“But I’m Just Not Into Poetry.”

“But I’m just not into poetry.” – I’ve heard those words innumerable times from prose writers, both fiction and non-fiction, and it’s understandable. Not every writer aspires to be a poet. Prose writers aspire to short fiction, novellas, even full-length novels; poets strive for the most meaning in the least possible space. Both forms are equally valid. The world needs story tellers. The world needs poets.

I have a theory — Actually, I have lots of theories, but for the sake of this post as well as your eyeballs and my fingers I’ll stick to the theory at hand. Simply put, I believe that in order to become a powerful prose writer, one whose work holds a reader’s attention, we must embrace the two most fundamental concepts of poetry: brevity and the sounds of words.

Brevity and the sounds of words may seem like simple concepts, and in their most basic form they are. Brevity involves getting to the point; words have distinct sounds. Unfortunately, most beginning writers, while they understand the definition of brevity, rarely apply it in their prose and even less often give much thought to the sounds of the words they choose.

Remember when you were in school and the teacher assigned an essay? What primary guideline did they impose? If your teachers were like mine, that guideline went something like this: “I want 2,000 words on the subject of…”

It didn’t matter whether the essay made sense or not; you flooded your pages with 2,000 words, convinced an “A” was in your future. We are taught early on that filling pages is an indicator of thought devoted to a subject. And that’s what many writers do. We fill pages, boring or not.

Ever attempt to tell a joke, one with a lengthy lead-in and lots of details? It’s likely at some point your audience took on that “deer in the headlights” expression and made hurry-up motion with their hand. Impatience had struck. Your knee-slapping punch line brought no knee slaps and precious little laughter. Your joke flopped. Why? You lost your audience with all those words.

The same thing happens with prose, particularly in fiction. Readers become bored unless something happens in virtually every sentence. They become impatient and put the book, and by extension you the author, down. They believe the entire story is as uninteresting as the lines that bored them. Worse, they may believe everything you have written or will ever write is equally boring. Not good for sales.

Someone once said: “Use not one word more than necessary to tell your story.”

Poet Allen Ginsberg once told me: “First thought best thought.”

We writers seem forever caught between these two extremes, thinking our best thoughts include everything that flooded onto our page and using not one word more than necessary to tell our stories. Our position is simple: If all those words weren’t necessary they wouldn’t be there!

What Ginsberg meant by his advice wasn’t that everything that first comes to mind is the best end product we can produce; rather, he meant that our first thought is the idea we need to run with, let it flow onto pages. Revision is where we cut out every unnecessary word.

Brevity, or getting to the point, is the essence of a story that carries readers on a journey in the most direct yet interesting manner possible. The interplay of words and the sounds of words used to convey that essence helps to grip your readers’ imaginations in imperceptible ways that make them want more.

Think of your story as an automobile. Passengers climb in, and if the vehicle is a spine-twisting bucket of bolts they’ll quickly demand to be let out. On the other hand, if the ride is relatively comfortable and the scenery interesting they’ll remain aboard, at least for a while. Toss in rich leather seats, a concert hall audio system, climate control, smooth suspension and a fully stocked bar, now your passengers will not only remain aboard but be disappointed when the ride is over.

Brevity comprises your vehicle’s (your story’s) basic structure that gets readers there; the words you choose to enclose and fill that structure are the esthetics that makes them glad they came.

Enter poetry…

When it comes to brevity, few writing forms cram more stuff into a tighter space than the haiku. The haiku is a traditional Japanese poetic form comprised of three lines, the first holding five syllables, the second seven and the third five (5-7-5). Although Haiku traditionally focus on seasonal changes, these days virtually any subject stuffed into the 5-7-5 haiku format is considered a haiku.

Take a look at this early Haiku by one of the art form’s earliest masters, Basho.

 

The old pond;
A frog jumps in -
The sound of the water.

Basho, 1686

 

In just seventeen words, Basho reveals a pond that has been around a while, a frog jumping and the fact that we can hear the sound of water. That we can hear the water suggests quiet, tranquility, peace — quite a lot for so few words.

Now let’s examine the last stanza from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost, 1916

 

Although I recommend reading the complete poem for context, it is also a truly memorable poem. However, this last of his four stanzas is remarkable in itself. Five lines, 35 words, and from these we see decisions, possibilities, reflection, thoughts of future, paths heavily and not so heavily traveled and, finally, consequences.

Yet the meaning is just part of what makes this poem memorable. Look closely at the words Frost chose in just the first two lines.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Hear all the s sounds? These are quiet sounds, sounds that help us hear silence, tranquility, aloneness.

Look closer still. Examine the stresses on each of the words. Hear how the words in each line alternate between stressed and soft sounds.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
soft-stress-soft-stress-soft-stress-soft-stress

Add to all of that the more obvious element of rhyme and you begin to understand the work that went into making this poem not only memorable but a classic.

“But I’m a fiction writer,” you say. “I’m just not into poetry.”

Fair enough. So let’s consider a line of fiction for a moment.

 

We drove to the beach in the old Ford and watched the sun drop below the horizon as we traveled.

 

It gets the idea across well enough: old Ford, a drive, a beach, sun.  Not too shabby for a first thought. Still, might there be ways to make it better? Let’s give it a try, this time borrowing from our poet friends.

 

Our ’56 Ford flew over dirt roads toward the sea as the sun slipped below the horizon.

 

Notice the difference? We still have old Ford, a drive, a beach, sun, but did it in two fewer words (okay, only one if you count “’56”). In addition, we now have the year of the car, which puts a picture in our mind, the type of road, and we have some really solid alliteration happening with all those f and s sounds: “’56 Ford flew” gives us the f sounds; the six in “’56,” the s in “roads,” “as,” and “sun slipped,” as well as the z in “horizon” give us the s sounds.

Besides sounding slick, those sounds accomplish something else: The hard stress of the f sound fits well with the mechanical nature of the vehicle and the roughness of a dirt road. Similarly, the soft s sounds fit well with water and the quiet nature of a sunset.

I’m sure if I lived with the line a while I might find even more ways to revise; still, this single, short sentence served its purpose in helping us explore ways in which applying poetic concepts to prose can make our words stronger. Imagine the power of a story wherein every line had been given such consideration. Think your readers might just hang in there for the entire trip?

I’m not saying you need to convert to poetry. But learning to appreciate poetry and employ poetic elements in your prose will make your words richer and more memorable. Any writer can get his or her first thought on a page. It takes an excellent writer to do the revision work necessary to make those thoughts enjoyable and to share them with not one word more than necessary.

 

© Bill Weiss – Writersblog, 2011

 

 

 

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About Bill Weiss

Bill Weiss is a creative and freelance writer and founder of the Writerspark creative writing group.
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