Friday, April 8, 2011

Poetry and Prose

 Georgia O'Keeffe New York with Moon

Since this is POETRY MONTH I thought I'd post something about how we novelists can benefit from the poet's labor of love. As I see it, POETRY is all about the pure pleasure of language, the way it can wash through you, bringing fresh images, giving sound and shape to thought. 

When I read a poem I let the language have its way with me, but I often return to those I'm particularly captivated by to understand why they reached more deeply inside me than others. Here are a few things that I admire in good poems and that I keep in mind while writing my prose.

Poets are an economical bunch. They use few, but powerful, multi-tasking words to create their stories. I think prose writers can learn so much about the fine art of word selection by reading poets, old and modern. 

Here's one of my favorite classics A Shady Friend for Torrid Days by Emily Dickinson.  In three stanzas she covers the ups and downs of human relationships and she does it with such tactile images.

A SHADY friend for torrid days   
Is easier to find   
Than one of higher temperature   
For frigid hour of mind.   
The vane a little to the east            5
Scares muslin souls away;   
If broadcloth breasts are firmer   
Than those of organdy,   
Who is to blame? The weaver?   
Ah! the bewildering thread!            10
The tapestries of paradise   
So notelessly are made!
Poets weave the sounds of their language in such a way that they create special rhythms and harmonies.

I can't read Vachel Lindsay without hearing the beat of the drums or feeling the heat of The Congo. It's not among my favorites, but it's one I hear long after reading

Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.

Sandberg brings the city of Chicago to life as no tourist guide book could ever do. Read these lines and you are there as the poet was those many years ago.

HOG Butcher for the World,
     Tool Maker, 
Stacker of Wheat,
     Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
     Stormy, husky, brawling,
     City of the Big Shoulders:

Poets create levels of meaning and establish tone through sound. Here prose writers can have one of those "field days" and harvest all kinds of ideas from poets to enhance their prose.

Alliteration: The repetition of the inital consonant sounds.

 Haunted with shadows of hunger hands, The Harbor, Sandberg

Assonance: The repetition of vowel sounds.

Silver bark of beech and hollow
Stem of elder, tall and yellow
                                      Twig of willow. Counting-Out Rhyme, Millay

Connance: The repetition of the final consonant sounds.

Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.

The possibilities of combining these poetic devices are limitless and so necessary for the novelist to be aware of. Nothing is more off putting than a super plot and plodding prose. I think I should do some editing about now, keeping all that I've said in mind.

Do you have a favorite poet or a piece of prose that thrills you when you read it? Want to share it and why it appeals to you so much? I'd love to read what you enjoy reading.



  1. My favourite poem is 50/50 between Ozymandius by Percy Bysse Shelley and Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. With your permission I'll reveal the first lines.
    'I met a traveller from an antique land...' This is Ozymandius who is Ramesses an ancient Egyption ruler. The poem is inspired by the remains of his statue which is now in the British museum in London. Shelley wrote it as part of a bet with a friend to write a poem about a moral that mighty kings eventually fall and leave nothing.
    'In Xanadu did Kubla Khan...' was supposed to be a poem that came complete in a dream to Coleridge who woke up and frantically tried to write it down, but he was famously interrupted by a 'person on business from Porlock' and when the person left he tried to finish the poem but had forgotten the rest of it, which is why it remains unfinished.
    What I love about both poems is that they take the reader away to exotic far off lands in such few words. But also I love the fact that both have interesting stories surrounding the writing of them. They are both must reads in my eyes.

  2. Oh this was AWESOME! It makes me want to go write. :D Thank you.

  3. There is something inspirational about poetry. I always want to "write something" after I read it.

    Loved the stories behind those wonderful poems, Christopher. Thanks for sharing them here.

  4. Didn't Carl Sandburg also write about San Francisco and fog and cat feet?

    I'm particularly fond of William Butler Yeats's early works.

    I've always had a bit of envy for those who write poetry. My seems so clumsy in comparison.

  5. Yes, Bish. I love that image of fog and the cat feet. WB Yeats is always a joy.

    We need to read more of it. IMHO.

  6. Great post, C.Lee. I wasn't familiar with that poem by Emily D., but I'm going to write it off and memorize it now!

  7. Hey C.Lee. Great post and one that rings true for me. I think I often fall foul of the poet that lives on my left shoulder. She whispers lilting words into my ears when I write and I often have to shush her into silence.
    My writing is very much influenced by the poet in me - I often look for the way a paragraph reads in the length of the sentences and the sound of the words as I read the paragraph aloud.

    I sometimes think that some writers have a natural instinct for the rhythm of words and thats what draws us deeper into their stories.
    Great post and some pretty astute musings from your commenters.

  8. Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass remains my fave.
    And as far as lyrical, poetic prose, Ray Bradbury's novels do it for me.

  9. My grandmother loved Tennyson. I remember her thick book of his work and how fascinated I was by it as a girl. She kept it in a special place but sat with it unopened on her lap quite frequently. And at times she would read from it. So here's to Tennyson and to my grandmother's appreciation for his poetry! It's funny the things we remember -- the things that wind up being part of our adult lives one way or another.


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