Learning to Love Poetry Can Strengthen Your Prose

Last week when I posted “When You Are Old” in honor of William Butler Yeats’ birthday,  I wrote that I sometimes use poetry to inspire my writing or help get the words moving when I’m stuck.

Writer Kevin Mackey and others who commented on the post said they do the same.

“I use poetry to remind myself of the beauty that can be wrung from language. It acts as a spur to my own efforts,” Kevin said.

Other comments and conversations I’ve had since then echo Kevin’s thoughts.  But it’s confession time:  I didn’t always like poetry.  I often felt it was inaccessible and that made me feel left out, annoyed, and a little bit dumb.

I stayed away for a while, but I knew there was value in poetry and that I could learn from it.  I wanted to find a way in.  Over time with some effort I finally did.  I’ve learned to appreciate poetry for its precision and imagery, and not strictly for its literal meaning.  “The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide” by Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate was particularly helpful.  It’s a tiny book that uses examples to explain how poetry uses the sounds of words to convey meaning in a rich, melodic, and concise way that keeps the reader entranced.  As a writer, I aspire to that.

To use poetry to strengthen your writing, consider these elements that help make a poem a poem.

Sound: As Pinsky says in “The Sounds of Poetry,” poets use the sounds of words to make an impact.  That can be done through repetition, alliteration, assonance, varied word lengths, onomatopoeia, and on and on (and on).

Try it in your own writing.  Are you working on something that is light-hearted? High drama? Horror? Choose words to convey that feeling, not based simply on meaning, but based on sound.  Do it in an over-exaggerated way.  Let yourself have fun with it.  You can fix it in revision, but you might find that what you’ve come up with is strong and vivid.

Precision: Don’t stop at using the right word or getting the scene right.  Keep on writing (and rewriting) until it conveys the most information without overwhelming.  Think about what other senses can be alerted to engage the reader.  If your character is nervous, how can you show it through his senses.  He feels his hands shaking.  He hears his heart pounding.

Precision doesn’t stop there.  Prose does not have the format limitations of poetry, but it’s equally important to avoid unnecessary words, whether in the form of clichés, useless adjectives, or  pleonasms, a form of redundancy, such as past history and consensus of opinion.

Of course, there is far more to poetry than just sound and precision, but adding these two elements to your writing and revising will make a richer experience for  you and your reader.

For information on “How to Read a Poem (and Fall in Love with Poetry),” this post from the Poetry Foundation is loaded with great insight.  It’s a wonderful site, too!


9 thoughts on “Learning to Love Poetry Can Strengthen Your Prose

  1. Great post Olivia. I love to play with words that sound fun, yet I don’t do it nearly often enough.

    Thanks so much for the link to the poetry site – it looks like a place I’ll “waste” some time. 🙂

    A few of my favorite words, just for the sound of them: plethora, crush, evanescence, quagmire, ersatz, epitome….

  2. Good info here. As a teenager I thought of myself as a visual artist who liked poetry. Even so the world of poetry seemed vast and inaccessible. One day I read a poem by John Berryman that literally opened my eyes. One of the lines goes: “Like the sunburst up the white breast of a black-footed penguin.” Suddenly I got it. I saw the language at the same time that I heard it. There was no turning back from there.

  3. Deanna, Time is never wasted in the pursuit of writing, right? I’ve got a notebook where I write words or quotes that speak to me in some way. I leaf through it to remind me of the many ways words can be more than just words.

    Mark, That is a great line and I find it touching that that you can still quote it and remember the
    moment. My “I get it” moment was when I read Peeling an Orange” by Virginia Hamilton Adair. You can read it here: http://www.csupomona.edu/~library/specialcollections/adair/drafts.html

  4. Fabulous post. I find my poetry fuels my prose, and vice versa. But both are very different, too; I find it hard at times to shed my poetic voice when writing fiction.

    But for me the beauty of writing poetry before writing fiction is it makes me focus on the meaning of EACH word, it’s placement, it’s sound.

    My ‘ah-ha’ moment came in my sophomore college year in an amazing class called the oral interpretation of literature. My final was THE CONGO by Vachel Linsday…

    “Fat black bucks in a wine barrel house room, sagged and reeled and pounded on the table, pounded on the table hard as they were able, with a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom, boomlay-boomlay-boomlay- boom!”


  5. Olivia ~ I love that someone (you) has taken time to put into “poetic words” that which cannot be found in common vernacular… I enjoy playing with “flowery” words and trying to say the most in the least amount of words… it’s something I continually strive for in my writing, and your blog here sort of validates that, so thank you. 🙂 I wholeheartedly support the use of poetry to get the words flowing… and even for those who don’t “get” poetry, doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed… my sister reads my stuff sometimes and says, “Shawna, I know your stuff is goo, but I just don’t GET it.” ha! *sigh*

    Carry on. 🙂

  6. What they all said, Olivia. And what you said too. How’s that for a “me too” comment.

    Just wanted to say you hit many nails on the head in this entry.


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