Guest Post: Maria Rainier on Reading Poetry to Improve Your Fiction

Wednesday, February 23

In my first year of college, my idea of a poem was a Mother Goose rhyme.

In my second year of college, I studied abroad in Italy under the tutelage of modern (dead) poet Ezra Pound’s daughter. I grew so frustrated with Pound’s style that I could often be found talking into his huge volume of poems, The Cantos, in the library. No, Ez, I don’t care about or even know that random guy you met on a train to Venice, and why are you talking to me like I should? and Sorry, Ez, could you write in English? Or, maybe Italian or Spanish? I don’t know seventeen dead languages like you do.

In my third year of college, I took only fiction and creative nonfiction classes.

In my fourth year of college, I resignedly signed up for all 5 poetry classes my Creative Writing major called for that I’d skirted for three years. I learned more in that year about writing than I had in all of my previous education.

Poets Don't Waste Words
Well, the great ones don’t. Even back in the days of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and others known for their lengthy works, poets still made their words count. This is doubly true today; modern poetry like modern writing in general must appease the stunted attention spans of recent generations. Certainly, writers like Gregory Maguire with enormous vocabularies and wandering imaginations write successfully at length—even if some might call it “purple prose”—but you can be sure that poetry helped them, too.

Poets don’t have whole books to express a point (unless his name is Ezra Pound). They must choose just the right word. You will find few mundane terms like “got,” “good,” and “sleepy” in accomplished poetry. Take, for example, an excerpt from one of my favorite poems, “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owens.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Can you think of a word more vile, horrifying, and bone-chilling than cancer? The word stands out from this stanza, chocked full of Owens’ memories from WWI.

Poets are Painters
They paint with words. Not only are the words themselves the most evocative they can muster from their vocabularies, they paint pictures of them through uncommon turns of phrase, similes, and metaphors. Take Langston Hughes’ “Suicide’s Note”:

The calm,
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss

You don’t even need to read the title to know what Hughes is talking about. This is the essence of showing, not telling, since poets don’t have time to tell us every minute detail. To this end, a fiction writer who has studied poetry exercises restraint. He or she allows the reader to assume certain things or use his or her own imagination. A good writer cannot be a control freak.

Maria Rainier is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education and performs research surrounding online degrees. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop. Read more of Maria's work at the Online Degrees site.

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