Blogger: Cynthia Ruchti
Roses are red.
Violets are blue.
Whether you ingest poetry through song lyrics or fairytales or children’s books or the Psalms or poetry readings in dimly lit theaters…
And whether poetry is currently “selling” or not (It’s not, in case you wondered)…
Those who write poetry have much to teach the fiction and nonfiction writers of the world.
POETS UNDERSTAND THAT LESS IS OFTEN MORE
Poets are ruthless about trimming away anything that hinders the flow, power, and point of their poetry. A poet often works twice as hard to say what needs to be said in fewer words than if they’d told the story outright as a rambling message. What is left is a concise, potent, meaningful-for-what’s-absent-as-well-as-what’s-there, economy of words with limitless worth. “Like gold to airy thinness beat,” wrote poet John Donne in his 17th century masterpiece “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.”
Our two souls therefore, which are one,Though I must go, endure not yetA breach, but an expansion,Like gold to airy thinness beat.
That line wrecked me in college. And reset my priorities about relationships and distance and grief.
The “less” in that stanza said “more” than a forty-page treatise on death and dying.
What does that mean for nonfiction and fiction writers, no matter their category or subgenre? Where are you describing a scene that can be illustrated with a word picture instead? Have you cluttered the page with words when more white space would communicate better? Have you said too much, given away what the reader needed to conclude for herself or himself? Have you taken up too much of the reader’s mental margin and left no room for imagination?
POETS CARE ABOUT THE RHYTHM OF WORDS
Even free verse–which at first glance might seem to have no rhythm or rhyme–is written with an understanding of the musicality of words strung together in a particular order and pace. The poet might choose the word elegant rather than pretty because elegant has three syllables and rests differently on the reader’s or listener’s ear.
A POET IS SELECTIVE ABOUT WORD CHOICES
Consider this spoken word style of poetry by a little known poet, describing scenes in the life of Joseph, the Dreamer, from the Old Testament:
And so the dream ended, underground
Before it had begun
In a pit so deep and death-dank dark
The sky above, a handbreadth,
A pinpoint of hope, the sun.
Love threw me here
tossed me here
pushed me here
That thing called love
That smells like
My brothers’ armpits
The stench of their disgust for me
The bile and rank of jealousy
Anger? Too much energy
I saved my strength for pain, its drain
Consuming, clawing, ripping,
Tearing at sloped walls
With no hand holds
With no way out
No climbing gear
To bridge the fear
That gaped and scraped my fingers raw
That, silence-laced, convinced me now
They’d turned and walked away from me
I’ll die in here, in hurt’s vile pit
I’ll die from knowing that they knew
And left me anyway.
The sky, plate-wide and miles above me,
Mocked the crumble, the dust of me
It spoke. Hope spoke. A sky of voices
“Anyone there, in hurt’s latrine?”
Not my brothers. Not their voices,
Echoed down the slick-sloped walls
No “I’m sorry” reached that low
Remorse, regret, “can’t you take a joke?”–
None filtered through to where I labored
To breathe through the unforgiveness
Of a coatless night
In a lightless pit
Shadowed with a sleepless dream.
And now, they stand before me
These men, these men, these men
Stand there, blank-faced, unaware
That despite their best efforts, I lived.
Lived through humiliation
deeper than the pangs that roil through their ignorant bellies.
“Help us,” they beg, the beggars, as if calling up
from the floor of an inescapable pit
Calling to me as if unaware
what they need
without the password,
They didn’t even know to ask for it.
And neither did I
In that black, dank pit where abandonment sliced me open
Laid me bare
Where rejection bled me out like leeches
And all I could see was a circle of sky
A pinpoint of Hope
And dawn, then dusk, then dark, then dawn
Showed in that circle of sky.
A promise of unending faithfulness
From a God who tucked me in a prison
He could use as a classroom
To feed my dreams and teach me how to forgive.
So these men, these men, my brothers
© 2014 Cynthia Ruchti
Note how the word choices serve as introduction, literary paint, and punctuation. Though of necessity different in nonfiction’s or fiction’s narrative, how would precise word choices improve the impact of the message of your project? Take one sentence or one paragraph and put it to the rhythm and word choice test. Is there another option that could make the sentence sing? Or rather, resonate?
Poetry penetrates our defenses, often piercing the soul and engaging a reader’s or listener’s emotions. If we pay attention to its methods, poetry can teach us how to do the same in fiction or nonfiction.
As you study other authors who write books like those you write, also consider studying high-impact poetry. What does the poet know that can deepen the impact of your work?