It’s been a good couple of weeks! Lots of relentless application of the nose to the grindstone, which has resulted in my long-awaited completion of the first draft of Orion’s Huntress. This book is the first installment of a new space opera series which centers on the all-female crew of the ship Orion’s Huntress, as they embark on adventures. It’s set in the same universe as my Forgotten Stars books, but there is no overlap at all (and I’m not even sure where they occur with regard to one another on a timeline). This is a series of more adult-themed adventures. I’ll be honest and admit that the main reason I set this series in the same universe as the other is to save myself some worldbuilding time. But, as Lt. Uhura once noted, “It’s a big galaxy, Mr. Scott!”
And now that this draft is finally done, I’m moving onto a bunch of long-overdue editing tasks. Counting Orion’s Huntress I now have five novel manuscripts awaiting first mark-ups, so I’m going to be focusing on that probably right up to November. First up is the initial markups of The Savior Worlds, book IV of The Song of Forgotten Stars. Then will be either the sequel to The Chilling Killing Wind or the untitled man-versus-nature supernatural thriller I drafted a few years back and have left fallow ever since. If time permits I’ll get through both of those, but if I only have time for one, it will probably be the man-v-nature story, and then I’ll edit Seaflame! Book One, because my hope and goal is to use this year’s NaNoWriMo to start Book Two of that one. (It will be a duology, and almost two halves of one very big book.)
So, here we go into The Savior Worlds!
Onward and upward! Zap! Pow!! Excelsior, Star Warriors!
Well, as with anything, there are several ways to go about the job of reading more poetry. There are a lot of collections out there that are meant as introductions to poetry. Some of these are the school-textbook kind of thing where you’ll learn about rhyme and meter and the difference between a haiku and a sonnet and all that, and those are excellent starting points, if you’re looking to learn mechanics.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with learning mechanics! If that’s your approach, great. It wasn’t my approach, but it’s valid and anyway, later on when you’ve discovered that you really do love poetry and you’re not nearly as intimidated by it anymore
But maybe you want to start right out with poetry. Maybe you want to dive right in! Good for you! That’s exactly the approach I advise. Poetry is there to be read, first and foremost. There’s plenty of time later for rhyme, meter, allusion, theme, secondary meanings, and all the other stuff. Jump right in, says I!
So, where would be a good place to start?
One possibility is a collection of “light” poetry or of old ballads and narrative poems. It might be easiest to start your journey into verse if the forms are familiar enough that you can recognize a joke or a story in the verse.
Take a poem like The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, which starts thusly:
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees. The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas. The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor, And the highwayman came riding— Riding—riding— The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin, A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin. They fitted with never a wrinkle. His boots were up to the thigh. And he rode with a jewelled twinkle, His pistol butts a-twinkle, His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.
Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard. He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred. He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter, Bess, the landlord’s daughter, Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.
“The Highwayman”, Alfred Noyes
Now that will certainly catch your attention, won’t it? You want to know the rest of the story, and you barely realize it’s in poetic form, even as the internal rhymes of the stanzas work their magic and even as the rhythm of the words propel you forward. (You can read the remainder of The Highwaymanhere.)
You should also read poetry aloud, if you can; or, failing that, at least speak the words silently, so you can get a sense of how the words “feel”. Much of poetry’s effect is gained through auditory effect, how the poet arranges sounds and the rhythms inherent in the placing of the words. As you gain experience, you’ll find it less necessary to do this–but by this time, it might be sufficiently ingrained in your poetry-reading experience that you keep doing it. I certainly do.
So where do you find all that poetry? In poetry books, of course! But where do you find poetry books? In bookstores, of course!
To start with, you might want to look for wide collections. The Oxford Book of English Verse is a stalwart, as are other collections of American poetry. I’ll assume that the library of the discerning reader and budding writer already has at least one Complete Shakespeare, which is a great source of lots of poetry. (In fact, if you can read Shakespeare with even a modicum of comprehension, you’re well on the way to being able to read a lot of poetry.) There are also many good themed collections that gather poems around specific subjects: War poetry, music poetry, and of course, love poetry. Picking up a few of these is always a good idea.
Used bookstores and library book sales are wonderful ways to bolster one’s poetry collection. When the books are cheap, you can buy with a lot more abandon, which means you can get a lot more experimental with your poetry collection. You’ll find old compilations that reflect earlier tastes, or collections of poets who are mainly forgotten these days. Even editions of The Oxford Book from decades ago are worth picking up cheaply, because they will contain many poems the current edition does not. Don’t sweat the duplication too much.
Next time I will recommend some of my favorite poetry books! Until then, see you around the Galaxy!
[I posted Part One of this post last year, but then…well, last year wasn’t the best ever in terms of my posting and blogging regularity. I’m trying to do better this year, so we’re gonna try this again.]
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.