Poetry Isn’t a Bad Word

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Want to know a secret? Some of the passages in my prose that people have complimented were actually written as poems. If you are a writer and wish to add a touch of lyricism, try reading or writing poetry.

The objective of most good modern poets is precisely the opposite of what people think it is. Modern free verse takes a story, strips it to its most elemental prose, removes unneeded grammar, and leaves one with visual imagery, emotional context, and the core of the idea the poet wishes to convey. Bad poets want you to know how full of angst their lives are. Good poets want you to close your eyes and feel it, without needing to discuss it. So, for places in my books where I want an emotional connection to the reader — for instance, just before a tragedy or action where the reader’s emotional barrier stops their identifying with the characters’ plight — I throw in a bit of poetry.

Now, I’m not suggesting that others read Yeats. However, I would recommend finding some good modern poets and see how they use language. Contrary to popular belief, we poets hate flowery language. Words should be sharp, like knives. Flowers are for gardens. I have actually converted full poems into prose and inserted them into stories. That’s probably a bit much for other folks, but you’d be amazed how a sentence of two of lyrical language can spice up a page.

Just make sure your lyricism doesn’t go overboard. How do you know if it’s too much? If the words you choose draw attention to themselves, it’s probably overkill. That is because you pull readers out of the story when they are stumbling over arcane vocabulary, wondering what the hell your brilliant analogy means. Poets want people to ponder the piece. Storytellers want you to get lost in the story.

This is why I recommend reading modern poets. They tend not to break the flow with ornate language. Take, for example, Amiri Baraka’s “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.”

Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus…

Things have come to that.

It’s pretty easy to see this as the start of a short story instead of a poem. The language is visual and auditory, but simple.

Try a little poem. It’s only a four-letter word.

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8 Replies to “Poetry Isn’t a Bad Word”

  1. I like your pieces on language. They’re short and clear and I don’t always agree but I think they’re very well put. ANd in this case I do agree, completely. The poem at the end is perfect, too.

  2. I’m no poetry expert, but I like what you’ve written about it. Poetry that does what you describe would do more for me than some I’ve read.

    1. Thanks. It struck me in the one poetry class I took, which was a “poets teachning poets” kind of class. I was simultaneously in a writing seminar, and found that none of the assumptions the novelists made about poets were true. Most poets I’ve encountered don’t like old poetry much more than anyone else. It bores the heck out of me, personally.

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