The Music of Language: How Poetry Can Benefit the Aspiring Writer
- Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Poetry is one of the most underrated forms of written communication today. There are several reasons for this. One is that most modern poetry that is exalted today is not fit to be read, either because of the blatantly irreverent ideas expressed or because of the poor craftsmanship of the poem (this is a rant for another day). Another reason is that poetry tends to express thoughts on multiple levels—a skill that is not highly prized in a sound bite society.
Reading and understanding good poetry is an essential part of a writer’s training. Not all writers are poets, but most good writers make use of poetic elements, even in their prose writing. As poet W. H. Auden once said: “A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.”1 This is a trait shared by all true writers at their core. Therefore, regular doses of poetry can benefit an aspiring writer in many different ways.
The first reason that writers should read poetry is that well-written poetry expresses thoughts and emotions in a concise and imaginative way. This should be a goal of all writing. As Rita Dove once said, “Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.”2 If you are a writer of prose, whether of the creative or more informative variety, one of your greatest challenges is learning how to cut the “dead wood” out of your work in order to make your words more effective. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once described poetry as “the best words in the best order.”3 Examining the degree of word craft required in a poem can certainly improve your own skills in this area—even if you are writing prose.
Another reason to read poetry is that poetry helps you develop a feel for the rhythm of language. Edgar Allen Poe defined poetry as “the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.”4 Good poetry has an innate rhythm; reading good poetry can help you sense that rhythm and use it in your own writing. Oftentimes, you may read a sentence and feel, instinctively, that it could be said in a better way—that there is a word too few or too many. This sense is sharpened as you get a feel for the natural ebb and flow of language; poetry is a great whetstone for sharpening that sense.
As we have discussed before in previous articles, good writing should appeal to the ear as well as the eye. Poetry is the music of language. Thus, it pleases the ears more than any other written form. Sometimes people will read a poem silently and then complain: “I don’t get this at all. Why didn’t the author just write this idea in a simple way that makes clearer sense?” Reading a poem silently is like looking at a piece of sheet music and saying, “This song doesn’t seem very good to me!” Songs need to be expressed audibly if they are to make sense and reveal the beauty that the composer intended. Poetry is the same way. Reading a poem aloud is the only way to appreciate its true sense and beauty. As Octavio Paz once said, “To read a poem is to hear it with our eyes; to hear it is to see it with our ears.”5
The elements that create this linguistic music include rhythm, rhyme scheme, alliteration, consonance, repetition, parallelism, word play, and a host of other devices that appeal to the ear as well as the eye and make poetry more memorable. That is why poetry is generally easier to recall than prose. However, as a writer, you want to make your ideas memorable and quotable as well. As Charles Baudelaire once said, “Always be a poet, even in prose.”6 For many people, simply reading poetry aloud subconsciously helps to instill some of these poetic elements in their own written works.
Finally, good poetry often explores interesting philosophical concepts that can inspire in us new ways of viewing the world. “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words,”7 Robert Frost once wrote. Poetry often portrays truths about God, nature, life, and the human condition, yet it expresses these ideas in a fresh way that makes the reader want to chew on the ideas rather than swallow them whole. Oftentimes, poetry expresses thoughts or emotions that you may have felt before but could not translate into words. Indeed, as John Keats once said, “Poetry...should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.”8 Therefore, reading poetry can inspire you with new thoughts and emotions to explore in your own writing.
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