Why Poetry Will Make You a Better Writer

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April is National Poetry Month, and those of us at MCC’s Writing Center love our poetry. You might not think reading and writing poetry could help you with your academic, fiction, or nonfiction writing, but you might be surprised how poetry can improve your overall writing. How? Let me count the ways.

Writing poetry can help you be concise

Poetry spares no words. Poets know they must avoid redundancy and be succinct. Instead of writing sentences and paragraphs to get a point across, a poet must carefully choose his or her words. If your instructor asked you to take a paragraph and condense it down into one sentence without losing the meaning, could you do it? The haiku below shows a scene in eight words:

No sky
no earth – but still
snowflakes fall.

– Hashin

Less is more, and poetry can help writers uncover the words that are truly essential.

Poetry can help expand your word choice

For poets, word choice is everything. Poets toil over every word, and not a syllable is wasted, so it is imperative they chose the perfect word. Words paint pictures, and the color “red” is different than “scarlet,” which is different than “cherry,” which is different than “crimson.” Want proof? Look at the “red” uniforms of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Arkansas Razorbacks, and the Ohio State Buckeyes. Plain old red isn’t exactly the color of all their uniforms, is it? Is something simply noisy, or is it deafening? Were you happy, or would “ecstatic” be more accurate? Or even euphoric? In the poem below by Bruce Guernsey, he uses the word “shack” instead of house and “drifts” instead of simply snow. Also, look at his choice of verbs. What other choices do you suppose he made?

Back Road

Winter mornings
driving past
I’d see these kids
huddled like grouse
in the plowed ruts
in front of their shack
waiting for the bus,
three small children
bunched against the drifts
rising behind them.

This morning
I slowed to wave
and the smallest,
a stick of a kid
draped in a coat,
grinned and raised
his red, raw hand,
the snowball
packed with rock
aimed at my face.

Poetry can help you paint pictures with words

Has your instructor every told you to “show, don’t tell”? Did you wonder what exactly that meant and how to achieve it? Poets show in words by painting a picture for the reader. Poets use imagery with sensory detail, showing what something looks like, feels like, tastes like, sounds like, and smells like. Do you hear a bird chirping, or is it a robin singing “cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up”? Did the hospital room smell bad, or did it smell like formaldehyde and urine? Sometimes poets use simile, metaphor, and even personification. The poem below by Ted Kooser utilizes several of these poetic tools. Can you pick out the sensory detail? Do you find any simile, metaphor, or personification?

In January

Only one cell in the frozen hive of night
is lit, or so it seems to us:
this Vietnamese café, with its oily light,
its odors whose colorful shapes are like flowers.
Laughter and talking, the tick of chopsticks.
Beyond the glass, the wintry city
creaks like an ancient wooden bridge.
A great wind rushes under all of us.
The bigger the window, the more it trembles.

Poetry teaches rhythm

Has your instructor ever said your writing is plodding, or you need to vary your sentence structure? What he or she is trying to tell you is that you need to work on your rhythm. In poetry, one must consider the musicality of the language. Cadence and melody create the musical quality of poetry. Poetry is musical language, and can generate a physical response; we want to tap our feet and nod our head in tune with poetry. In the following poem by Theodore Roethke, he describes his “Papa’s Waltz” but also writes in the beat of a waltz. Can you figure out where the stresses or “beats” are?

My Papa’s Waltz

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

Poetry is like music: there is something for every taste. If you had a bad experience with poetry in grade school or high school, give it another chance. You might find something you like.

Do you have a poem you’d like to share online? Send me your poems about writing, and I’ll post on our blog the month of April.

Want to learn more about poetry? Check out the links below.

Poem-a-day podcast: http://www.learnoutloud.com/Podcast-Directory/Literature/Poetry/Poem-of-the-Day-Podcast/20139

The Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/

National Poetry Month http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/41

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