Four Ways Poetry Can Help You Write Anything
Updated: Sep 4, 2021
April is National Poetry Month, a time to read a new book of poetry or revisit the poems you studied in high school.
Unfortunately, poetry often carries a stigma—it’s inaccessible, too flowery or emotional, or not applicable to everyday life. These preconceptions seem to be fading, though, as poetry reading is on the rise in the United States.
Regardless of whether you avoid or adore poetry, you can apply skills poets use in your everyday writing. Let’s look at four lessons poetry can teach you, whether you’re a novelist or a blogger or a technical writer.
Poetry is often meant to be read aloud. Poetic language often relies on the sound of the words more than the meaning, which is better caught audibly.
Take Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells,” for example. Reading it silently is fine, but when you read the poem aloud, the words take on the sound of the bells themselves. The experience is much more visceral. Listening to a great audiobook is similar: the narrator brings out the music of sentences that seem normal in your head.
Even if you’re not using onomatopoeia, reading your writing aloud can improve your editing. When reading aloud, you’ll stumble on outstanding typos, whereas your mind may skip over these when reading silently. You’ll also get a sense for how your readers will interpret your work. You might ask a trusted friend or colleague to read your work aloud for you, so you can become the audience.
Some foreign languages can often sound angry to our ears, even though the words could be perfectly innocuous. Similarly, your work can take a different tone than you intended. As you listen to your words, think about how they sound. Spoken aloud, do they seem harsh? Dull? Exciting? Soothing? If you don’t like what you hear, rewrite and edit until you do.
Yes, some poems can be long (we’re looking at you, “Song of Hiawatha”). However, even when poems run on for several stanzas, they must be economical with their words. A poet’s goal is to get his or her point across quickly and clearly, which often leads to very short work. (Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” is only two lines long!)
Even if your work does not have limits on page, word, or line counts, you can learn from poets by making every word matter. Look for any words that do not lend much meaning to your sentence—such as there are, it is, and that—and either cut them or replace them with weightier words. For example, “There are many people attending the conference,” could be, “Conference attendance is high.” Take a look at this blog post for more ideas on writing concisely.
You may remember learning about poetry forms in high school—haiku, sonnet, limerick, etc. A form is a set of rules a poet will enforce upon his or her poem. For instance, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, starting with, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” is a sonnet, or a sixteen-line poem with a specific rhythm and rhyming pattern.
A form’s rules often limit the poet’s word count, which forces him or her to be extra careful with word choice. It also creates a structure that keeps the poet from rambling or going too far off topic. If you saw the movie Interstellar, you heard Dylan Thomas’s poem, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” which is a villanelle. Villanelles require a complicated rhyme scheme and rhythm as well as a repetition of the first and third lines. Since Thomas was required to repeat, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” he couldn’t stray too far from his topic.
I’m not saying you should employ repetition or rhyming. Giving yourself a set of “rules,” however, can focus your writing. For instance, keeping your thoughts to a tweet forces conciseness. For a blog post, you can choose to keep a list form, such as top five things, three ways, or six quotes, to outline your writing.
On a larger scale, you can keep your social media posts to an established form, such as tips on Tuesdays and Q and A articles on Thursdays. Consistency will garner interest and excitement as your readers anticipate your posts. Moreover, just like when a poem dramatically breaks form with a truncated line, when you break your pattern with a different type of post, such as a big announcement, your readers will be more likely to notice because it’s out of the ordinary.
Poets will often rearrange words in ways that sound unusual to everyday speech. One reason is for word emphasis; placing words at the beginning and end of each line emphasizes their importance.
Think of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” It begins with, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood”; the starting word immediately signals to the reader that a choice must be made (there are two roads, not one). The poem ends with, “And that has made all the difference.” How would this poem sound if it started with, “There were two roads in the wood,” and ended with, “All the difference came from that”? There and that feel much less satisfying.
Be aware of which words start and end your sentences, paragraphs, and articles. Placing keywords in these prime spots will make them more likely to stick with your reader. But don’t stop there! Save your most powerful sentences for the beginning and end of your article, and your work will better engage your audience from the get-go and leave them with the thoughts you want them to consider.
You don’t need a degree in English to appreciate poetry. Spend five to ten minutes every week, or even every day, reading a poem and considering how the poet used language to effectively convey a message or feeling. (You can sign up for a free Poem-a-Day email to simplify this exercise.) Once you discover a takeaway, try to use that skill in your own writing. Soon your work will become more concise, engaging, and effective.