A poem finds its genesis in the itchy tingling of an intense emotion or complex idea that clamors for expression. Poetry offers rebellion to those oppressed by the mundane, the trivial; writing a good poem opens a portal to deeper understanding of one’s internal life and catharsis for difficult-to-express ideas and complex feelings.
How can writing poetry improve your prose?
First and foremost, poetry requires laser-precision diction. Often an intensive exploration of nuanced and complex ideas, good poetry demands an exhaustive search for le mot juste and discourages the use of empty and redundant words. Good poets compulsively avoid vague language, including weak and padded verbs, intensifiers and qualifiers, catch-all terms, generic adjectives, excessive pronouns, and cliche. Creating a poem is an obsessive hunt for language focused and rich enough to spark fresh, vibrant images in a reader’s mind. A natural logophile, the working poet’s already impressive vocabulary expands exponentially over time. If you find yourself dashing out a draft without agonizing over your wording, you may not be writing poetry well. Poets typically labor over words, killing unnecessary verbiage with the tenacity and objectivity of a literary Dexter Morgan. Obviously, a disciplined practice of scrutinizing word choices benefits the writer of any genre. In other words, the diction skills developed while writing poetry transfer to other forms of writing.
Writing poetry also offers a crash course in literary devices that will benefit your work in all genres. Do you remember what consonance and assonance are? How about synechdoche? Metonymy? Or even plain old personification, metaphor, and simile? What about everyday alliteration? Strong poets rub elbows frequently with all classes of literary devices. Such intimacy naturally inspires sharper, richer images and stronger fluency in writing. In other words, poets tend to pay conscious attention to the way language sounds (its music, its flow) and to the surprising comparisons possible when language is pushed beyond expected associations. Such attention to literary devices can and will improve all forms of writing.
Despite my harping about hard work, writing poetry is enjoyable. The sense of accomplishment from writing a poem brings great satisfaction. Then again, perhaps it helps to be a bit OCD. The perfectionist who, like me, must alphabetize all her books, DVDs, and vinyl will find obvious enjoyment in ferreting out the right words, the phrases that flow, fresh comparisons, and heady expressions of strong emotions or complex ideas. Like Dexter Morgan, I channel my perhaps unnatural urges for order into the art form that is a poem, and my OCD perfectionism is satisfied…for awhile. Until the next itching for expression starts.
If you don’t typically write poems, start now. Begin by reading excellent poetry. A great way to initiate yourself into the world of verse is to check out the Best American Poetry series. Or reread the classics. Either way, you’ll find examples of poetry that inspire. Ideas and language in the poems you read will resonate with you, and you’ll discover the incipient itching of a nascent poem demanding to be written. Poetry is, afterall, contagious. The only possible cure for the terrible itching tingle is writing a poem.
In closing and for inspiration, I’ll leave you with an excellent poem that celebrates the animalistic pleasure renowned poet Mark Strand finds in reading poetry:
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
The librarian does not believe what she sees.
and she walks with her hands in her dress.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.