This series of articles will be focusing on poetry strictly as an aid for developing a fiction author’s feel for composition and rhythm with an eye for producing more readable prose. Consequently, I will be discussing different forms on the basis of how they suit that end, and leaving aside the weightier issue of what is good poetry or (horrors!) What Is Poetry?
With that in mind, I advise avoiding the following not because they are bad (I’ll be adding some of my favorites to the codex expurgatorius) but because they are not helpful.
First, don’t read Blank Verse.
I’ll be honest, if I were suddenly granted Godlike powers I would prevent any poet from writing Blank Verse until she or he could prove mastery of at least three different strict forms. When Modernist masters (people like cummings, Eliot, and Pound) wrote Blank Verse they wrote in a way that concealed the deep structure (what Baudelaire called “the secret architecture”) of the poem. The rhythm of the language overwhelms the layout on the page.
Modern poets, for the most part, write Blank Verse to avoid the bother of having any structure whatsoever, deep or shallow. They write Blank Verse not because it is an advanced way of using the language but because rhyme and scansion are hard work.
Sadly, it can be very difficult to tell the difference between verse which is beyond formal structure and verse that is beneath it until you have a solid grasp of poetic structure. So I advise authors who are trying to learn how to use the structure of language in prose to avoid Blank Verse altogether.
Second, don’t read Non-English Poetry.
Unless, of course, you plan on writing prose in other languages. Now, I personally have a weakness for the French Decadents–Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Villiers–but when I sat down with a French dictionary to try my hand at translating Baudelaire (yeah, I was that kind of geek) I realized that the machinery of the French language allowed for things that one just can’t do in English–and vice versa. French is a very regular language, closer to the Latin roots than English. This makes writing poetry in French both easier (rhyming is much simpler) and more difficult (it lacks the freedom of word order that English has).
Italian is even more so, and writing poetry in Latin is like filling in words in the Jumble Puzzle.
Poetry in German, on the other hand, should not be attempted (writing or reading) by anyone who is not both a mathematician and a masochist. I mean, come on, how do you compose a line in iambic pentameter when half of your working vocabulary is words of over ten syllables?
The point is that the English language has its own structure and rules. It is the most versatile means of communication that the Human race has ever developed. You can do things with English that, epistemologically speaking, one just can’t do. It has a beat all its own, and a vocabulary that is simply absurd. If you’re planning on writing in English, you need training from people who know the territory and have fought their battles on its strange hills.
Now, to this I would add, don’t bother with haiku. Yeah, I’m going to get some flack for that, but I’ll stand by it. Haiku, even when written originally in English, are not English verse. European languages are stressed, (you keep the beat by speaking louder or softer) while Asian languages are toned, (you keep the beat by speaking higher or lower.)
There will be a brief pause for any real linguists to have apoplexy at my oversimplification.
Haiku, and other Asian poetic forms, are designed to be unstressed. Reading English haiku aloud one has a choice between either screwing up the form by accenting the English words or of sounding like Robby the Robot.
Stick to forms that use stresses. European non-English forms like villanesques and sestinas can be used for English verse. Haiku cannot. Deal with it.
Song Lyrics don’t count.
But, but, but… what about Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan?
Yeah, they, and a lot of other musicians, wrote some beautiful poetry. There is a difference between a song and poem, though, and it is a significant difference. Songs have music, and unless you’re going to publish on MySpace and have a player that pops up when someone opens your book, you don’t.
When you read the lyrics to a song that you know, you “hear” the musical accompaniment. You can’t help it. And that means that your getting the rhythm of the music, not the rhythm of the words. In a well written song they are going to share beats, but what a writer of prose should be reading for is the technique of expressing the beats with nothing more than the language, read silently.
Music is great. Personally, I always write to music, and I have a dozen or so different Pandora stations that I can choose from to match the music to the tone of the scene I am writing.
For purposes of this series, though, song lyrics don’t count. We’ll be focusing on words alone.