I’ve written exactly one decent poem in my life. I’d post it, but it’s been lost for a long time. Too bad, too, because I am unlikely ever to be quite that distraught again, or at least I hope so. The thing is, poetry is difficult, because each word must carry a great load of meaning. You could put a novel in a phrase, if you’re good at it. As some people, of course, are. Eliot, Pound, Shakespeare, Dylan (first and last name, same to me,) and others. And then there are the rest of us. I suspect that anyone could write good poetry if they were sufficiently motivated. Unfortunately, as poetry rarely pays the bills (Williams Carlos Williams was a physician. Bob Dylan a folk/rock/pop star, to name a couple examples) very few people are motivated by the simple thrill of writing poetry. Even Shakespeare wrote his stuff to pack the house and get juicy roles for himself and his friends. So maybe poetry isn’t such a lucrative career choice, at lest per se?
Well, then, consider picture books. If anything, a picture book is worse than a poem. You have maybe 27 words, maybe a few more or less, to tell a complete story. The stories may seem simple at first glance, but consider the cadence and rhyme of Goodnight Moon. It’s beautiful, and at the end, you know a great deal about the person going to sleep, a great deal about the world that person lives in, and you’ve enjoyed some beautiful words in the learning. It’s right up there with, “I could write a book. I have a word processor” if you think you can just pound out a picture book. (And this ignores the importance of the pictures as well.)
And now consider the full-length novel. Twain wrote that The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening. Do you suppose he checked every word in every book to ensure that each one conveyed just what he meant it to convey? Oh, heck yes he did! And his books have proved to be enduringly popular for a century and a half, so far. He wrote long form prose with the same eye for detail as one needs to write a picture book, or a poem.
I was just listening to a playlist of Leonard Cohen, who was one of my favorite musicians back in the vicinity of 1970, more or less. Of the others I favored in those days, many covered Bob Dylan songs. Dylan and Cohen were, reportedly, mutual fans. Some years later I discovered the music of Bruce Springsteen. What these three composers have in common is top notch lyrics. That is, they are all excellent poets. Maybe that’s why I’ve never written any serious songs that were worth the trouble to sing: I’m a lousy poet. But, looking back, I see that I was certainly given the opportunity to enjoy a lot of great poetry. Dylan won a Nobel, of course, but Cohen’s lyrics grabbed me the moment I heard them. I don’t know who Suzanne was, but I’d have been happy to meet her. And, then this, from The Boss:
Beyond the palace hemi powered drones scream down the boulevard,
Girls comb their hair in rearview mirrors while boys try to look so hard.
The amusement park rises cold and dark; kids are huddled on the beach in the mist.
I want to die with you, Wendy, on the streets tonight, in an everlasting kiss.
Not bad, huh?
I hope that the youth of this moment have some exposure to something as excellent. I was privileged, still am, to have lived when poems like these three wrote sold incredibly well. Everybody should be so privileged, don’t you think?
Some people may be uptight enough to iron their shorts, maybe even put plenty of starch in ’em, but not me. But, in response to some reading I came across extolling the virtues of writing short stories, I wrote my first one in quite some time. And it came out fine! So, in spite of the fact that I wrote it with absolutely no idea of what I was going to do with it (specifically at least,) I wish to add my voice to those encouraging short story production.
I have for years admired poetry. William Carlos Williams creates an entire world in a few lines simply by describing a wet, red, wheelbarrow in a chicken yard. In prose that might take a couple of paragraphs, but in good prose, say in your earth-shattering novel that will no doubt redefine American literature for the balance of this century, it may take only one, two, or three words. If your novel is really good, that is. A novel, even a short story, contains a lot more information than a poem. Williams did describe the city of Patterson, New Jersey, at length, in a long poem. But he had to use just about as many words as would a novelist describing a day in the life of said city in any sort of detail. By which I mean, I don’t want to stretch my “poetry as the essence of storytelling” idea any further. I confess, I’m not much of a poet. I can’t even write a serious song, but I can write a short story. And it is great practice for the longer stuff.
In a short story, you can’t spend a lot of time on background, exposition, or extended character development. The reader has to see the character, figure out what she is immediately, and develop sympathy for her predicament within the first couple of paragraphs. That doesn’t require that you be a great poet, but it does require that you write very well. 250 words in, we should know who this is, what her problem is, and what she’s doing about it. You can put the thrilling climax right up front if you wish, and fill us in on how it came about. Or, you can do the more traditional thing and put that thrill just before the end (don’t have time for much denouement, either.) A few writers have gotten away with putting the big moment smack in the middle of the story. If you think you can pull that off, please go ahead. (I like putting it up front as a teaser, leaving the resolution for the end.) You must show everything, because there is no time for telling. She’s nervous? She has a tic, or something, right? He’s mean? He shoves a kid out of his way.
And that is by way of saying that, if nothing else, writing short stories will give you practice on the tight writing you need to extend throughout your entire earth-changing novel! The one I just finished is based on the same social situation as the YA novel I’m shopping around. But, it is only 2500 words, and it has different characters, only one of which is the POV we see, and it’s a completely different story, in several senses of that phrase.
So, what they hey, give it a try! You have nothing to lose but, oh, I dunno, superfluous modifiers? Happy writing!
I’ve put a rant or two about Bob Dylan on this site in the past. I have said that I considered Dylan to be one of the major poets of the twentieth century, and so I do. But, he is not the only one. Yes, there are the old reliable ones they taught me about in college, Yeats, Keats, Eliot, Pound, Williams, and (Dylan) Thomas. But also, there are a couple of more. One is Bruce Springsteen, no surprise there, as he was as close to a protégé as Bob Dylan ever got. (They reference each others works a few times.) And there was Leonard Cohen. Bob Dylan liked Leonard Cohen, and vice-versa. Fine poets, both.
But I never thought of them as poets back when I would sit and play my Martin D35 as I sang their lyrics, over and over. I still love those songs. Blowin’ in the Wind is a classic by Dylan. And at about that same time I first heard Suzanne by Leonard Cohen. To this day, I couldn’t say exactly what it’s about, but the imagery, oh, the imagery, is wonderful. But, it didn’t occur to me that this was fine poetry, and not just the words to a song.
[You know, I’ve heard Shakespeare’s work put to music, too. A sonnet or two, that is. I should have known better, I guess.]
There is an official Leonard Cohen website, available here if you’d like to learn more. There are lyrics to his songs available at various places on the web, too. The link takes you to a Google search result.
The reason I failed to realize the majesty and depth of these two poet’s work was because I was in college, and taking English classes, and I knew a mess of poets. Those poets never wrote anything like what Dylan and Cohen were releasing, but they were poets, they said so, the teachers said so, and that meant that they were writing poetry, ipso facto. Except that, well, maybe it was poetry, but it was mostly lousy poetry. I’m sure that several encyclopedias worth of discussion is out there concerning what makes someone a great writer as opposed to a hack like most of us, but whatever it is, it is/was present in Dylan/Cohen, and it was decidedly lacking in the poets I knew back in the day. Fortunately, none of that bad poetry survives today, so far as I know. (And, to be honest, not all of it was bad, but most of it was bad. The not bad, even pretty good, stuff is still around, I’m sure.)
But Bob Dylan’s and Leonard Cohen’s works endure, and will continue to endure. Here’s a sample of Cohen:
Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir,
I have tried, in my way, to be free.
I could learn to like that sort of poetry. Oh, wait, I’ve liked it ever since I first heard it, and that is the actual truth. I liked the work of Cohen, and Dylan, the first time I heard their lyrics. I know, there are those who cried over a singer getting a Nobel Prize, rants about how awful the Nobel Committee is, but, in truth, those ranters and complainers were and are, to put it simply, wrong.
Suzanne takes you down to the place near the river.
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night beside her.
And you know that she’s half crazy, but that’s why you want to be there. And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China, And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her, Then she gets you on her wavelength, and she lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover. (Leonard Cohen)
Or, from South of the Border, up in the North Country:
Then take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time,
Far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees,
Out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow. (Bob Dylan)
Sorry, doubters and serious academics, those are some of the finest lines of poetry I’ve ever read, and I’ll bet that Wordsworth, Shelley, Poe, WC Williams, Dylan Thomas, and probably even Will Shakespeare would agree with me. So to the point of this post: If I had simply believed in my own judgement, I would have realized that these songs I liked to perform were great literature, and seen the earnest but missed the mark works of my peers for, well, earnest but missed the mark works. I knew what good writing was, but didn’t realize that I knew it.
You know what good writing is, too, or you wouldn’t care enough to try to be a writer! You know it! You may need some help to recognize how to produce your own, that’s true, but YOU KNOW WHAT GOOD WRITING IS!!! TRUST YOURSELF!!!
There, write that down in your daily journal, Bucky!
I was just listening to satellite radio when “Mr. Tambourine Man” was played. The original, by the composer. You may remember him. I was struck, for the first time, by what a damn fine poem it is. See for yourself and click here for the lyrics from the official Bob Dylan website.
Back at Bowling Green State I knew a bunch of poets, and as I edited a literary annual (called Inkstone, if memory serves,) I saw a lot of poetry, though I was the prose editor. I didn’t understand a lot of it. I wondered why people liked poetry so much? I mean, if you can’t tell what it’s about, where’s the point, right? And I still agree with that assessment. Because, as it happens, those were terrible poems, or at least, most of them were.
But over time I came to understand how a poem is supposed to work, and to really enjoy good poetry. I learned about Imagism, for instance, which is what Bob Dylan writes. Bruce Springsteen, too. I can’t imagine some of my professors back then liking either Dylan or Springsteen, but I sure do.
Aside – I once helped two fellow students write a poem by drawing random stolen lines out of a hat. Their instructor particularly liked the line, “Holds you in his armchair so you can feel his disease.” That’s from Come Together by the Beatles.
I believe that fiction writers can learn a lot by studying poetry. Consider this famous poem, the absolute poster child of a poem for imagism, by William Carlos Williams.
The Red Wheelbarrow
So much depends upon The red wheelbarrow Glazed with rain water Beside the white chickens.
It’s a single sentence, actually, but every time I read those lines I can see that wet wheelbarrow shining next to some white hens. There’s a chicken coop there too, of course, and other stuff not mentioned in the sentence. And that is my point!
If you can write a sentence like William Carlos Williams could, and pack so much meaning into it that the reader can see just what you’re describing, you pretty much have the secret of great writing. The poetry I follow is mostly song lyrics, but I have read the (supposedly) best: Eliot, Pound, Williams, Thomas, Whitman, etc. and found them to be excellent.
And the reason that they are excellent is that they are very, very, very clear in their meaning.