Creative Writing Lessons From Poets
The art of poetry has many lessons for writers of all stripes and styles. To a creative writer, reflecting on the gifts of the great poets can be an invitation both to embrace the possibilities of structure and the wildness of pure expression.
Symbolism, Allegory, Allusion,
Poetry is obviously not the only art form to heavily incorporate symbolism, but it certainly excels at the weaving and inter-weaving of resonant imagery and meaningful connections. From the very beginning of Dante Alighieri’s masterpiece, “The Divine Comedy”—when, at the start of The Inferno, halfway through his life, he goes “astray from the straight road and woke to find myself in a dark wood,” accosted by three beasts and rescued by Virgil—the poet draws an astonishing array of symbolic characters and historical and classical allusions into his startling allegory.
Incorporating such symbols and allusions into your own work is a terrible idea if all you want is to impress the reader—and the glib pretentiousness rarely fails to register. Well-wrought, however, they can magnify like nothing else a particular idea or emotional chord.
Similarly, the best poetry often resonates with us because it’s strung with allusions to deep archetypes of human existence. Carl Jung might say such allusions stimulate our collective unconscious—triggering primal, inarticulate emotions. Gary Snyder, an artist deeply associated with several movements—the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, and bioregionalism, to name a few—studied anthropology at Reed College and regularly wove allusions to the myths and storytelling of North American indigenous peoples into his work. His Myths & Texts and Mountains and Rivers Without End are good examples, rich in reference to Northwest Indian folklore—intermingled with Far East poetics—as they suggest means of “re-inhabiting” the continent.
Motifs like the Trickster figure so widespread among aboriginal cultures are handy to incorporate into your own creations—partly for the subconscious resonance they may strike with your audience, partly because of the subconscious jolt they may give your own craftsmanship.
Alliteration and Repetition
Whatever you might be writing, the common poetic tools of alliteration and repetition can be valuable to utilize. Repetition, of course, is a major hallmark of poetry: In reference to sound itself, it explains the nature of rhyme. In the context of non-rhyming creative prose, repetition of words, of word-sounds, of sentence length and structure can be powerful. Nick Cave’s “Black Hair”—one of many songs that reads well as a stand-alone poem—repeats the word “black” no fewer than 18 times in five stanzas. Even without the accompanying music’s hallucinogenic drone, the effect is mesmerizing. In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman writes: “Passing the visions, passing the night;/Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades’ hands;/ Passing the song of the hermit bird, and the tallying song of my soul”—and you are drawn in. Repetition can be trancelike; it can mesmerize the reader, and set them up for a truly jolting turn of phrase at the tail-end of a relentlessly cyclical passage.
Alliteration, too, can similarly lend your work a rolling rhythm, irresistible to the reader. As with any of these literary devices, it’s cartoonish when overused; wielded sparingly, it gives your work a musical quality.
Form and Freedom
Poetry is sometimes thought of as a loose, free-form, anything-goes mode of writing, unshod of tight grammatical and stylistic rules and propelled only by fierce and feral creative outpouring. That, of course, is very often a misapprehension. Certainly many forms of classical poetry followed tight conventions; William Shakespeare’s adherence in many plays and sonnets to iambic pentameter and the tight syllabic structure of Japanese haiku are only some obvious examples. Free-verse poetry, so familiar to the modern ear, does not mean unstructured poetry: Poets still compose their verses in the context of a slew of natural lyrical conventions, all aimed at most genuinely transmitting the sort of emotional power good art strives for. Sometimes the reader interprets the visual shape of a poem—the indents, the varying lengths of lines—as arbitrary, but you can be sure the design is highly intentional, tightly harnessing the interplay between blank space and black-inked word.
A lesson here is the usefulness of laboring within conventions—and sometimes breaking them in the process. We may think a stringent artistic rule hampers creativity and wild expression—and that may be true in many cases. But, just as often, working in the confines of a set form brings out an additional flavor of creativity, a deeper meaning. Sometimes you can pierce right to the heart by draping an astounding image, observation, or meditation over a foundation familiar and accessible to the reader. Set forms partly derive from rhythms and patterns naturally resonant to the human ear and eye, after all. Give yourself the challenge of writing in a conventional style, and see where it takes you.
And don’t forget that the visual arrangement of a poem can be inspirational to a prose writer. Peter Matthiessen’s seminal novel Far Tortuga (1975), the tale of a doomed turtle-fishing voyage in the Caribbean, showcases innovative arrangement of words and sentences, making much use of white space: Some of the pages look and read like spare poetry.
You needn’t work too hard in breaking down poetry’s lessons for the creative writer. Like the magic of a good poem itself, many of the lessons are intuitive. Pure inspiration is the heart of the matter. Next time you’re stuck—when the blank page is a menace, not an invitation—crack open a book of poetry and read a poem or two random. See what someone else’s use of language—the meter, the word choice, the imagery, the arrangement—does for your own creative juices. You’d be surprised how often this can bust open a logjam and set the keys to tapping (or the pencil to scribbling).
Guest post contributed by Marissa Harper, on behalf of Brandwatch.com – Brandwatch ia a Social Media Monitoring site that allows brands and agencies to use their Social Media Monitoring Software to capture and analyse social media conversations.