Recently as I was reflecting on my writing style, I started to realize that my writing was missing something. After going through some older stuff I’d written, I realized that what my prose was missing was poetry. I’m not saying I should start writing in stanzas but I realized that my writing was a bit dry. Instead of flowing, it crackled. It was rigid, given too much to the utilitarian aim of pure description and forward movement. It was haunted by the specter of efficiency. This is not to say that a lean story is bad. In fact, I’m a fan of keeping things simple. I like lean stories with little or no filler, where every part is vital and contributes to the whole. But that doesn’t mean that such a lean, clean burning narrative machine can’t have style. If anything, the leanness of the writing helps style come through by cleaning out the clutter so that every word glows. But the thing to remember is that one doesn’t have to sacrifice aesthetics for function. One may wonder what the big deal is. Poetry, prose; it’s all writing. It just looks a bit different. That would be right except that it’s wrong. And realizing the different can help one learn how to use poetry to improve his or her prose.
First, what is the main difference between poetry and prose? They both can be used to tell stories. Poems like The Divine Comedy and Beowulf had a narrative structure and told stories the way our modern novels do. So in that respect, they are the same. The way they look seems to be only a superficial difference and when you get to modern free flowing poems like Allen Ginsberg‘s Howl, there may be plenty of occasion to not see much of a difference as the text flows from one edge of the page to the next. The same can be said of rhyming. Not all poems rhyme. So what is it that sets the two forms apart?
To me, poetry and prose differ in the way they use words. I hesitate to say this is definitive or holds true all the time. Nothing in literature is that binary. But, I do think that when one reduces the two forms far enough, their use of language, the way they handle words, really defines each one and makes each one distinct. Poetry is sort of like language carried to its logical conclusion. It is almost pure concept, pure idea. It punches through and delivers a concentrated dose of sounds, tastes, emotions, and so on. To do this, is warps and plays with language. It does this by use of metaphor, allusion, simile, and many other literary devices. Poems tend to be very flexible. There are myriad structures and styles that can be used to achieve different ends. Or it may be free style, relying on the words and the rhythm they create to establish some kind of structure. But the thing that really for me defines poetry is the playfulness of the words. You couldn’t get away with such unbridled whimsy and effusiveness in prose. Prose is more straight forward. It is primarily interested in conveying information: information about the setting, information about the character, information about the action. Therefore, in order to maintain forward motion, it has to eschew some of the flourishes found in poetry. However, I’d argue that prose can be bolstered when it returns to its roots in poetry.
When we read, whether we realize it or not, we’re taking note of the style of writing. It isn’t just about the words used, but how they’re being used. You sort of have to give yourself over to the words to get this effect. The words should just cascade. Concepts should link and tie into other concepts, creating a web of thoughts and sensations. Of course, you’ll have to trim it back at some point (and less is usually more, even in poetry. Everyone revises.) but with that initial burst you at least have something to work with. Another thing that poetry can help with is rhythm. In a way, writing is like composing a silent symphony. Knowing when to increase the tempo or hold it back can do a lot for increasing the tension or deepening a scene. Using the right words so they reinforce and build off each other like notes can create such an effect. One of the best things I can suggest is sitting down and reading some poetry. Not just for the practical reason of absorbing some of the technique but also because there is so much beautiful poetry out there and reading it can really expand your mind and make you see the world a bit differently. I’m a big fan of John Keats, William Blake, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and others. And let’s not forget William Shakespeare! From time to time it’s fun to just pick up a book of poems and read through some of them. Again, reading can never hurt you and having a wide range of reading experiences can only help you.
So, dust of that book of poems and find one that hits you, that inspires you, that speaks directly to you. Or just flip around, explore. Play and discover and then apply this mentality to your writing.