly” is a prime example, and it also employs personification. But the characters in poetry can be even more intimate. You, as the speaker, can become the star of your poetic story. A portrayal of positive character development can be found in Rachel Rogers’ “Overflow”:
I was built deep and hungry,
with a heart that wanted to be filled with
so much beauty and emotion
I thought that was my gift,
being able to contain it all.
Kynet, the protagonist in Hope Ann’s novella Healer’s Bane, reflects the voice of the above poem. She longs for the suffering of others to cease. With her newfound powers after encountering the Poisoner, Kynet seeks to relieve all the pain she can. “I can heal them,” she insists, distraught by her brother’s concerned confrontation. “I can let them fight another day. How can you refuse that?” To her, this is her gift, her blessing.
By the end of the story (spoilers!), we’ve walked through Kynet’s character arc and watched her grow. While she must do what she can for others, she realizes she cannot take their pain, because it shapes them into stronger human beings. The final lines of Rachel’s poem displays a similar shift in perspective.
I overflow all this love
and beauty instead of holding it inside?
What if I refract it all outward,
bigger and more beautifully,
through the prism of my tears?
Applying This as a Novelist
Exploring a character’s struggles through poetry will familiarize you with her arc, and writing reflective poetry from your heart will clarify your own. I’ve often sat down to hash out unknown feelings through poetry and understood myself better with each passing line. What are you currently going through? Turn your confusion into a poem and see the conclusions it leads you to.
This skill will also equip you to create more realistic characters. Write poems from their perspectives, expressing all their knotty emotions as they wrestle through problems. Many writers build playlists of songs that match a character’s personality or situation. This is the same idea, except you hold the pen.
But before you rush off to do this for each of your characters, write an introspective poem. You need to sort through your own thoughts about life so you can imagine how your characters might process their circumstances and reveal their humanness.
3. Threading Theme
This is Story Embers! Of course we’re going to talk about theme. Poetry can train you in subtlety, as demonstrated by Sarah Spradlin’s timeless piece, “Potshards.” Each line pulsates with imagery that alludes to the bigger story.
I’m drawing a line in the sand
with potshards from a place where grown-ups go
and I have visited,
in hands that extend brotherhood, callouses, and push-pin grease.
Did you catch Sarah’s theme? Probably not. Experienced writers know how to gradually set up a theme instead of dumping it all at once. These lines are just hints Sarah leaves along the trail to her theme: childlike wonder in a world that God beautifully designed.
I find new islands in the uncharted waters
of arms always reaching (often trembling),
only now arriving at this conclusion:
one day I plan to lose myself
in a forest that never stops reaching for its Creator
with gnarled fingers that hold up the sky by day
but let darkness fall by night
and follow the path of stars instead,
veiled elsewhere by spotlights that never reach them.
The language is infused with symbolism—another tool in storytelling that can be strengthened through poetry. Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a poet as well as an author, which is evidenced by one of his most famous works, The Little Prince. Near the ending, the Prince and his friend, who are stranded on an island, walk for miles in search of a well. The Prince, naturally flowery in speech, says, “Hear that? We’ve awakened this well, and it’s singing.”
Throughout the story, Saint-Exupery drops crumbs of his theme. We learn that the Little Prince’s flower is important to him because he has invested in it. We learn from the fox that friendship is valuable, despite the goodbyes. And we learn from the Prince that the eyes are blind—you must look with the heart. All of this poetic symbolism is wrapped up in the book’s theme: that anything essential is invisible.
Applying This as a Novelist
Poetry approaches themes from various angles. It requires you to thoroughly examine a subject to achieve a smooth rhythm and flow. By nature of its condensed form, any detail that doesn’t belong must be removed. Think of poetry as a puzzle. Every piece has multiple sides, but only one will snap into place.
Poetry uses symbolism more than novels do. Again, pick a poem to analyze, this time focusing on symbolism and imagery. How do those aspects accentuate the poem’s theme? As you meditate on your observations, you’ll begin to grasp concepts you can apply to your novels.
Weaving the Strands Together
Poetry does include devices that fiction doesn’t. I doubt you’d get excited about inserting a three-piece alliteration into your novel. But when you treat poetry as simply a story in a different form, it will become much more inviting.
Over the past few articles, Daeus, Graham, and I have shared tips for sharpening your gifts through poetry. But now you must make a decision. Is poetry just an obscure art form that isn’t worth the work? Or is it another means God has provided for you to redeem the arts? Can it be a path (not a detour) in your passionate and dedicated pursuit of excellent storytelling? And if you agree with the latter, will you start taking advantage of it?
The choice is up to you, dear image-bearer.
Cindy Green is a forest-wandering, poetry-scribbling stargazer with messy notebooks and messy thoughts. Despite her love for all of God’s creation, sunflowers and stars in particular have a way of sneaking into both her writing and her heart (but you won’t hear her complaining about it). She is an amateur sword-wielder with a Highland-dancing warrior spirit who also writes letters to the moon and considers the sky her best friend. A focused daydreamer, organized pack rat, and oblivious observer, she is a self-professing ambivert (or a living contradiction) who deeply feels both the beauty and fallen state of the world. Through her words, she hopes to describe the indescribable and form personal connections with people while reflecting a love for her Savior and a passion for everything she touches.