Why Fiction Writers Should Read Poetry


Quote of the Week: You want your sentence to lean and hearken to the sentences which precede it. Music, you want. The gaze. You want, when you finish reading, not applause but a stunned regard. The spell cast and lasting. Some kindred soul whispering more. – Gordon Lish

I am not a poet. It’s not that I haven’t ever tried to write poetry, but there are fundamental differences between writing good fiction and writing good poetry, and my particular writing skill set seems not attuned to it.

Still, I love to read good poetry. I’m often fascinated by the poems I find both in my journal and other books, in their impact and concision, in their sheer imagery, in their ability to create powerful emotion in a few lines or a page, as opposed to the ten to thirty pages it takes a good short story to have a similar effect.

I believe reading such work influences and enhances my fiction, inspiring me to raise the levels of language and emotion by sharpening the imagery, heightening the sensory appeal, and considering the sound and cadence, as well as the meaning of each sentence. I also believe more fiction writers should spend time reading poetry in addition to fiction, because the ways in which language is used in the poetic form are often easier to see.

Consider the opening lines from Susan Rich’s poem “Mr. Saturday Night” from the book Cures Include Travel: This could be an American story: drugs, discos, even / the Somali nickname that clings to you like an out-of-date / aphrodisiac. Living by chance in a Kenyan city, a mother’s / rules flung across the lost luggage of border crossings / her final dollars follow you: sixteen, exiled on the edge / of sanity. A prose writer would typically need several paragraphs or pages to convey the situation facing the young man who is the subject of these few lines, yet Rich makes clear his origins, his family ties, his poverty, his difficult journey to America, and his ongoing struggles living here. Each phrase in this sample invokes an image, and the images are linked to an emotional whole.

So even though a prose writer wouldn’t write a story this way, the imagery, precision, and creativity of poetry can help relate information to readers more clearly and more enjoyably than a simple presentation of facts (as I often see in fiction submissions).

The fiction writer Erika Brumett has clearly taken this idea to heart. In her recently released novel, Scrap Metal Sky, Brumett sculpts every line with poetic artistry, creating imagery throughout, sometimes by turning nouns into verbs: Their morning was spent cabbing a customer from the Blue Moon Motel, to the town strip joint, and back again. It would have been easy for her to write They drove a customer in the cab… or even They shuttled, but Brumett created a more exact and inventive image through poetic creativity.

In poetry, the writer doesn’t try to explain everything, or anything (as often happens in the fiction of beginning writers). Instead, she creates images from which meaning can be inferred. Those images are carefully chosen to connect to the reader’s experience—exactly, I believe, what EM Forster meant when he advised us to “Only connect”; poetry distills Forster’s maxim to its base element.

In doing this, however, poetry often attaches an ethereal, or otherworldly feeling to its language, which raises it above mere communication into the realm of the creative (sometimes known as art). Not every piece of prose can benefit from this practice, but I believe every writer can, by learning to recognize that every sentence affords an opportunity to make the writing better, and therefore more meaningful and entertaining.

Maybe someday I’ll write a good poem. In the meantime, I’m reading good poetry, and writing better fiction.

The image above is “The Muse Euterpe”, by Georgios Margaritis (1814-1884) – this Public Domain image was donated to Wikimedia Commons by http://paletaart.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/; https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32017430

Joe Ponepinto
Joe Ponepinto is the founding Fiction Editor and Publisher of Tahoma Literary Review. His new novel, Mr. Neutron will be published by 7.13 Books of Brooklyn, NY in the spring of 2018.

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