Why Writers Should Read Poetry, part one (National Poetry Month)

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

–Randall Jarrell (1914-1965)

When the Lion at his pleasure comes
To the watering place to drink, ah see!
See the lesser beasts of Al-Rassan
Scatter, like blown leaves in autumn,
Like air-borne seedlings in the spring,
Like grey clouds that part to let the first star
Of the god shine down upon the earth.

–Guy Gavriel Kay, from The Lions of Al-Rassan

April is National Poetry Month, so I’ll be doing some posting about poetry over the next few weeks, starting with this. Should writers read poetry? Should they write it? While I would never presume to tell writers what they should or should not write, I tend to think that the answers to both questions are Yes.

I have occasionally committed acts of poetry myself, but not very often, and as I don’t generally find the results particularly encouraging, I don’t intend to share them except as very brief excerpts in my fiction. I do, however, read a decent amount of poetry, and I firmly believe that all writers should do so.

It all comes down to what Stephen King called “the writer’s toolbox,” and his dictum that to be a good writer one must read a lot and write a lot. Reading a lot extends a writer’s grasp, and reading poetry extends it in ways that reading a lot of fiction does not. If writing is likened to carpentry–extending Mr. King’s metaphor a bit–than reading poetry is like learning entirely new methods and techniques. A new way to stain a piece of wood, say, or perhaps a new method of joinery.

While poetry can certainly be read for its technical aspects, I find myself concentrating much less these days on things like rhyme or meter than I did when I was reading poetry in school. What I’m after now is the language itself. I read poetry to see, in new ways, just what language can really do.

Consider metaphor. Here’s a poem called “Up-Hill”, by Christina Rosetti:

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.

I suppose the metaphor here is pretty obvious: the road that is being walked here is life itself, and the inn at the end that cannot be missed and has beds for all who come is death. That’s not especially hard to see. But the craft of the metaphor is what’s interesting here, and in my experience, metaphor is best explored via an industrious reading of the poets.

Then there is description. Writers often worry about description: what’s too much, what’s too little, which details are best to utilize in painting a word-picture, which details are best left aside. As much as I love the work of JRR Tolkien, Alexandre Dumas, and Victor Hugo, the fact is that writers these days are not given as much space to craft their descriptions as in decades or centuries past, so we have to be careful.

This is where reading poetry can help us. Take this short verse by Tran Nhan-tong, a Vietnamese emperor and poet who lived from 1258 to 1308:

The willows trail such glory that the birds are struck dumb.
Evening clouds balance above the eave-shaded hall.
A friend comes, not for conversation,
But to lean on the balustrade and watch the turquoise sky.

(translated by Nguyen Ngoc Bich, in the collection World Poetry)

So few details! In fact, there are almost no details given here, just statements of fact. But can anyone read this and not create a mental picture of a summer evening, looking out at the willows beneath a turquoise sky dotted with clouds? If they can, I don’t know how.

And then there is rhyme and meter and alliteration and all the other various things that our high school English teachers tried teaching us. Those are all wonderful tools that you can use in your storytelling. For all our focus on things like plot, character, and world building, ultimately the spell that our stories cast is deeply dependent on how we use our language. That’s where so much of the real magic lies, and this is best learned by reading poetry with an eye to what the language is doing.

Next up: Where to start?

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