Saturday, July 30, 2016

Poetry for Prose: Make Your Fiction Sing

By Maggie King

Write what you know. This mantra is drummed into the heads of writers, especially those of us at the start of our careers. But today I’m writing about what I don’t know—poetry. Specifically turning to poetry to make my fiction come alive with music.

I’ve been intrigued with this idea since I read This Year You Write Your Novel, an instructional and motivational book by Walter Mosley. Yes, that Walter Mosley, prolific writer in many genres and best-known as creator of the bestselling historical crime series featuring Easy Rawlins. Mr. Mosley considers poetry to be the basis of all writing and suggests that reading, writing, and studying poetry gives fiction writers a deeper appreciation of the nuances of language. He has taken several poetry workshops at the City College of New York in Harlem and, although he says he has failed to turn out “even a passable poem,” he’s confident that what he learned from the workshops has benefitted his fiction.  

Here’s an excerpt from This Year You Write Your Novel:

Of all writing, the discipline in poetry is the most demanding. You have to learn to distill what you mean into the most economic and at the same time the most elegant and accurate language. In poetry you have to see language as both music and content. A poet must be the master of simile, metaphor, and form, and of the precise use of vernacular and grammar, implication and innuendo. The poet has to be able to create symbols that are muted and yet undeniable. The poet, above all other writers, must know how to edit out the extraneous, received, repetitious, and misleading. A poet will ask herself, “Why did I use that word, and how will that usage affect meaning later in the poem when the same word is used again? A similar word?”

The poet seeks perfection in every line and sentence; she demands flawlessness of form.

If the fiction writer demands half of what the poet asks of herself, then that writer will render an exquisitely written novel.

Think in terms of music. As Mr. Mosley states, “In poetry you have to see language as both music and content.” My husband, Glen King, is a songwriter and knows the importance of marrying music with content. Author Louise Erdrich, originally a poet, transitioned from poetry to fiction in 1980. Poetry infuses her beautifully written, lyrical prose.

In my long ago school days, I enjoyed reading poetry, particularly the works of Samuel Coleridge. I tried my hand at poetry as a way to cope with my considerable teenage angst. I still have those poems (don’t worry, I won’t share!).

So, take Walter Mosley’s advice and sign up for a poetry workshop. You may not become a poet, but you will come to appreciate language in new ways that will make your fiction come alive. If you can’t find a workshop in your community, check online sources.

Who knows … you may become a regular at poetry slams.

 Online poetry workshops
Key “online poetry workshops” in a search engine or visit the following sites:

Gotham Writers

Lighthouse Writers Workshop

Poets&Writers: Writers Conferences, Colonies, and Workshops

For further reading
Norton Anthology of Poetry 5th Edition

This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley


Charles Gramlich said...

I agree absolutely. I love the musical qualities of language. Prose without poetry can be good if the story is good, but it only becomes masterful to me if it has beauty and rhythm too

Maggie said...

Charles, thanks for your comment. Authors also need to consider language and rhythm for audio books.

Amy Reade said...

Congratulations on your first post, Maggie! There are some writers who are able to communicate in a style that is lyrical, almost musical. I have a hard time with poetry because there's so much meaning I just don't understand. I'm wondering if a Poetry for Dummies or similar book exists I could read instead of making a fool of myself at a workshop or conference. I could also read in my pajamas. :)

Maggie said...

Amy, I'm all for reading in my pjs! Yes, poetry is daunting for me. But I might give it a shot one of these days.

jrlindermuth said...

Anyone who has ever tried writing a poem (and who hasn't?)knows how difficult it is. Poet Kim Addonizio said elements necessary to good poetry include surprise, music, detail, sufficient thought, syntax and mystery. How that's achieved is the hard part. Another admirer of Coleridge here.

Linda Thorne said...

John, I stopped writing poems when I was a teenager. They are, like you said, difficult to write. When I publish my next book, I'll be publishing one of those teenage poems. It's my favorite and will have a small role in the plot.
Maggie, you've introduced another self-help book. Just when I thought I'd seen them all, this one appears.

Maggie said...

John, I feel that poetry's the ultimate use of language. Linda, I don't think we'll ever run out of self-help books!One of my favorites is YOU CAN WRITE A MYSTERY, by Gillian Roberts

Jewel Amethyst said...

I began my journey to authorhood with poetry, though I have yet to publish an anthology. The rhythm is one of the most important things in poetry writing I think even more important than the prose.

Liane Spicer said...

Welcome to Novel Spaces, Maggie! Another poetry lover here. I even did a course on writing poetry a few years ago to challenge myself, and I won a haiku competition once, but I most emphatically do not consider myself a poet. A poet friend told me she can spend as much as a year perfecting a single poem. I'm way too impatient for that.

I do admire prose that's written with the precision and nuance of poetry. I'm able to love a compelling story written in pedestrian language, and sometimes nothing else would suffice, but good stories written poetically take me to a higher level of bliss. One I can think of offhand is The God of Small Things. A friend could not get past the first chapter because she considered the language too poetic, but I was hooked from the very first page.

amazon said...