Today’s guest post comes from my friend Rod Miller, a Spur Award-winning poet and author, who I met this summer at the Western Writers of America conference in Sacramento, CA. In addition to writing poetry, Rod pens novels, short stories, magazine articles, and other non-fiction pieces about cowboys and the American West.
Three Things We Can Learn from Poets
By Rod Miller
Prose and poetry are different. The discipline is different, the approach is different, the craft is different, the emphasis is different. But, despite the many differences, much is the same. Both rely on words, and the meanings of words, whether literal or figurative, expressed or implied. Generally speaking, however, poets pay more attention to words—dissecting them into syllables and sounds, rhythms and rhymes, stresses and shapes.
While it would be impossible, not to mention unwise, for writers of prose to agonize over every syllable in every word in every line as poets do, a little extra attention to a few literary techniques can make prose read better, sound better, and communicate more effectively on more levels.
Here are three tools poets use (as do the best prose writers, as in the examples that follow) that can shape and sharpen what you write. But remember—like any tool, they can be over-used, misapplied, and cause harm, so proceed with caution.
1. What you say, vs. How You Say It.
This is an eternal tug-of-war, but is, for the most part, based on false assumptions. Those on the “What” end of the rope claim plain and simple is preferable. Extremists on the “How” end believe purple prose should take precedence.
Both points of view are lacking.
Language can be clear and communicative as well as distinctive and delightful. Consider this sentence:
In 1776, our founding fathers, desiring freedom and equality for all, created the American nation.
Not much to complain about there. The meaning is clear, the structure and syntax acceptable. But, in the better hands of Abe Lincoln, that same sentiment becomes musical and memorable:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
To a poet, metaphor is mother’s milk. As part of a balanced diet, metaphor can lend vitality to prose as well. Along with pure metaphor, lump in other metaphorical techniques such as simile, synecdoche, and metonymy. Comparisons can be powerful; often more vivid than a plain description. Given my long career writing ad copy, I like this pointed metaphor from George Orwell:
Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.
And there’s this descriptive comparison, from William Faulkner:
He looks like right after the maul hits the steer and it is no longer alive and don’t yet know that it is dead.
3. Repetition of Sound
Another big deal among poets. There’s rhyme, of course, which has limited application to prose. But rhyme should not be excluded out of hand, as this famous opening by Charles Dickens demonstrates:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
And there’s assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds, and consonance, the repetition of consonants. Both are aptly demonstrated in this sentence by Cormac McCarthy—repeated “a” sounds, both long and short; hard “g” sounds; the “k” sound from that letter as well as the hard “c.”
And stepping softly with her air of blooded ruin about the glade in a frail agony of grace she trailed her rags through dust and ashes, circling the dead fire, the charred billets and chalk bones, the little calcined ribcage.
There is also alliteration in that line, as there is in the repeated “st” and “ch” sounds at the beginning of words in this line by Herman Melville:
. . . neither of those can feel stranger and stronger emotions than the man does, who for the first time finds himself pulling into the charmed, churned circle of the hunted sperm whale.
While each example demonstrates a particular literary device, you probably noticed that most employed more than one. Using poetic devices isn’t always deliberate—it is often instinctive—but no less real. Sometimes magic just happens, other times it is made. But as you write and rewrite, consider poetry, and how the techniques that make poetry poetic can improve your prose.
I will close with a line from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, in which a pair of characters is called out for unsuccessful attempts at fancy talk:
They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps.
I see in that line further meaning: as writers, we regularly dine at “a great feast of languages.” There is no reason for us to settle for the ordinary or mundane; to steal “the scraps.” There are remarkable and magnificent words on the table and we should dish them up and dish them out, in appropriate doses, to our readers.
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