The International Women's Writing Guild

Why Read Poetry If You Don't Want to Write It?

Wednesday, January 11, 2017 12:07 AM | IWWG (Administrator)

by Marj Hahne, IWWG Instructor

Writers, we'd probably agree that our literary expression has been informed and expanded by our engagement with other art genres—visual, musical, theatrical, etc. I wonder, though, if we've considered how our writing can be served by an active inquiry into the genres we don't care to write in.

I remind myself and tell my workshop participants: You are the original revision. An ever-inquiring, ever-expanding you will ever-create beyond what you already know, to generate purer, more authentic expression in its first draft—out of the pen, the paintbrush, the guitar, the body. Poet Myra Shapiro says that the poet’s job isn’t to write every day but to observe every day. That’s a valuable job description for any artist, and keen observation requires an immersion in and consumption of the world as it is: a world of people, nature, politics, art.

Our participation in other art genres can provide access to our own subjects via a mental or metaphysical pathway. Others’ paintings, photographs, films, and dances have inspired ideas for my own poems, plus I’m always motivated to write after I’ve read some good poetry. I once heard a writer say that when she can’t get her pen moving, she dances for five minutes to shift her energy and release the block. I've resolved to surrender my product-oriented sensibility so that I may paint, collage, pastel-draw with abandon—for the simple joy of creating, but also to disrupt the status quo of my own poetry-writing practice.

More specifically, the reading (and writing) of poetry can extend a prose writer’s craft because well-written prose displays the two primary qualities of well-written poetry: words and rhythms that seem inevitable. A good writer approaches the craft of writing as a craftsperson, a technician, an artist inquiring into the medium (of language), its possibilities and limitations. The poet brings a particularly vigilant discernment to language choice because, absent of plot, characters, etc., a poem must succeed on its sense and sound jointly—what’s said and how it’s said, such that what’s unsaid and silence are also presences in the poem. 

A now-unavailable online article cited research suggesting that readers approach a poem with a more focused attention to the language than they do a novel, that they read poems more slowly and re-read individual lines. Whether this is due to the poem's density or the reader's perception of difficulty, the invested reading of poetry can enhance a prose writer’s line-by-line craft (even though the prose writer’s building block is not the poet’s line per se). 

A rewarding case in point: poet Edward Hirsch's beautiful prose in How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry, the first chapter of which is available here:

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