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Poetry Lesson: A metered approach to writing prose

June 13, 2024 by in category From a Cabin in the Woods by Members of Bethlehem Writers Group tagged as , , ,

At a recent writers conference (the Write Stuff in Bethlehem, PA) keynote speaker Jonathan Maberry shared that he reads poetry for 30 minutes every day. He does it, he said, because it helps inspire his prose.

I have a fair amount of poetry on my shelves, and I do enjoy reading it, but I don’t read it every day. (I don’t write poetry; or rather, the poetry I write is best not shared with anyone.)

But Maberry has a point: Poetry can tell a story, illuminate a concept, or create a mood with a minimum of words—each word chosen by the poet because it’s exactly the right one. And that approach can inspire our writing of prose, because honing language is also what we strive for when we revise and polish our manuscripts.

I went to my poetry bookshelf and randomly pulled several volumes:

  • Paul Muldoon, Horse Latitudes
  • Sharon Olds, Strike Sparks
  • Billy Collins, Nine Horses
  • Mary Oliver, Why I Wake Early
  • Natalie Diaz, Postcolonial Love Poem
  • Sarah Arvio, Visits from the Seventh

For this exercise, I skipped over my book of Shakespeare sonnets and any poetry anthologies, as well as the two books of poetry I’m currently reading: Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith and The Best of It by Kay Ryan.

I’ll share a snippet from the poets listed above and what struck me about their passages.

From Mary Oliver’s “Snow Geese” (breathtaking visual image)

One fall day I heard / above me, and above the sting of the wind, a sound / I did not know and my look shot upward; it was / a flock of snow geese winging it / faster than the ones we usually see, / and, being the color of snow, catching the sun / so they were, in part at least, golden

From Natalie Diaz’s “The First Water Is the Body” (depth of the soul)

We must go until we smell the black root-wet anchoring the river’s mud banks. We must go beyond beyond to a place where we have never been the center, where there is no center—beyond, toward what does not need us yet makes us.

From Sharon Olds’ “The Promise” (interesting juxtaposition of opposing elements)

With the second drink, at the restaurant, / holding hands on the bare table, / we are at it again, renewing our promise / to kill each other.

From Sarah Arvio’s “Malice” (superb characterization)

An ever-so-alluring deceiver / is the one who tells you your every dream / as though it were the truth of the future; / meanwhile there you stand in a wash of sweat, / your hopes lifted high only to be dashed.

From Paul Muldoon’s “The Old Country” (clever wordplay)

Every malt was a single malt. / Every pillar was a pillar of salt. / Every point was a point of no return.

From Billy Collins’ “Absence” (metaphorical excellence)

This morning as low clouds / skidded over the spires of the city / I found next to a bench / in a park an ivory chess piece— / the white knight as it turned out— / and in the pigeon-ruffling wind / I wondered where all the others were, / lined up somewhere / on their red and black squares, / many of them feeling uneasy / about the saltshaker / that was taking his place

I came away from this exercise re-energized to dip into poetry regularly—most likely not every day, but perhaps weekly, when I’m staring at my screen, wondering how to dig myself out of the writing hole I’ve created. A poetry break may help provide just the shovel or pick axe I need.

What poets do you read? How have they influenced your writing?

Dianna Sinovic
Certified Book Coach, Editor, Author
Anthology contributor: That Darkened DoorstepAn Element of Mystery
Blog contributor: A Slice of Orange
Member: Sisters in Crime, Horror Writers Association, Bethlehem Writers Group
Diasin Books LLC

“Art is fire plus algebra.”
– Jorge Luis Borges

From The Bethlehem Writers Group, LLC

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