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!

For Yeats: When You are Old and Gray …

A few weeks ago, I posted “Distractions, failures? Yeats had them, too,” about my visit to the National Library of Ireland, and what I learned about William Butler Yeats while I was there.

Today is Yeats’ birthday, so to honor him and spread the joy I’ve had in reading his poetry, I’m sharing one of his poems.  This is one of my favorites, both for its theme and for its slow, ethereal beauty.

When You Are Old

When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face among a crowd of stars.

Reprinted courtesy of poetry-archive.com.

At times, when I’m having difficulty getting the words right or my writing isn’t flowing, poetry helps me break through.  It gives me the in.  I don’t know if it’s the beauty of the words or the lyrical flow, but it opens up that part of my brain that’s not so uptight and rigid, and it allows me to write.

Do you use poetry this way? Do you have any favorite poems that stir your creativity?  Please share them here.

To learn more about William Butler Yeats or read more of his poetry, please visit the Yeats Society.

Distractions, failures? Yeats had them, too

William Butler Yeats, July 1911

Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.

− William Butler Yeats

Two weeks ago in Dublin, I had the chance to visit the National Library of Ireland.  Dublin is a city of literary landmarks, and I wanted to see every single one of them during the one day I was there.  Tourist map in hand, I rushed around the city like Rochester’s loony wife on a literary mission.

On my harried way to visit Oscar Wilde’s house, I nearly passed by the National Library, which I hadn’t heard about and wasn’t on my map.

National Library of Ireland

When I saw the huge old building and the “LIBRARY” sign above the invitingly open wrought-iron gate, I could not resist going in.  I’m so glad I did because beyond the architectural grandeur of the building, the Library currently features, The Life and Work of William Butler Yeats, one of the most in-depth and fascinating exhibits I’ve ever seen for a single writer.

Honestly, Yeats has not been one of my favorites.  I think the last time I read him was 9th grade English, but seeing this exhibit has prompted me to read his work again, and I must say, I’m enjoying it a lot more than I did when I was 14.

Displays included original manuscripts, videos, interactive exhibits, and a huge assortment of Yeats ephemera donated by Yeats’ wife and son.  But the display that stood out the most for me, and the one I most looked forward to sharing with the Silent Writers, was called The Creativity Questionnaire.

A researcher from Cambridge University attempting to analyze the creative effort sent Yeats the questionnaire.  The first question asked how Yeats responded to the initial creative impulses that led to starting a project. Yeats’ answers were completely human and made me think of those of us who struggle every time we sit down to write.

In response to question, Do you become absorbed in other activities? Yeats answered, “Detective Stories.”

ME, TOO! Except for me it’s detective shows, Law & Order, in particular.  Or it’s Twitter or Facebook or _________ (fill in the blank).

In response to question: Do you find that actual execution starts with a series of failed attempts to work?  Yeats answered, “Always.”

ME, TOO!

If someone with the prodigious talent of William Butler Yeats goes through this kind of struggle, but keeps on keeping on, we can take inspiration from that.  We can look at our own failed attempts or rejections and know that it’s the writer’s rite of passage.  Not that this takes the struggle away.  It doesn’t.  But understanding that it’s a universal experience for writers makes it easier to bear.

The next question asked:  Do you feel compelled to keep up these apparently fruitless attempts to work until you arrive at adequate expression?

Yeats answered, “Always.”

Well.  I can’t shout out, “Me, too” to that one, but it certainly is another lesson that can benefit all of us.  William Butler Yeats teaches us from that answer, and from the quote that opens this post, whether the iron is hot or not, we have to strike and strike and strike again until our work arrives at its own perfected expression.

Need a motivation boost? Join The Silent Writers Collective on Tuesdays at 9 PM Eastern and/or 9 PM Pacific (US) for the next Silent Write-In.