This is Part 2 of a series of posts I’m doing about building skill in descriptive narrative prose and language use. Click here for Part 1.
Poetic Prose: Think like a Storyteller, Write like a Poet
I admit it: I have dabbled in poetry. The Forbidden Art. I took a class on the Romantic Poets (Blake and Keats 4eva!), but I also, through no fault of my own, ended up in an Advanced Poetry class without having even taking the basic level poetry class. Sure, I’d taken the Intro creative writing class, and I’d written some poems there, and some stuff back in high school (thankfully not the typical angst-filled kind, but still pretty bad). I was annoyed, since this was not the class I’d wanted to take (that would have been the short story writing class, which was full), but I wasn’t worried. The first poem I handed in for critique, the class completely ripped to shreds. And rightly so. I’d been thrown ass-first into the deep end of the poetry pool, and this was going to be a trial by fire, where I’d learn not to use clichés and mix my metaphors.
The upshot of studying poetry, and writing poetry, especially with a group of people much more experienced and dedicated to the art form, was that I could FEEL my writing improving at the word-level, the level of individual expressions and arrangements of syllables, the building blocks even more basic than the sentence. (I was like a biologist who discovered, hey, you know, knowing a little bit about this chemistry stuff is pretty useful.) It was good exercise, focusing that level of care and attention on individual words, their interactions and arrangements, on layers of meaning and metaphor and imagery. And unlike in a story writing class, we read our poems aloud before critiquing them. I am a big advocate of reading your work aloud, tasting the syllables, the rhythm of the words and punctuation.
So: read poetry. Read it aloud. Write poetry, even if it’s bad. Read your own poetry, good or bad, ALOUD. In front of people, and by “people,” I mean an audience, not your cat. You don’t have to try to be a poet; Zeus Seuss knows I’M not a poet, and have never claimed to be. (I even wrote a poem for the aforementioned poetry writing class, about how I’m not a poet; cute, but that whole “meta” thing’s been done a bit much.) But if you can capture even some microscopic iota of poetry in your words, some poetic residue to soak your prose in, you’re bound to improve your story writing as well.
If you’re not that familiar with poetry, setting yourself the task to read it, let alone write it, may seem daunting. Poetry is so varied, and so subjective, it’s hard to take (or give) any advice on who or what to read. You might not know where to start. So I’m going to tell you: think about the types of songs you like. What kind of lyrics do you find compelling? Do some brainstorming. Write down some of your favorite songs and write a sentence or two about why you like each one, focusing on the content of the lyrics apart from the music itself. Maybe make notes on some songs you really don’t like, and what it is you can’t stand about them. Is there a pattern to what you like and don’t like? A common complaint about poetry is that it “doesn’t make sense” — the meaning is too abstract. But if you’re a Bob Dylan fan, that might not be a concern for you. (“Ballad of a Thin Man” might follow a poetic logic that evokes the sinister bewilderment of a nightmare, but that doesn’t qualify as “making sense” for most people.)
Once you have a good grasp of what it is you like (and don’t like) in song lyrics — which are really just a kind of poetry — then you’ll be armed with the knowledge of what kind of poetry you’re looking for, and thus equipped to seek it out. The internet is a great resource, but don’t overlook other sources of information. Venture out into meatspace, talk to some real humans. Libraries and librarians are awesome. AWESOME. And don’t forget that most experts, particularly in academia, are eager to share their expertise. If you can get in touch with a professor at a local college, you’ll have a font of information (no cold calls; use your common sense, shoot them a politely worded email if you don’t have a mutual contact who can relay your interest). If you’re asking about their specific area of expertise, even better. Tell someone who’s devoted their life to the study of Irish poetics that you’re really interested in Yeats, and you’ll have an instant friend. (Just make sure you pronounce it “Yates” and NOT “Yeets.”)
Before I close out this section, I’ll give you a few of my favorite poetry exercises we did in the Advanced Poetry class I took.
Found Word Exercise
Take some written medium, like a newspaper, or go to Wikipedia and hit the “random article” button half a dozen times and use those as your medium. Choose words and phrases from the selected medium and splice them together to create a poem.
Dictionary Exercise Random Word Exercise
I was going to talk about an exercise that involved picking words out of a dictionary, but since it’s kind of awkward to explain and a lot of people don’t own hardcopy dictionaries anymore, I came up with something else on my own.
Write something — anything, a poem or prose — or take some existing piece of your own writing. Now pull up a random word generator like text fixer or watchout4snakes. Generate a random word, and replace the first noun of your text with the randomly generated one. Do this for every noun in the text.
The possible variations on this exercise are almost limitless. You could generate 14 random words and use each one in the line of a sonnet, or generate 3 random words, one for each line of a haiku. (Just so you know, haiku written in English don’t really have to follow the seventeen syllable rule, so don’t beat yourself up trying to decide if “tired” is one or two syllables. Bonus points if you write a haiku in Japanese and then translate it into English.)
Watchout4snakes, a random word generation site I discovered while I was writing this, has a “word+” generator that lets you choose what type of word you want (adjective, noun, verb, etc.). So you could generate random words for a poem as you’re writing it, every time you needed a verb, or every time you needed a noun, or just when you didn’t know what to put next. The site also has a phrase generator, and a sentence generator that could be used to generate the first line of a poem, or even the first line of a story. I only had to click the “refresh” button a couple of times on the sentence generator before I got: The oldest weapon pants into a questionable camera. I just might have to use that as a story opener! There’s even a paragraph generator, which you could use to create your “base text” for this exercise or one of the other exercises.
Opposite Word Exercise
This exercise is a little more complicated. Write a poem or a prose passage, or take some existing piece of your own writing. Now choose a pattern of words within the piece of writing: every noun, every verb, every other word, or even every single word. It can be whatever pattern you like, but the more words in the pattern the tougher the exercise and the more wild the results.
Now go through each word in your chosen pattern and try to think of the opposite word, and replace the original word with its opposite. Not every word has an obvious antonym, so you may have to get creative (which is part of the point). Try to be consistent, so that (for example) the opposite of “one” isn’t “two” in one place and “zero” in another, and if “if” is the opposite of “because” then “because” is also the opposite of “if.” This may sound simple, until you have to think of a one-word opposite of “the” or “of” or “be.” (That last one can get complicated; personally, I avoid contractions with this exercise, because while “isn’t” could be the opposite of “is,” there is no equivalent negative contraction of “be.” Try to dig deeper and ask yourself, what action could I set as an opposing or mirror action to being?)
Not only can this exercise produce interesting and unexpected results — one of my favorite poems I wrote for the Advanced Poetry class was just the every-word-opposite of a different (bad) poem I wrote — but it also gets you thinking about words on a very fundamental level.
Thus ends Part 2. Coming up next, Part 3 will be… With Passion: Words to Build Worlds.