Poetry For Fiction Writers, Part I: What Not To Read

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.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Writing, Poetry and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Poetry For Fiction Writers, Part I: What Not To Read

  1. Pingback: Poetry For Fiction Writers, Part II: Meter | mishaburnett

  2. FANTASTIC post, and I’m looking forward to reading the whole series (and getting some good recs!)

    As a musician who dabbles in songwriting, I echo you completely about song lyrics not being the same as poetry. I’ll go further: most song lyrics actually sound kinda dumb absent the music. 99% of the time, they don’t work on their own.

    And regarding translated poetry, I agree. Even with a good translation, everything is still slightly different (I hesitate to say “off.”). I notice this a lot reading Greek stuff translated into English: it still has a Greek cadence and word-choice and sense of imagery that poetry written by native English speakers does not.

    Now that we know what to avoid, I’m excited to see what you recommend!

  3. Pingback: Poetry For Fiction Writers, Part III: Anatomy Of The Sonnet | mishaburnett

  4. Pingback: Poetry For Fiction Writers, Part IV: Some Suggestions | mishaburnett

  5. Anonymous incognito4444 says:

    About the Haikus in European languages. You make an interesting point about stress vs tonal. I read a few in Catalan and it does comes across as flat to my ear. Like you say every language has its rules and structures and some forms are nice to experiment but are rather limiting.


    • Mysha says:


      No, I disagree: A 俳句 is Japanese, and comes with everything Japanese, like a low content per syllable and a tonal stress, as well as a lot of rules about seasonal words, etc.. A haiku in English is a related form of poetry, but it has different rules, among other things the need to place its stress in locations where English allows changing the volume. A haikû is again a slightly different form of poetry, because it’s more influenced by the Frisian tendency to tell a story in every poem.
      I guess, for all of these, as for other forms of poetry or verse, the key is to know what you’re reading. You can gather a lot from the way verse is written under the rules that govern it. Just don’t read (even translated) 俳句 in the expectation of seeing how (English) poetry works.


  6. LeGrand says:

    Minor question/quibble in the midst of hearty agreement: free rather than blank verse, surely? Shakespeare’s plays are in blank verse (usually unrhymed iambic pentameter, with rhythmic variation); free verse takes off in the 20th century.

    Haiku depend not on tone, but on time (“quantity”: basically, the length of the syllable). Japanese does use tone occasionally (as does English), but it isn’t a tonal language the way Chinese or Vietnamese are (where the difference in tone is as much a part of the syllable as the vowel is). Quantity doesn’t work very well in English verse (see below). Japanese in generally is tonally fairly flat. (Chinese verse is a much more complicated matter.)

    Classical Latin verse is also based on quantity (syllable length rather than syllable stress); the shift from quantity to stress is one of the events that marks the emergence of medieval Latin. In Latin, an iamb is short-long; in English it’s unstressed-stressed. French verse tends to rely on quantity too; people have tried it in English, but stress wins out no matter how hard the poet tries. English verse really wants to be stress-based, all the way back to Old English (for example, Beowulf).

    Despite the English tendency to stress, real poetry tends to be very fluid, using quantity as well, and playing off formal stress against informal stress (so that a line or verse can have two stress patterns at once, the formal (eg iambic pentameter) and the informal (eg a four-stressed ballad metre).

    I rise in the dawn, and I kneel and blow
    Till the seed of the fire flicker and glow.
    And then I must scrub, and bake, and sweep,
    Till stars are beginning to blink and peep;

    What is the stress on “I” in the third line? It could be relatively unaccented (“and THEN I must SCRUB”, parallel with “I RISE in the DAWN”) or it could be accented (“and then *I* must SCRUB”, parallel with “tile the SEED of the FIRE”). Or maybe a bit of both, eh?

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Okay, I’ll admit to being an enthusiastic dilettante when it comes to poetry. I am in the habit of using “free verse” and “blank verse” interchangeably, I hadn’t realized the technical meaning. Once you explain it, yes, I mean “free verse.” As you point out, Shakespeare’s unrhymed verse is very tightly structured.

      I had thought Japanese was toned, but it seems I’m wrong. I did know it was unstressed, which is my basic point.

      Excellent explanation of quantity vs. stress in meter. Thank you.

  7. Pingback: I’m not a Poet, and I Know It – Cedar Writes

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