There once was a writer of prose
Who at poetry stuck up his nose.
A stick with a pen wiped off his grin,
Now the importance of poetry he knows.
Robert Frost might smile at this limerick, but more likely suggest a trip back to the drawing board, or that the writer—me—keep his day job or confine himself to something other than limericks. But writing poetry has a secret power if you’re a prose writer; it slows down the contemplative process and makes you think about individual words and finding just the right one. Finding the right word is a powerful tool for the writer to develop into a habit. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightening and a lightening bug.” The search is worth the effort, always.
Poetry is the search for the right word—not the nearly right word, but the one that fits perfectly into the opening left for it. When writing poetry, you must also consider the nuances of rhyme, meaning, and usage of a word. As a result you become more intimate with each word you use. In prose, you tend to think in sentences and paragraphs. In poetry, you think in terms of individual words. First you have to search for the right one—it may be hidden in some dark corner of the dictionary or thesaurus—then you have to study its definition and usage to see if it fits into the space you’ve left open for it and whether it gets along well with its neighbors. You learn how sensitive a word can be to slight differences in definition and usage and location. One day “gay” refers to a happy person; the next to a homosexual one. You sometimes have to be careful in your word choice.
A word sometimes hints at another that might be a better choice, and that one might hint at still another. Just when you think you have lassoed the right word, a better one gallops up and lands, clinging desperately to the tip of your tongue just slightly out of mental reach, only to pop up a day later and with a teasing smile to say, “Am I what you’ve been looking for?”
Unless you’re into writing odes and other longer forms of rhyme, your poetry will likely be reasonably short and frequently drop into your lap while you’re working on some other piece of writing, or inexplicably pop up as a flash of inspiration. You don’t have to emulate Robert Frost—although reading him is well worth the effort—but do a sort of mental word calisthenics that writing poetry offers in its most basic form. A mental warm up in rhyme loosens up that part of your brain from which your prose flows.
An arduous search for the just right word frequently produces a wave of self-satisfaction, but just as likely, your mind will circle around and find another, better alternative. Don’t become frustrated. Each word is worth careful examination, not just in terms of its definition and usage, but how well it fits into a line and interacts with the rest of your verse or prose. You find yourself operating in the world of nuanced differences. A single word can add just the right amount of spice to your poetic recipe. Finding it can be like tasting cake batter!
My first exposure to poetry came at age ten or so when my cousins and I were exploring an informal landfill, i.e., dumping site, not far from my house down a side street that faded into a dirt access road that descended into some bottomland acreage near the river. I remember being amazed to discover that some farmer had planted peanuts in the flat, sandy, 10-acre patch at the bottom of the road that bifurcated a large pond that would fill up in response to an appropriately heavy rain and provide endless hours of Huck Finn adventures.
The sandy soil appeared to be ideal for peanuts and it was obvious that the dirt access lane received no traffic other than the farmer’s occasional visit and our neighborhood gang tromping about in search of an adventure. The circumstances made it a good place—out of sight—for someone disinclined to drive to the county landfill to dump the remnants of some recently deceased relative’s bounty or an overabundant attic or garage. When you’re ten, other people’s junk becomes your treasure. One of the treasures I discovered was an old battered suitcase, inside of which was an equally battered volume of Shakespeare. I wondered what the long-ago poet would have thought were he to see where his words had ended up.
Our gang’s hideout was the garage attic of one the members on the corner of our block, near the railroad tracks. It was where we kept our treasures, hid out from our parents, and relaxed on lazy summer days with some icy Kool-Aid. Shakespeare’s book was added to the other treasures there. At ten, one is barely ready for the old bard and had I checked the book out of the public library I likely would have been laughed, or drummed, out of the “club.” But, as a found treasure it had an enhanced pedigree and status under the Boy Code of Coolness and I spent time reading pieces of it.
I regret to say that somewhere along way it again became lost but left its impact. A volume in much better shape has since replaced it. But that original tome had an impact on me. When other boys groaned at the thought of reading poetry, I found Shakespeare’s sonnets intriguing, and by the time eighth grade rolled around I had become fond of poetry, although secretly so to guard against ejection from my gang of associates. This Shakespearean exposure also assured my subsequently developed preference to traditional poetic forms and rejection of “modern” formats.
No, I didn’t start spouting Shakespeare on the playground—that would have invited some taunting if not physical abuse—but the book left a substantive impact not just on poetry but thinking. It opened my mind to a world beyond the small one where I resided and the silly poems of Ogden Nash on mimeographed sheets. I had stuck my nose into poetry not up at it.
In my own classroom many years later, I discovered that students had a natural inclination to rhyme and that allowed me to open doors to poetry not just by reading it but by writing it and exploring in greater depth the efforts of others, and the power of individual words to create mental images.
I never studied poetry or the poetic form formally, but to enjoy it and to write it doesn’t require formal training. Once exposed to it, you might decide to explore it more formally. But for the writer, the effort extended to play with poetry is a sort of sensitivity training to how words work in prose that moves with grace. Writing poetry is a great warm up exercise not unlike a musician or singer running a few octaves in various keys. To dip your toes in the water, visit my poetry page at lowellforte.com. There you can read Molly Wrights’ “sawdust memories” and discover how each of us can connect to poetry through our personal experiences or interests.
One of the poetic forms a writer might find of value to play with is Haiku, a Sixteenth Century Japanese form with its own unique structure and rules. With its traditional three lines, the “cut,” and seasonal reference, it offers a great way to explore the power of the poetic form. Click on the tab connected to the book cover “Bittersweet Clusters” image on the left side of my homepage and read an explanation and examples of my own illustrated Haikus. Writing Haikus will flex your literary mind in the same way doing crosswords enhances your facility with vocabulary.
Rarely is time wasted exploring and expanding your writing experience through poetry. You might start with sampling a little Shakespeare.