The Poetry of Prose:
An Argument for Poetry to Improve your Fiction
by EA Robins
Originally published by The FSF Writer's Alliance 1/30/23
Second publication by DL Lewellyn 2/10/23
“I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word.
Sometimes I write one, and look at it, until it begins to shine.”
– Emily Dickinson
Poetry, to many, is a witch word. There are few terms in any language so misunderstood, so exalted and yet so feared, undeniably desired and yet banished to the fog-filled boundaries of our literary mastery as poetry. Still, in this exile, we find ourselves peering into the pulsating darkness and wondering what gifts this sorcerer might bestow on us, if only we have the courage to walk the haunted woods of her domain.
I write this introduction with tongue firmly lodged in cheek, not to mock the sincere but to demonstrate that for many of us our fear of poetry is self-imposed and born of inexperience rather than lack of faculty or intellect. What so many of us recognize as poetry is the careful curation of discriminatory education, predominantly concerned with caricatures of academic ideals. A boorish method that often leads to intense disillusionment and establishes a strong distaste for the subject.
This little essay is meant to assure you that poetry does not belong to an elitist erudite class, but has always been the voice of the everyman and that including this genre in your reading and writing practice can only strengthen your skill set as an author. This declaration begs elucidation.
Poetry is the melodic condensation of emotional truth, a distilling of poignant phenomena that resonates with what we are familiar with as the human experience. The adage, “write what you know” is just as true for poets as it is for fiction authors. Poetry dances with the same themes, the same conflicts, the same resolutions as prose, but the music is different.
This brings me to the first great advantage of having a working knowledge of poetics, what I will call lyricism. Lyricism is the tempo (or speed) and melody (or flow/style) of writing. This is the heartbeat of your written language, telling your reader when to breathe, what to stress, which moment in your passage is meant to make their pulse quicken. Lyricism is refined syntax, an established practice for poets. It can be seen in the traditional and rigid structure of classical poetry forms; sonnets, ballads, elegies, and more. These patterned compositions make use of couplets, quatrains, rhyming words, meter, the base pieces of what can elevate other writing genres.
This “forcing” of language into such unyielding constructs brings us to the dual nature and importance of word choice. As writers, we are encouraged to be concise. Playwright William Shakespeare said, “Men of few words are the best men.” In conversation and lecture, I could not agree more. Yet, there is a sublime dullness in the essay (or poem, or book) that is too concise and lacks the embellishment of an elegant turn of phrase, words selected for their delightful enchantments, not their stark utilitarianism.
It is in poetry that we find these apparent oppositions, conciseness and beautification, magnificently wed into a singular form. The established measure and expected divinity of poetry demand this flawless integration. While it would be unreasonable to expect a continuous five-syllable rhyme scheme in a novel, the traits of conscientious word choice and awareness of lexical significance is one that readily translates.
Lyricism gives us music, conciseness ensures our reader’s attention, and beautification transforms our writing into storytelling and song, art forms that captivate and excite. Reading and writing poetry will not make us good authors. However, an observation (if not an enjoyment) of these elements can only enhance the skills and experience of any writer.
I will conclude my argument for the poetic enrichment of our literary practices with a cheap and obvious parting shot. By reading and writing poetry, we find ourselves in most exalted company. Many famous, well-versed authors were deeply inspired and influenced by poems that had so profoundly resonated with them that full, influential novels, and even series, have been birthed. The title of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was taken from the poem “Sympathy” by American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Of Mice and Men, one of Steinbeck’s most famous novels, was inspired by poet Robert Burn’s “To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with a Plough”. And, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” is a narrative piece by Robert Brown and the impetus for Stephen King’s eight novel series, The Dark Tower.
Poetry is not a replacement for the reading of various fictional work, but a supplement to enhance our understanding of the possibility of a personal writing evolution. Every literary experience influences our practice, allowing us to improve our creative methods. Reading the work of poets gives us jeweled insight that we may pry loose and set in a literary framework of our own device.