By: Deborah Brewer
What writer doesn’t want to improve their prose? Let me recommend dabbling in poetry to do just that. Reading, studying, and practicing verse have improved my fiction writing experience in several ways, improving my mood, my vocabulary, and my emotional expression. You might try it too.
Use Poetry to Ease the Blank Page Syndrome
Writers are often intimidated by the emptiness of a blank page. Poetry eases my blank page dread and replaces it with enthusiasm. Writing a very short piece that no one else may ever see removes the pressure from performance. I can revel in my imagination and create something that never existed before without imaginary critics looking over my shoulders. I don’t need to write melancholy verses to enjoy poetry’s benefits either, I can write silly poems that lift my mood. This mindset of joy and confidence stays with me as I write my fiction, helping me overcome procrastination and feelings of inadequacy. If this were the only benefit of writing poetry, it would be reason enough.
Break Out of Your Vocabulary Rut
Writing poetry also breaks me out of vocabulary ruts. Poetry requires rich, concentrated meaning from a very few words. Once I’ve exhausted my memory for poetry words, I call on my second favorite “dinosaur,” the thesaurus, for help. I might also research my poem’s subject online to refresh my memory of descriptive words or enter “Words that rhyme with…” into my online search engine. It’s common for people to comprehend more words than they regularly use in writing and speech. Searching for the perfect word, rhyming, alliterative, or otherwise, is a great way to limber and strengthen working vocabulary.
Find the Emotion in Your Writing
Emotion is at the core of poetry, as it is at the core of fiction. Poetry puts me in touch with my feelings. A poem is more than the mere sum of its words. Word placement, rhythm, and allusions all contribute to the emotion of a poem. While I do want to put more emotion in my fiction, I often don’t because emotions are scary. Writing poems helps me shed this reticence. It provides me with a safe place to play with my feelings and learn how to control their expression.
Now if perhaps, you’re wondering;
In my loneliest girlhood dreams,
Though other creatures joy did bring,
The brontosaurus reigned supreme!
Even writing terrible poems makes for great writing practice. For me, attempting a highly structured poem form, like a sonnet, haiku, or a quatrain, is a more entertaining brain exercise than working sudoku or crossword puzzles. You, too, might enjoy the puzzle aspect of highly structured poems.
Poetic Form – A Closer Look
There are so many variations of poetic form—ancient, classic, and contemporary—that you are sure to find one or two that suit you. Sonnets are grand. Haiku poems are meditative. Limericks are good fun. Odes of praise are usually serious, but can also be silly or satirical. Even highly structured poem forms are often written with irregularities, and you are certainly free to create a form of your own.
To a Button Lost
Oh, button iridescent,
Sweetest pearl of milky white,
Freed from m’ lady’s “precious” sweater
In the middle of the night.
Our dalliance was jolly
As we frisked about the house,
Until you hid between the floorboards
Like a timid little mouse.
Your snub has left me sullen;
My lady is fuming sore.
You have departed, dearest button,
Lost to me forevermore.
To improve my poetic capacity, I did a personal study of haiku poetry in late 2019. I remembered enjoying haiku in grade school and thought I might recapture some of that feeling. I read about the history of the form and its masters. I explored haiku organizations and publications online. I read lots of haiku. Finally, I wrote 50 haiku poems myself.
What is haiku? It’s a very short, poetic form adapted from Japan in the late 1800s, in which two images from nature are juxtaposed to invite feelings of quiet awe and inspiration.
During my studies, I chose some guidelines for my poems that would satisfy most haiku enthusiasts:
- A seasonal reference (snow, flowers, fruit, falling leaves)
- A focus on nature
- Two concrete images with a change to a new image at the 1/3 or 2/3 mark.
- A story or feeling is created by the marriage of the two images
- Evokes a sense of quiet, awe, and/or the sublime
- Uses sentence fragments
- No rhymes or alliteration
- No titles
- A lower-case letter at the beginning of each line
- The classic, English language grade-school structure—three lines and 5/7/5 syllables—or not
Below is a selection of winter haiku. The first poem changes images after the first line. The second poem changes images after the second line. The third poem eschews the classic syllable count.
a walk with my love
in winter’s soft light
owls hoot together
on a snowy moonlit night
dogs whimper and bark
Freeform Poetry – Laugh at Yourself
When I can’t come up with haiku or don’t want to, I write whatever poems come to mind. One day, reflecting on an experience at a Pikes Peak Writers Conference, I wrote this short poem to capture a memory.
My smile full spent,
to scones and tea
But a year into my poetry practice, I found this new poem to be more emotionally open.
Four hundred voices
Eight million eyes—
Refuge in a toilet stall
Perhaps you too have felt that way at a conference.
I’m not a published poet, nor do I aspire to be, but I enjoy and benefit from writing poems all the same. My own poems are included in this blog so you can see the very amateur level of my work and know that you too can write such mood-enhancing poems. If you need a use for your poems, consider writing them inside greeting cards, on bookmarks, or collecting them in a journal. Write poems about subjects you love.
I heartily recommend both the study and practice of poetry. Read some books, take a class, maybe attend a poetry reading. Then set a goal to write some poems of your own. (I usually write a full draft of a poem on the first day, and fiddle with it a few days more.) The practice may not make you into a poet laureate, but your prose will surely wax poetic.
A writer thought writing appealing,
But mostly, she stared at the ceiling.
To enliven her tomes,
She wrote flirty poems;
And now, writes with passionate feeling.
For further reading:
Write Like Issa: A Haiku How-To by David G. Lanoue (2017). An English professor and former president of the Haiku Society of America gives insight into the creative process of a haiku master.
Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, edited by Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland, and Allan Burns (2013). This broad anthology includes poems both ancient and modern, an introduction by poet laureate Billy Collins, and a historical overview by Jim Kacian, the founder of the Haiku Foundation and Red Moon Press.
The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems by Frances Mayes (2001). Mayes, also the author of Under the Tuscan Sun, writes that “…almost everyone can learn to write good poems.” I hope that means me.
Deborah L. Brewer joined Pikes Peak Writers a decade ago, seeking help with a cozy mystery. When the novel was completed, she stayed for the camaraderie. Now she’s writing short stories. An editor for the PPW 2022 anthology, Dream, Deborah contributes to Writing from the Peak to help fellow PPW members write better with more enjoyment, and ultimately, achieve their writing dreams.