It’s been said that if you want to write fiction well, study poetry. When I think about that advice, two things strike me: (1) I want to write fiction well, (2) I have not studied poetry.
I’ve read poetry. I’ve read Longfellow and Tennyson, Yeats and Keats, Frost and Owen. I’ve considered poetry, both classical and modern. During literature classes at University, I studied a little poetry. I spent an entire year with Dickinson digging past the dashes and sparrows to discover hidden gems of insight, sorrow and hope in her words. I’ve even analyzed poetry from a Swedish poet, Gunnar Ekelöf. By the way, studying poetry in a different language, trying hard to understand unfamiliar cultural influences is tougher than it seems. But for all that, I generally don’t spend much time with poetry. I can’t think of the last time I sought out a poetry book to read.
I think, and this is my own personal opinion here, of all the literary arts, screenwriting, poetry, essays, and fiction, fiction has to be the sloppiest of the bunch. Wait! Before you attack me, let me finish. In the world of screenwriting, you’ve got 120 minutes or so to make your point. Every word must be the precise word you’re looking for. If we’re talking about television, that’s even shorter. A thirty-minute sitcom gives you 22 minutes to make your point. You don’t get to wander off and chat about dandelions, unless dandelions are critical to the story.
Every word should fall under the same critical eye in fiction, but it doesn’t always do that, does it? You and I have both read books with side stories, tangents and irrelevant information. I know I have. I’ve written these types of stories, too. My goal is to learn from them. To get better. Try not to repeat the same mistakes. Those mistakes are all too easy to make in fiction, though. Other than following basic guidelines, I have more freedom when writing a novel than a poet does while writing a poem.
A poet must search for the right word. Not a word that fits, or one that works, but the perfect word. All. The. Time. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t approach my craft with the same dedication. I search for the words that tell my story. Sometimes, I must find the perfect word. The one word that fits because no other word fits in that space. Most of the time, I settle for good words. They say what I mean, nothing more, nothing less. Here’s how I can tell the difference. I can look in a thesaurus and replace many of my words with similar words. If I took a well-written poem, I couldn’t do the same thing.
I like poetry. I enjoy structured poetry more than free verse. Perhaps it’s the logical side of my brain coming out. I think both are vitally important, but I enjoy those that follow rules more. For example, if I read a poem and one line has three words, the next line has seventeen, the next line has five, the next line has twenty-three and it continues with this random line length, maybe two words somewhere in the middle rhyme, the rest don’t, maybe the imagery started out with a ghost theme and somehow morphed into a train theme and ends with images of a farm, my brain wants to start making changes and try to fit it into rules, even though the poet may be making a point about ignoring rules. These poems about rule breaking are necessary, even if they drive me crazy.
On the other hand, when I read poems that adhere to various forms, I’m swept away with emotion. I love the rhythm of poetry, the imagery, and symbolism. I lose myself in the raw vulnerability of poetry. I’m moved and touched by something other than the words, as if a hand from the past has gripped mine and is dragging me through a series of events, or feelings. The technical aspects are developed with such precision and skill, they fade to the background. I become a guest, a visitor within the stanzas, wandering around and peeking into the corners. I love the voice of poetry and how it can bring forth tears one minute, and laughter the next. I love how my heart soars and feels like it’s going to rise up out of my chest sometimes when I read a poem.
You’d think I would read it more often. I barely glance at it.
I’m too busy, I say. Too caught up rushing around to stop and consider the words of Frost. Sorry Keats, too many things to do today. No time, Ms. Angelou, I’m sure you understand. Kids and family life take up most of my time. What’s left I spread between my own writing, reading, the blog, courses, friendship, other social connections, and whatever errands need to be run. No, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I can’t fit you in today. Maybe next month.
The sad thing is, the one person who loses is in this excuse game is me. So I’ve made a resolution. Beginning January 1, 2015, things are going to change around here. I know it’s still December, but I’m so excited I have to tell you about it now! I feel like a Swede with a clock. As soon as the big hand hits the thirty minute mark, the time focuses on the next hour. One thirty, for example, is spoken as ‘half two’. Once the hour is halfway gone, they look forward to the future. That’s how I feel. I know we still have a little over two weeks left in 2014, with all its bright days and dark days, but I’m looking forward to 2015.
What’s my resolution?
Well . . .
I think the idea came to me from another blog I visit. Charlotte Cuevas is on her second year of a 365 poetry project. You can visit her blog here. Every day she writes a poem. How amazing is that?! And they’re quite good. I can’t do that. As much as I want to, I’m not at a place where I can commit to writing anything every single day, and yet this woman is writing a poem every single day. Not only that, she’s in her second year.
While I don’t have the same desire as Charlotte to write a poem every day, I can commit to reading a poem every day. Not just reading a poem, but spending time with a poem every day. I want the poem to speak to me. I want to discover hidden secrets. I want to learn about hopes and fears. I want to learn about things we want to shout about and things we want to keep silent about, but end up whispering on the page because they won’t stay silent. In other words, by the end of the year, I want to be not only a better writer, but a different person, touched in some profound way by the words I read.
Anyone want to join me?