I keep a poetry book in my bathroom.
This fact might be TMI but it is the quickest way to convey my relationship with poetry. I consider poems a necessity, but I don’t take them too seriously. Poor poetry, so many people have learned to either dread or reverence it out of every day life. While children are given a steady diet of nursery rhymes, most adults rarely partake of the stuff.
This poem by Billy Collins explain the problem.
Introduction to Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Too many people see a poem as a problem to be solved, rather than a tasty morsel to be savored. Rather poetry should viewed as food for the soul. No one asks the meaning of a cookie. You simply eat one and enjoy the brown sugar, blending with salty butter and warm chocolate chips. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to form an opinion about whether you like a cookie or not, you taste it, maybe take another bite and you know. If you really like it, you share it with others. That’s how it should be with poetry.
Ray Bradbury once said that every aspiring writer should read a poem a day. “Read the great poets, go back and read Shakespeare, read Alexander Pope, read Robert Frost.” Reading poetry is essential for writing prose. Because, to continue the cookie analogy, just as we are what we eat, we write what we read.
Poems do all the same things I try to do in a novel— convey character, create atmosphere, evoke emotion, throw in a plot twist—with a lot fewer words. Consider this poem by Shel Silverstein:
The Slithergadee has crawled out of the sea,
He may catch all the others, but he won’t catch me.
No you won’t catch me, old Slithergadee
You may catch all the others, but you wo--
Four lines create a complete story. It’s all there: setting (near the sea), protagonist (the over-confident speaker), antagonist (the Slithergadee), plot (the monster has escaped the sea) and a plot twist (the narrator is eaten). Not a word is wasted. Due to the brevity of poetry, each word merits close examination.
I know, I said I am casual about my poetry. And I am, usually I’m good with reading one or two or a day. But when my writing is stilted or stale or I just need a creative boost, a close reading of a poem can be revelatory.
Let’s try with a poem by D.H. Lawrence:
Baby Running Barefoot
When the white feet of the baby beat across the grass
The little white feet nod like the white flowers in the wind,
They poise and run like puffs of wind that pass
Over water where the weeds are thinned.
And the sight of their white playing in the grass
Is winsome as a robin’s song, so fluttering;
Or like two butterflies that settle on a glass
Cup for a moment, soft little wing-beats uttering
And I wish that the baby would tack across here to me
Like a wind-shadow running on a pond, so she could stand
With two little bare white feet upon my knee
And I could feel her feet in either hand
Cool as syringa buds in morning hours
Or firm and silken as young peony flowers
Ah! There are so many good things happening in this poem. But I’ll only talk about a few. In the poem feet “nod,” a verb usually reserved for another body part — the head. The verb switch is effective because it describes the action well but at the same time surprises the reader. It makes we wonder, what other verb switches could I use?
In another line, the sight of a child’s feet on the grass is compared to a robin’s song. The writer uses synesthesia, a poetic device in which one sense is described with terms for another. The first time I used synesthesia in my writing I had no idea there was a name for it. I had just seen it used in a poem and thought, Cool! That really works. Hmm…maybe I should try that. Synesthesia is used again in the line, “soft little wing beats uttering.” I love it!
Also, let’s look at the effective use of verbs in this poem. “Beat,” “tack,” and “playing” are all used in place of “run” or “running.” In my last book there was lot of running
away from the villain. I thought I had used every synonym for run. But my thesaurus didn’t have “beat” or “tack.” I could have used this poem while I was doing my revisions.
The poem ends comparing baby heels to peony buds. From now on, whenever I see peonies I will think of a toddler’s feet. A good metaphor or simile is like that, it sears and image in your head, creating a new reality. On the other hand an awkward metaphor breaks the enchantment, death to both poetry and prose. So it’s important to develop an ear for good similes and metaphors. Most of us have written a dysfunctional simile or a subpar metaphor and most of us will write one again. It happens. But the more we read quality similes and metaphors, the more likely we will write successful ones, as well as recognize our feeble ones and eliminate them.
Now there was nothing particularly special about this last poem. I just stumbled upon it the other day in The Norton Anthology of Poetry. You could do the same close reading with most any poem in a good poetry anthology. In fact, I suggest you do. Whenever you are looking for a fresh verb, a vivid image, or a more apt description reading poem or two will jumpstart your creativity. Kind of like a chocolate chip cookie or two will help power you through a mid-afternoon slump.
* In the same speech quoted before, Ray Bradbury said “Stay away from most modern poems. It’s crap! It’s not poetry!” I think he was being a bit snobbish. While I agree that every writer should read classic poetry such as, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Keats. Two of the three poems I shared here would be considered modern poems.
About the Author:
We're all writers, we're all moms, writing our way through the "brambles" of life and our stories.