Why You Should Read and Write Poetry

Poetry is awesome.

I was always intimidated by it, though. Yes, I wrote my own young, rambling poems, and, yes, I wrote class assignments of sonnets and villanelles, but I was always afraid of meter and rules.  

However, I learned that “form” was my friend.

Let’s call a form a guideline for poetry.  There are plenty of forms outside of poetry, too.  For example, screenwriting is a form, believe it or not–you’re lining your words up to certain margins, and there are rules in terms of using present tense to write the action and narration and there are guidelines for how long an exchange of dialogue should be and how much a page should measure up to in terms of real-time in a film (one page equals one minute, roughly).

Prose has a form in terms of formatting–what paragraphs should look like, how the work should be left-aligned, and so forth.  However, it’s more free-form in terms of content: you don’t have to use rhyme (and it would be very unexpected if you did), and people expect lines and ideas to be continuous rather than chopped-up.  More experimental forms of prose blend together form and function to keep the reader awake to the content and its meaning, blending poetry and prose together.

Now, how can poetry, especially poetry in form, help you become a better prose or screenwriter?  

Poetry encapsulates idea (content and function), rhythm, sound devices, and figurative language (imagery) in a small space, just as a painting or photograph brings together its own forms, functions, ideas, and the artist’s skills.  If you use poetry as practice for writing screenplays and stories, then you’ll learn to use each word it its fullest potential and to subtly bring in rhythm, rhyme, sound devices, and original imagery (not cliches) to tell your story and make settings and actions clear to your readers of screenplays.

Poetry can rhyme, but it doesn’t have to.

Now, if you’re working in a form like a sonnet (14 lines in iambic pentameter with basically every other line rhyming except at the end), then you must rhyme, but the rhymes don’t have to be exact.  You can have sound rhymes that aren’t visual, like “said” and “head,” or you can have rhymes that visually represent the same ending, such as “said” and “Kool-aid.”

In other forms, though, you don’t have to rhyme, but you must repeat lines in a pattern.  This is true for the villanelle and the pantoum.  I LOVE pantoums.

These forms are the most like puzzles, and they really get you to think.
Then, there’s absurd poetry, a cacophony of images, really.  These may make no sense up front but then fill your mind with images that create a visual meaning, kind of like when you look at a story told through stained glass.

Try these forms of poetry and see what happens.  After that, you’re ready to read more examples and then tackle the lovely beast that is the free form!

Now, let’s back up a minute.  From class, you should know about figurative language–those are the metaphors, similes, and personification that you’re always hearing about.  There are more, but those are the basics.

Sound has to do with how words sound when placed next to each other.  There’s consonance and assonance, for example, the repetition of consonant sounds and vowel sounds, respectively.  These can make your poem suggest lilting, lulling, and pleasant sounds such as “please be quiet,” while lots of end-stopped consonants can make a voice sound more abrupt: “just shut up!”

Last, rhythm.  You can start with iambic pentameter and then work your way to a rhythm that just sounds right for your piece.  Line breaks will emerge out of rhythm and content.  

Iambic pentameter occurs when you do this: “da-DA da-DA da-DA.”  Each bit is called a foot, so I imagine a footstep, with the heel coming down lightly and the rest of the foot coming down with force for each pair of sounds.  

Last, I’ll try one more time to convince you to read poetry as well as write it.

Reading it will inspire you to write, I promise.  I’ll end the post with a list of contemporary authors to check out.  Much of their work is available on the Internet, especially at poetryfoundation.org, and they have books out, too.  Full Sail’s library is great about getting them out to you if you ask, even if they need to reach out to other libraries to get them.

Reading it will make this art form more accessible to you.  Contemporary writers tend to write about contemporary problems and observations.  They also use language that is familiar, and if you meet a word you don’t know, you have the power to look it up right at your fingertips!

Reading poetry will make you think, much like doing Sudoku does.  It will keep you young.

Here are my favorite contemporary poets:

Billy Collins (former Poet Laureate of the US)
Laura Kesischke (Ka-ZISS-key)
Kelle (Kelly) Groom
Tony Hoagland
Nick Flynn (the movie Being Flynn is based on his memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City)
Dorianne Laux

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About Em-dash Lady

Em-dash Lady enjoys creative writing most of all, but her interests include art forms from music to writing to visual art to indie films and so forth. She's especially interested in how the art forms influence each other and blend together. She's a creative writing teacher and writer who mostly writes memoir and poetry about her favorite activity, watching TV. I would say I'm kidding, but I'm not. Naps are also her favorite. Too many favorites to count! Enjoy following Em-dash Lady as she figures out how she fits in the ever-evolving world of art.
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