We all think we know what poetry is, and what it isn’t.
On the IS side, according to Alexander Pope, poetry is ‘What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”
On the ISN’T side, several people still feel that it’s not poetry if it doesn’t rhyme: without rhyme, it’s just prose with pretentious line spacing.
What fiction writers and poets have in common is that their basic material is words. Poets sometimes argue that what is distinctive in their work is that every single word has to count, and carry meaning beyond the simple letters on the page. However a fiction writer thinks about words too, and not just which ones best carry the narrative forward. Like poets, want to create an atmosphere, grab attention, capture the reader’s imagination …
Martin Amis has reputedly said that he wants each word he chooses in his novels to be distinctive, and to make the hairs on the back of the reader’s neck stand up. Less literary authors may not be quite so ambitious, but they too want to captivate their readers and keep them turning the pages.
Children’s writers, especially, will use the sound of words to convey a picture of the action – ‘Splish, splash, splosh’ as a child jumps in puddles, for instance. Hard consonants give urgency to a word or phrase: ‘Rising at the crack of dawn,’ for example, is a sharper than ‘getting up early.’ When two egos ‘clash’ it packs a harder punch than saying a couple don’t get on.
Fiction writers, like poets, pay attention to the sound of the words they write down. And, if they want to keep their reader’s attention, they also consider the length and content of each sentence, unlike in this sentence where I now digress to tell you about my dog’s health – very good, thank you for asking – and fill you in on my plans for lunch – soup maybe, or salad, and complain that my husband still hasn’t finished painting the hall (but I shouldn’t complain really as he has been poorly, though he’s getting better, but he really should go back to see the doctor, but he won’t – you know what men are like), but all of this is distracting me from writing this blog, and somewhere along the way I seem to have lost you. Damn.
The apt choice of words, which also includes how they sound and look on the page, the balance of each phrase as the narrative builds, the length of each sentence/line or paragraph/verse – these are as important to the fiction writer as to the poet. Many writers, who have no intention of writing poems, have attended poetry workshops and come away with several valuable tips for improving their own craft.
The heading for an article about poetry in the Sunday Times last weekend was a line from Maya Angelou: ‘You may trod me in the very dirt, but still like dust I rise.’ No rhyming, but feel the emotional punch in the repetition of ‘d’ and the imaginative juxtaposition of ‘trod’ and ‘rise.’ It certainly causes the hairs on the back of my neck to tingle, and makes me want to read more of her work. If only a random quote from one of my stories could have the same effect on potential readers!
If you like my blog, and would like to read more, you can find a selection of short stories and novels, mostly published by Solstice, on my Amazon author pages: