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Why Novelists Need to Stop Ignoring Poetry

October 21, 2019

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.

9 Comments

  1. ProfessorSJB

    I really loved this blog! I used to write a lot of haiku since I’m Japanese, but English poetry always felt kind of challenging for me. Now I’m a little more interested in it 🙂

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      Both forms are beautiful.

      I was actually born in Japan, but left when I was 4 months. I’d love to see it someday.

  2. Kassie

    I’ve always loved tinkering around with writing my own poems, and there’s some I love to read, but trying to study it I always get bogged down in the rules and complexity of it. I’ve written strictly metered poems and totally free verse poems and everything in between, but most things I’ve read about poetry try to pick sides between the two. Plus the poetry unit in my Lit book had this idea going of “poetry comes fine spun from a mind at peace,” which kinda turned me away from it.
    So to talk about poetry, I come across negative a lot, but behind the scenes I’m writing my heart out without any rules. 😉

    Reply
  3. Daeus Lamb

    “poetry comes fine spun from a mind at peace”

    😂 This is definitely not a requirement, fine though it may be.

    Reply
  4. Eden Anderson

    I love this! I’ve tried writing poetry before…but I am HORRIBLE. So I just stick with reading it. 🙃

    I look forward to reading the rest of the articles in this series!

    Reply
  5. Ryana Lynn

    Interesting perspective! I’m more of a ballads person, but I can see how poetry can definitely aid the writer. Now I need to pull out my book of Alfred Lord Tennyson…

    Reply
  6. Coralie

    I love poetry. It’s truly beautiful and has such a unique capacity to address strongly emotional topics. Poetry connects people, and it’s gotten me through some rough stuff as a personal outlet. I’ve never considered myself any good at poetry, but I do really enjoy reading it and tinkering with it on the side for fun sometimes.

    It’s really neat to think of poetry as a means to becoming a better fiction writer! Thanks for your article and this new perspective to consider!

    Reply
  7. Kristianne

    I totally agree. Too often writers overlook the value of incorporating poetry into their stories when it could really enhance their writing. I love reading books that include poetry or songs in them–for example, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, the Wingfeather Saga, and the Green Ember series. Poetry or song adds a whole new, wonderful level to an already great book!

    Reply

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