Every fiction writer has fallen in love with stories and dreams of engaging readers the same way. Few, however, are interested in poetry. In our modern age, this art form fights a losing battle against flashier entertainment. For some, poetry is overly emotional and uncomfortably personal. For others, it’s less exciting than the latest film from their favorite franchise. Does this describe you?
You’re missing a tremendous opportunity. If you write with intention, you can pack so much wisdom and wonder into a poem’s small confines—and you’ll stretch your storytelling skills in the process.
Since we value poetry at Story Embers, we wanted to examine why it’s worth our time through a dedicated article series, and this is the first installment. I’ll be showing you how poetry can help you grasp theme, improve your prose, and explore new realms of thought. In upcoming posts, Graham Jackson will share poetic techniques you can imitate to spice up the imagery in your stories, and Cindy Green will take you on a tour of the elements that poems and novels have in common.
By the end of this series, we hope you’ll have a newfound appreciation for poetry and possess tools you can apply to your stories. Let’s jump in!
1. Poetry Expands Your Understanding of Theme
As one of the poetry editors here, I play a role in accepting and rejecting submissions. One of the critical factors that influences my decision is how the author handles theme. If it’s blatant, generic, predictable, or unemphatic, those are signs of weakness.
A poem should deliver its theme subtly and cleverly, seek to understand and portray the nuances of a truth, use careful wording to make hard topics palatable, and highlight the ordinary with paradoxes. Here are three poems we’ve published that display those characteristics:
- “I Am Love” lists the many facets of love, both familiar and rare. This is much more profound than a poem that abstractly praises the idea of love.
- “Evangelism” emphasizes the importance of spreading the gospel without eschewing the struggle to speak openly as a flawed human. It tells the full story, the glorious and the dark.
- “Hidden Words” exalts heart-to-heart conversations, but you don’t recognize you’re being taught, because the poem wets your appetite for the lesson it dishes out.
These and many other aspects of theme overlap poetry and fiction. The advantage of poetry is that it involves a much shorter turnaround time for feedback and revisions. Those who love and practice poetry hold it to a high standard, so they won’t hesitate to warn you that you’ve failed to grab their attention. Hence, if you have solid critique partners, poetry forces you to wrestle with a theme until you’re able to communicate it uniquely and breathtakingly. Then you can adapt what you’ve learned to the larger scope of a novel.
2. Poetry Enhances Your Prose
People define excellent prose according to one and/or two criteria: 1) Specificity, conciseness, and clarity. 2) Poetic quality.
Perhaps you’re confused about the latter. How can prose be poetic when it and poetry are separate categories? If that’s your assumption, you need to study poetry, because it’s actually kissing cousins with prose. While prose doesn’t follow a strict pattern or rhyme like poetry, it does employ most of the same techniques.
- Assonance contributes to smooth flow.
- You won’t write fiction in meter, per se, but how you arrange accented and unaccented syllables affects pacing.
- Similes and metaphors are the lifeblood of emotion-evoking descriptions.
- The reader’s interpretation hinges on individual words. A forest where animals roam paints an entirely different picture than one with beasts.
Consider this legendary excerpt from Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Aren’t the words delicious? You can’t deny that he’s a master of metaphor.
“Go out in the early days of winter, after the first cold snap of the season. Find a pool of water with a sheet of ice across the top, still fresh and new and clear as glass. Near the shore the ice will hold you. Slide out farther. Farther. Eventually, you’ll find the place where the surface just barely bears your weight. There you will feel what I felt. The ice splinters under your feet. Look down and you can see the white cracks darting through the ice like mad, elaborate spiderwebs. It is perfectly silent, but you can feel the sudden sharp vibrations through the bottoms of your feet. That is what happened when Denna smiled at me. I don’t mean to imply I felt as if I stood on brittle ice about to give way beneath me. No. I felt like the ice itself, suddenly shattered, with cracks spiraling out from where she had touched my chest. The only reason I held together was because my thousand pieces were all leaning together. If I moved, I feared I would fall apart.”
3. Poetry Enriches Your Thoughts
Has a word ever perched on the tip of your tongue, only to be washed away as you realize the idea floating through your mind is inexpressible? When words evade us, poetry fills the void.
I’ve often stepped back from my laptop with an itch that I’m missing something. The emotions indwelling the scene surpass the sentences I’ve typed. Truth is hidden in the subtle shadows where readers might not detect it. I have to turn on the poetic side of my brain and pace for several moments before I can condense a complex concept into a few words. I may fall short, but after a couple tries, I can usually identify the phantom feeling. (The above example from Name of the Wind demonstrates what the result of this exercise could look like.)
On the fourteenth episode of the Story Embers Podcast, we discussed how to balance Christian orthodoxy while presenting truths that readers either aren’t expecting or haven’t heard a hundred times before. I believe these revelations reside exclusively in the recesses of a poet’s mind. Poets prefer the road less traveled and search for secrets to bring to light.
I recently started reading The Descent into Hell by one of the Inklings. Though I eventually put it down because the style and plot were too dense for my taste, its message that good is terrible fascinated me. This isn’t necessarily a new doctrine (“holy” has a similar meaning in Christian theology), but it’s one that’s rarely conceived without meditation. The rigors of poetry will train you to reach for greater depths that could set your books apart.
Go Forth and Write Poetry
Though strange and wild, poetry is not a medium to get hopelessly tangled in (unless you’re passionate about it). It’s a path to finding your way forward. Draft a poem this week and let it teach you new insights about story craft.
Get lost in the labyrinths of your imagination. Explore the themes of your heart. Manipulate words into straight lines that ascend to the sublime. And watch for Graham’s article on Thursday, when he’ll explain how to strengthen your imagery through poetry.
Many moons ago, a series of suspiciously providential events led Daeus to cast his lot among the worldwide community of Christian storytellers. Since then, no reports indicate that he has come back out. Perhaps he is lost among those fine gallivanters forever. Rest in peace, Daeus Lamb.
Daeus dreams impossibly large (which doesn’t bother him a bit) and tends to bite off more than he can chew. Watch this in action as he tries to capture the depths of the fantasy genre on his YouTube channel, or as he seeks to express the meaning of life in just a short novelette. (Psst. It’s a popular little book called God of Manna and you can get it for free here.)