Why Fiction Writers Should Read Poetry

Figurative language and lyricism are essential elements of literary fiction, but  they can be some of the techniques most misused by young writers, resulting in unnecessarily inflated prose.

Recently, VONA faculty at their first regional writing conference, hosted in partnership with the University of Miami Creative Writing Department, held a reading at Books and Books in Coral Gables, FL, where this issue was briefly broached by poet and VONA faculty member, Willie Perdomo.

During his segment of the reading, Perdomo quipped about a bit of verbal sparring that had occurred between himself and a fiction writer during a VONA conference event (all in good fun of course) after he commented on fiction writers’ ability to hide behind their prose. He delivered the jab with a confident New Yorker accent and followed with a series of vibrant poems. It is difficult to argue with someone as accomplished as Willie Perdomo, who has been lauded by reviewers and received among other commendations the PEN Open Book Award and a  nomination for the Pushcart Prize.

And though the story was told predominately as a humorous anecdote, Perdomo may have inadvertently issued a worthy challenge to fiction writers looking to improve their craft. Like poetry, literary fiction is a language-driven art. And although the fiction writer is concerned initially with story and character, the best works exhibit precise and vivid language. Where would Hemingway be without his spare, dare I say choppy, prose and Virgina Wolf without her melodic interiority? Command of language is something that must be pursued in service of the story, but pursued all the same.  And a healthy dose of poetry seems to be just the thing to jump-start sagging at the sentence level.

Why poetry you ask? Poets are traditionally the masters of language and rely heavily on figurative language techniques that prose writers also use. Poets are little bit like sprinters in that, and because so much must be accomplished a short amount of time and space, every single word, sentence, and element of punctuation must be precise and exact. Any slight miscalculation truly affects the entire outcome of a poem. Whereas most readers will forgive a few bland sentences in a three-hundred page novel, the equivalent of a 10k or perhaps a marathon. But fiction writers can and should hold themselves to this same high standard, and when plotting seems to outpace execution, we can turn to poetry to be our teacher.

Poetry helps writers with sound.

Reading a work aloud helps writers to iron out issues with flow and word choice, to avoid unnecessary repetition and to establish sound patterns. But for some of us, the sense of rhythm isn’t innate. Poetry can be a tool to help us identify and internalize possible sound patterns. And because poems are typically shorter than short stories and novels, writers can expose themselves to many distinct styles over a shorter period of time. While it takes several hours to read a novel, it may only take a few minutes to read a poem.

A tool to enliven language

Poetry reading can also help fiction writers create new metaphors and break the molds of those old clichés. It isn’t difficult to embed a few references to the blue sky in a novel, but good fiction writers shouldn’t have to. Poems are breeding grounds for strange and beautiful figurative language, unique word choice, and use of words with layered meaning. These can become models and springboards for our own metaphors. We can imitate form, that is the way an image is presented such as sentence structure.  We can also glean interesting and under-utilized nouns and verbs.

Visual arrangement

Poetry also reminds us that the layout of our work, that is the visual arrangement of words on a page, influences the way a text is read. Poets are infamous for indentations, enjambment, use of stanzas and empty spaces. Fiction writers can also exert this kind of control on the page. We are not limited by conventional paragraph form or even grammar. Those who know the rules can break them when it serves the work.

Compression

Poems are tight, compressed entities reduced to the very essential images and words. There is no superfluity. And for this reason, the lines tend to sing. Fiction writers should not be afraid to take an ax to the extra sentences, paragraphs and, at the line level, even words that are muddying up the work.  On a line level see how many articles, and filler words you can remove from your sentences. This doesn’t necessarily mean that sentences should be short, rather this practice will help you look at and justify your word and sentence-composition choices.

Blurring genres

The blur between traditional genres seen in works like Olivar de la Paz‘s  prose poem novella, Names Above Houses and Anne Carson‘s novel in verse, Autobiography of Red  remind us that poetry and prose don’t have to be distinct categories. More than that poetry and prose inform one another. Take a look at the following exercise to see how poetry can begin to inspire your own work.

Exercise: Cristina Garcia author of  Dreaming in Cuban and The Agüero Sisters, shared a version of this exercise with a semester-long workshop class at the University of Miami. Poetry anthologies work best for this exercise so gather one or two or a big collection from your bookshelf or library. Open to different poems at random, read them aloud and jot down images or phrases that capture your attention. Listen to the sound of the work. Try to read a variety of authors (this is why a poetry anthology works best). Spend about half an hour doing this. Once you have your list, open up a piece in progress and use those images to enhance a scene or fill in gaps with thin prose. You might be surprised at the sudden surge in lyricism in your work.

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