The Seven Gifts: What Poetry Offers Prose Writers
October 30, 2019 § 22 Comments
By Emily K. Michael
As a writing teacher, I spend more time defending poetry than prose. When I tell my students, “We’ll be doing poetry today,” I hear groans and sighs. And when I share that I write poetry, people say, ‘I always had trouble with poetry.” Or even, “I never really liked poetry.” Only the occasional bright-eyed student preempts the discussion by asking, “Are we writing any poetry this year?”
I’ve never heard people react to prose in the same way. While most students don’t rush to write essays, they also don’t reflexively jerk away from prose. I’d like to navigate this reticence, to lead essayists and memoirists to the unruly garden where poetry writers wander.
Why should you take this walk with me, the avid poet? Because you’ll hear the black-capped chickadees and chimney swifts, smell the lavender and sage, find the world blooming and decaying all at once. Poetry has many gifts for the prose writer.
Let’s consider poetry not as a genre but as a mode of attention.
- Poetry uses language on a budget.
An obvious difference in genres is that prose writers have more words to work with. With the exception of flash fiction, poetry gives the reader less information; the language must work harder to achieve its effect.
Metaphor is the most economical use of language because it blends two networks of ideas concisely. In “The Piano Speaks,” Sandra Beasley describes how the piano is transformed as Erik Satie plays. She writes:
For an hour I was a maple tree,
and under the summer of his fingers
the notes seeded and winged away
“The summer of his fingers” is a linguistic reduction, getting thick and glossy with meaning as it simmers in the poem. When a metaphor is apt, concise, and subtle, it delivers a concentrated dose of meaning in a handful of memorable syllables.
- Poetry reveals the emotional weight of objects.
In workshops, I ask writers to think of a room occupied by someone they love and list the objects the loved one leaves behind. These are the items the poet should bring onto the page for readers. This is poetry’s “objective correlative” – handling abstract feelings by picking up dirty coffee cups, worn pillows, chunky keychains, metallic evening bags. Tess Gallagher embraces the emotional weight of a personal artifact in “Black Silk,” where the speaker tries on her father’s old suit to understand his absence. Marie Howe uses the same technique in “The Copper Beech,” describing a beloved tree that shows her how to find resilience. In both cases, the object on the page is rich with significance and personality.
- Poetry invites you to break grammar rules.
In his song of praise, E.E. Cummings thanks God for the “leaping greenly spirits of trees.” If a prose writer attempts this unusual syntax, their beta readers are likely to sigh, and their editor will probably circle it. Of course prose writers can play with grammar rules, but poetry, with its reputation for being mysterious and complicated, welcomes the breaking of rules. We celebrate Dickinson’s dashes and capitals.
Breaking grammar rules helps us to understand what these rules actually accomplish. Our children’s books and nursery rhymes equip us to get the overall sense of “leaping greenly spirits of trees” while the unusual pattern emphasizes “greenly” rather than “leaping” or “spirits.” Playing with syntax, punctuation, and other conventions can create novel and beautiful phrases.
- Poetry brings forward the native rhythms of language.
In a class on emotional dialogue, I gave students a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The student who volunteered to read the poem aloud asked if she could stand up and “walk the poem around the room.” As she walked and recited, her voice grew rich with the poem’s warm anger. She discovered, simply by moving with the poem, what “meter” really is: a poem’s pace and heartbeat. Are you ready to walk your prose?
- Poetry sharpens the language of character.
Because poems don’t have the space for repeated dialogue attribution, the poet must build character by paying greater attention to syntax, word choice, and punctuation. Consider Elizabeth Alexander’s “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe,” where the speaker comments on her own definition of poetry. The poem uses parentheses to differentiate between the speaker’s public, performance voice and the thoughts that drive it. Sylvia Plath uses a similar technique in “Mad Girl’s Love Song”; her parentheses invite us to question reality.
- Poetry is adventurous on the page.
Poetry collaborates with the white space of pages and screens. In addition to stanza breaks, writers can walk their lines across the white space. Caesuras create an elliptical effect just by adding more space between the words of a line. Visual poems are sprinkled over the writing surface – sometimes forming pictures, always inviting readers to wonder how language manages to make meaning.
In “Poems with Disabilities,” Jim Ferris builds security by keeping the lines at similar lengths, but as the poem moves toward a climax of anxiety, the lines get shorter. The white space crowds the poem, eating away at the lines and intensifying the poem’s ending.
- Poetry nurtures borrowers and beginners.
Elizabeth Alexander’s “Ars Poetica #100” calls back to Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” – a collection of the things poetry is and is not. Poetry tolerates blatant imitation and subtle borrowing. Poets take up a form like the sonnet or the villanelle and eagerly copy canonical works. Whether overt or covert, this borrowing fails to upset most poets. We recognize that we did not invent the language or the forms: we work in a long tradition.
So why should prose writers read and write poetry?
Poetry emphasizes concision and rich language. It tests the strength of syntax. It fits itself to the scraps of paper at the bottom of your bag, the crumpled receipts in your drawer. It bundles big feelings into few words.
Emily K. Michael is a blind poet, musician, and writing instructor from Jacksonville, FL. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Wordgathering, The Hopper, The South Carolina Review, The Deaf Poets Society, Nine Mile Magazine, Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, and AWP Writer’s Notebook. Emily’s work centers on ecology, disability, and music. Find more of her work at her blog, On the Blink. Emily’s first book Neoteny: Poems is available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press.