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:
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