I was skeptical of poetry for many years. Maybe because it's such a demanding form that a lot of the poetry that's out there isn't really great. Then I began to discover poets who blew me away, and realized how varied poetry is, and how important it is for fiction writers to find poetry that speaks to them and resonates deep within them. I believe this applies to all types of fiction writers in all genres, whether literary of YA fantasy or mystery or any other.
Why? Because an awareness of and love for words, and a sense of how to use words to have the greatest impact and be the most compelling, are keys to good writing that we can learn from poetry. We want to write in a way that uses clear, meaningful combinations of words that seem simple and specific (even when the phrases are metaphorical), and that both communicate the message we are trying to get across, and do that in a way that is fresh, sometimes surprising, and has—especially at moments of emphasis—a beat. Those qualities are guaranteed to draw readers in. Literary agents and publishers are always hoping for exactly that type of writing.
Great poetry can help us get there. If we read it out loud on a regular basis, to hear and feel the rhythms and the impact of the word combinations, it helps us get there faster.
Last week I posted about Ann Patchett's excellent sentences, and how they draw me back to her writing even when I think I'm tired of reading. If you scrolled down to her LA TIMES interview at the bottom of the post, you no doubt saw that she believes every writer should have a deep love of poetry from the time they are a child.
While I agree that being transported by poetry as a child can give writers a big advantage in developing their own successful writing style, it's not an advantage that can only be obtained in childhood. We can learn this skill at a later age. Contemporary brain scientists have discovered that our neurons are incredibly adaptable—if we spend time regularly practicing an ability, the neural capacity for that ability grows physically within our brains, making us more naturally adept at performing it. This is true at any age.
One of the poets whose work I love is W. B. Yeats. He published poems over a forty-year timespan—from 1899 until the late 1930s. Below is one of my favorites of his poems. It's about a man at the end of a stellar career in the public eye, realizing how much of his achievement in climbing the ladder of success was built on showmanship using props (circus animals, as he calls them), rather than meaning; and how, having come full circle, he feels empty at this late stage—back to "the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."
The Circus Animals' Desertion
by W. B. Yeats
I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so,
Maybe at last being but a broken man
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.
What can I but enumerate old themes,
First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his fairy bride.
And then a counter-truth filled out its play,
'The Countess Cathleen' was the name I gave it,
She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away
But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
I thought my dear must her own soul destroy
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
This dream itself had all my thought and love.
And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
Heart mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love
And not those things that they were emblems of.
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
If you read this poem out loud a couple of times, does it affect you?
Do you have a favorite poet? Is his or her work oriented toward nature, or fantasy, or love, or futurism, or something else?