Poetry and Prose: How One Improves the Other

How can poetry can make you a better writer of prose?

“True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,

As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.”

~ Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism

Before I started seriously writing fiction, I was a poet. Not a good poet, but a poet nonetheless. Poetry is one of those areas that we don’t usually consider worth “studying.” Instead, poetry is something people just tend to “do.”

prose and poetryInterestingly enough, poetry has been around as an art form for much longer than prose, and for good reason. The first novel is debated but is traditionally cited as Don Quixote, which is about the 17th century. The first poem?

Try Gilgamesh around 2000 BC.

Now, I am not saying that older necessarily means better, but it is important to recognize why poetry developed as an art form before prose. Again, some debate here, but this development is largely attributed to oral language preceding written language. Poetry, what with its catchy rhyme and rhythm, is easier to remember than a paragraph of exposition. Something in the brain likes to draw connections and make patterns, so when we hear a good line of poetry or a catchy rhythm from a song, we are more likely to remember it and recite it ourselves. Our brains’ habit of recognizing these patterns is why we find ourselves with songs stuck in our head.

So, I imagine you’re saying, “Yes, of course, old chap, that is all well and good. But what the devil does all this rubbish have to do with my ability to weave a good yarn?” (I don’t know why you’re suddenly British, but it does make you a good deal more entertaining).

Well, poetry is all about how we can express an idea while using the best words we can. Throw in some understanding of meter, and suddenly you have written something people can’t seem to get out of their heads.

prose and poetryStudying poetry can help teach us how to do make our words memorable. By reading (and writing) poetry, we can develop a sense of which words work together and which words don’t, something that simply doesn’t happen with prose. Oftentimes, the difference between a line in a poem or a line in dialogue being good rather than great is a single word or punctuation mark.

But poetry is more than just dirty limericks, you know, and it is more than the creative free verse that is all the rage with you kids these days. I don’t want to digress into a lecture about different types of poetry and how formal poetry is better than informal poetry (it is), so let’s just say “poetry” as a general rule is a good thing to study, so don’t limit yourself to one kind.

Food for thought: Consider if Pope had written “People always make mistakes, but God always forgives.” It rather lacks the punch of “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

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