Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Dance with the Shadow

Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance. -- Carl Sandburg

I used to have a writing habit that I think I need to cultivate again. At the beginning of each writing session, I read a poem.

This was a while ago, when I was concentrating mostly on writing short stories. I found that reading a poem put my mind in the right place for writing. My brain looked at words in just the right way and my creative juices flowed. Or, at least, trickled, which is all you ask for on some days.

I don't know when I got out of this habit. Probably during a time when I wasn't writing much, like early in my professional career or when I was concentrating more on my fledgeling family. But I think I need to do it again.

Poetry does something to my brain. I think it's a matter of looking at the concentrated language and imagery of a good poem. My favorite poems are usually very concise in language, if not necessarily clear. They concentrate on images and concrete words, avoiding abstractions, and making sure that each word has a purpose and creates an impact.

As prose writers, we don't need to be quite as concise. We can use several pages to create the impression and the feeling that a poem might create in a couple lines or a single image. Our purpose is different, so we write differently.

But if you look at your favorite sentences, either your own or those of your favorite writers, the most impactful phrases probably borrow, consciously or not, from the rules of poetry. There are no extra words. The words in the sentence are strong verbs and nouns that create an impression greater than the words or the image, creating a feeling in the reader that can't necessarily be explained solely by the specific arrangement of English's 26 symbols on the page.

I receive a free poem every day in my email, thanks to poets.org. The poetry ranges from old to new, and some will likely never become favorites. Others, however, are like old friends or new loves. I don't always read the poem every day, but when I go back and read them, I remember why I signed up to get a poem a day.

Even though I'm writing different things now, I think cultivating my old habit will be helpful. The quote at the top of this post can apply to all good writing. When we sit down to write, we are asking the shadow to dance with the echos we put on the page. Let the dance begin with good music, the kind that touches that place inside where words form images. For me, poetry is often the door to that place.

3 comments:

Bruce Luck said...

Poetry was a sissy thing for me growing up so I never sought it out and, thus, never understood it. I was telling this to a writer friend who recommended Roy J. Cook's 101 Famous Poems (1958 McGraw-Hill) which I picked up from The King's English. Been reading one poem a day and yes, it can put the brain in the right place to write.

Bruce Luck said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scott said...

Bruce, there's plenty of "manly" poetry out there, if by that I mean poetry that is not all lacy and frilly. William Stafford, Scott Cairns, David Lee, Theodore Roethke, T.S. Eliot. And of course all those, bloody, violent, wonderful epic poems by Homer, the Beowulf poet, the men who wrote various Arthurian romances. I went through a long period in my youth when I felt like you did. I wouldn't read poetry, although, strangely enough, I wrote it. My taste in poetry jumps from the Renaissance to the modern day, skipping much of the 17th through 19th Centuries for the reasons we mentioned, although there are scattered poets through those centuries who I enjoy too.