How Reading and Writing Poetry Can Improve Your Prose
Photo by Annie Spratt
Those unfamiliar with poetry often have very few experiences of it. They may think of Shakespeare, grade school, or the outpourings of the angsty teenage girl they once were. But in truth, when you peel back the host of stereotypes that make poetry feel less accessible—like the ornate language and lack of literal certainty—a poem is really a stylized short story.
When we understand this, it only makes sense that good poetry employs a lot of techniques that also make for good prose and highly effective fiction. Don’t believe us? Keep reading to learn how reading and writing poetry may help you solve some of your biggest fiction blunders.
An integral aspect of good poetry is economy of language. Poetry is like the ultimate game of Tetris; limited line lengths mean there’s no room for an extraneous word. Using language this meticulously requires you, the writer, to really mull over the perfect word—the one that most effectively and immediately evokes the action, atmosphere, and tone you are trying to convey. This is an excellent exercise for a writer! It stretches those creative and linguistic muscles and requires that you get creative with metaphors and similes that can express in three words what ten more conventionally put together words cannot. If you’re a fiction writer who tends to overwrite or use roundabout language, or fail to see the use or secret of the metaphor, then we urge you to brush up on some poetry and see how it’s done. And you don’t have to start too far from the tree: many of your favourite authors are poets, too.
In the following poem, Margaret Atwood uses only sixteen words—many of which are repeated!—to express the visceral simplicity of the power the subject has over the narrator.
“You fit into me like a hook into an eye
a fish hook an open eye.”
—Margaret Atwood, “You Fit Into Me”
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Show, Don’t Tell
Another classic “rule” you’re no doubt familiar with is show, don’t tell. In other words, present the action or the detail in a scene with vivid description (It was quiet when the sun rose. The dew left its flowery cups to rise in the warming air and gather like smoke above the garden.); do not summarize what happened as though to a neighbour after the fact (It was sunrise.). A similar process occurs in most poetry, allowing the imagery (especially detailed imagery) to become the focus. This is perhaps why most people raise a brow to this genre in the first place. Coupled with the limited structure, this attention to imagery can be rather confusing if the context for the poem isn’t already obvious. However, the poet’s tendency to show the reader also makes for a more engaging—and sensory—read. Not all narratives require a stating of all the facts, after all. We, the readers, are invited into a realm that it short-lived but immediate and often intense. It’s experiential as opposed pure to entertainment. While narrative structure is more common in fiction, the same basic rule can be applied to create beautiful prose: an emphasis on imagery and detail makes your writing all the more vivid and engaging. You won’t be able to give every single scene the same detailed approach, but when you do you’ll have them hooked. In the following poem, Benning uses a list of detailed imagery in order to set the scene, rather than using exposition. This technique allows the reader to immerse themselves in the scene.
“In near dark, when she’s almost asleep. Smell of coming rain, wet wool. A spore of the farm rises in her. Animals, shadow-pulse. Her father in the barn. Rubber boots. Manure. Open door cedar-light. Kitchen window weeping the beet soup loam, sweat of someone you love. Hands thick with work and cold around a hot bowl. Autumn dusk in bled cloud — loose straw, spilled oil, a concrete floor. Stream’s in-between-breath pause. Stars, tin, a drink of well-water.
as when you pull a stone from the river, and hold it in your palm. The light is wrong.”
—Sheri Benning, “What it tastes like (frost)”
Varying the Line Lengths
Perhaps the most visible difference between poetry and prose is the structure. Unlike prose, in which a sentence ends with punctuation, poetry uses lines of varied lengths to emphasize sound and create tension within the poem. We’re not suggesting that you present a prose manuscript full of sentences containing one or two words; however, emphasizing sound through varied sentence lengths and structures is a key element of successful writing in any genre. One especially rewarding place in which to experiment with cadence and line length is in dialogue and/or narrative voice. What are the idiosyncracies of a particular character’s speech and how do they affect the structure and rhythm of their speech patterns, as well as their diction? How might each character speak or describe their surroundings? Each will, of course, do so differently. Virginia Woolf famously said, “Style is a very simple matter; it’s all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words.” Although an author’s particular rhythm may not be obvious while you’re reading it (not as obvious, for example, as a poet’s use of iambic pentameter), it’s under the surface of every good book—especially the ones you can’t put down. Though Plath uses some rhyme in her famous poem “Daddy,” the rhythm of the poem is what holds the reader when everything else feels disparate and strange; the elements are contained within consistent line lengths yet distingusihed by varied punctuation.
“You do not do, you do not do Any more, black shoe In which I have lived like a foot For thirty years, poor and white, Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
Daddy, I have had to kill you. You died before I had time—— Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, Ghastly statue with one gray toe Big as a Frisco seal
And a head in the freakish Atlantic Where it pours bean green over blue In the waters off beautiful Nauset. I used to pray to recover you. Ach, du.”
—Sylvia Plath, excerpt from “Daddy”
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Editor, Writer & Founder of JEC. She's inspired, most often, to write about writing and how women (writers) can fix the world. She has a lot of opinions, actually.
Hayley is Copy Editor/ Editing Ninja for JEC. She is also an arts journalist for several online publications including Scene 360 and Illusion Magazine.
Georgia is JEC's Content Writer, a published poet, and past Poetry Editor for This Side of West, Modern and Contemporary Genre Editor for TheAlbatross, and Contributing Writer for The Martlet and Saltern Magazine.
Jaime is a Research Curator at Royal Roads University and as such knows a thing or two re: communications. She is JEC's Communications Specialist.