Friday, April 21, 2017

how to write poetically

I am not an expert on writing, I am only someone who writes, and I thought it might be interesting to share with you a couple things I've noticed along the way about poetic writing. Here are a few ideas, for whatever they may be worth, about creating a gentle cadence in your story, novel, poem, or blogpost.

Match internal vowel sounds. Straight-out rhyming is usually jarring within prose, but a delicate internal rhyme can give your sentence flow. He heard the stir of autumn. 

Match internal consonants. This generally stops rhythmic flow, but can create a heavier beat, a percussion effect whether like drums ... down the mountain they blasted on their motorbikes ... or cymbals ... Susan listened to the spiteful hissing of the sea outside her door. 

Alliteration. Matching the first letter of words is something I see constantly overused by students who have been taught poetry by someone not actually a poet. If it is to work, it must be done calmly, without too much thought - but always be aware that as soon as your readers realise it's there, it will seem clunky and obvious, and your hand will show. She opened the old tin, found tobacco papers, safety pins, and a tarnished wedding ring. (Note that example also contains matched internal vowels.)

Adjective-noun pairs. A common apprentice error is to match adjective with noun, adjective with noun, adjective with noun, creating a stuttering effect and showing why editors are always calling for fewer descriptors. But I believe adjectives (and adverbs!) can be used beautifully - just read Patricia McKillip or Nancy Springer to see them mastered with full effect. There are a couple of tricks to using adjectives well. Firstly, mix up the number you use in one sentence. The bright clouds drifted across a vast blue sky. (Take out vast and see the difference it makes.) Secondly, pay attention to syllable counts. For example, the big cat compared with the enormous cat. Thirdly, worry not so much about the quantity of your descriptors but the quality. You will naturally use fewer when you use them with precision. And precise language is always beautiful, poetic. Compare the delicious, moist cake with the succulent cake. On the other hand, keep it real; for example, his black hair compared with his sable hair.

And. This word can be a great way to create rhythm, so long as you use it wisely. The sky and the hills and the shimmer of love-light between them entranced me. (Note the short-short-long notes of sky, hills, and shimmer of love light.) On the other hand, you can also bring a poetic cadence by removing and. The sky, the hills, the shimmer of love-light between them : I was entranced. And is perhaps best used when you have two words beginning with similar sounds. For example, the book and the bowler hat, rather than the book, the bowler hat. One is a beat-flow-beat, whereas the other is a beat-beat. It all depends on the pattern of sound you wish to create.

Music. Listen to it lots before you write. Then write in silence, or you'll lose the natural music of your own words. I think it's especially important to edit in silence, so we can be sure what we wrote in the heat of the moment still sings now our hearts have grown cooler and more clinical.

Simple language. Some of the most glorious stories and poems I've encountered have contained intoxicating words not in everyday use. Mervyn Peake was a poet of the highest calibre in this regard. But such an ability with language is a rare gift - truly, a rare gift. I've never understood why everyone recognises that only a few are specially gifted in sports, maths or art, but believes any person and their dog can write. Unless you know a word, love a word, are so comfy with a word that you'd spend time with it even before you'd cleaned your teeth in the morning, don't use it. Simple words are beautiful and powerful if used well. Also, if a reader has to put down your book and pick up a dictionary, chances are you've done something badly. (On the other hand, you may have been quite purposeful. I just wrote a poem full of words that require a dictionary review, but that was the intention.) The incongruous evening may say exactly what you mean about luminescence in the darkness, but if no one understands then what's the point?

Similes. This is another overused tool. I can usually tell which students have been Educated in creative writing by the number of similes they use. I personally believe similes should be applied rarely, and only if you can not in some way make the association more direct, ie by turning it into a metaphor. Compare She had eyes like a spring sky with Her spring-blue eyes or, better yet, Her eyes. (Why do writers always tell us what colour eyes a character has? Does it ever make a difference to your visual image of them?)

Respect. The best way to create a poetic sense in your writing is to pack away your ego and your literary brilliance, and let the story do its work. A reader can almost always tell when a writer has striven to create an effect, but when that effect is a natural consequence of the story, it is more subtle and admirable. I've found that tales about volcanoes come already equipped with sudden blasting verbs, and fissures in sentences, and a smoulder of uncertain words. I've found that sea stories naturally shift, as if they have their own tide. Writing is a partnership between the teller and the thing being told.

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