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How poetry can improve your writing craft

Advertising copywriters are often told that they need to get to grips with poetry. After all, the ability to express complex images and emotions in just a few lines is what makes a copywriter great.

Actually, poetry can help writers of all breeds, be they novelists or nonfiction writers, to improve their craft. The ability to play music to the reader through words or conjure some unforgettable images is something all writers aspire to achieve.

So to celebrate National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo), iUniverse looks at how you can use poetry to improve your writing.

Read lots of poems

Of course the best place to start improving your writing craft is by reading poems, and lots of them. Poetry has the advantage of being short, which allows you to experiment with many different styles. Try to read a few and see what kind of feelings and images they inspire in you. If they leave an imprint on you, ask yourself why, what was it about this poem that affected you so?

For a start, try reading “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Diameter of the Bomb” by Yehuda Amichai, and “Hope is the Thing of Feathers” by Emily Dickinson.

Learn to stimulate the senses

The poet paints pictures with words, but that picture is not limited to images; the poet should stimulate our sense of sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste just as a picture can do. The poet becomes a kind of camera that produces striking, fresh images that remain fixed in the mind’s eye. This line, for example, offers a strong image: “Sunlight varnishes oak trees crimson.”

Try to play around with images in your own writing, or practice writing a poem or two. See what kind of images you can conjure, and try to understand why imagery works well at stimulating the senses.

Learn to use concrete words

Poetry also teaches us that it’s better to use a concrete word in place of an abstract one. An example of a concrete word is “warm.” It’s concrete because you can experience warmth with your senses—it’s a real thing. An abstract term might be “freedom” or “happiness” because you can’t see or touch them.

Using abstract words in poetry bypasses the reader’s senses, meaning they don’t experience your idea to the fullest. For example: “she feels happy,” isn’t as powerful as “her tomato cheeks radiated warmth.” The image of a tomato, strange as it may seem, will last longer in the reader’s memory because it’s concrete.

Learn to convert clichés

Any writing style that relies on clichés loses its impact. Overused phrases are a bit like stale bread—no one wants to eat it. He may be blind as a bat, or busy as a bee, but these clichés are tattered and worn and have lost all their power.

Instead, you can convert your clichés. For example, try listing all the words you associate with being busy and create a new phrase. For example: “Busy as an old lady knitting.” Finding original phrases will inspire your writing with new life.

Learn to subvert the ordinary

The strength of poetry lies in the poet’s ability to see ordinary objects, places, or ideas in a completely new way. You might see a young child standing in line with his mother, but a poet will imagine the boy painting the walls with nail polish and the mother struggling not to be angry. Just try looking at something ordinary and attempt to see it in a completely new way, and your writing will love you for it.

Learn to think about themes

Poets love themes, and your own writing should include them too. Yet many novice writers find it hard to get to grips with themes. A theme isn’t just an idea. You can’t say that your book covers the theme of war because that’s a topic, not a theme. You can define themes as an idea with an opinion attached. Thus, your theme might be: “even though we claim to be peace-loving people, war is a natural aspect of the human race.” This is the poet’s opinion.

Of course, there’s far more to poetry than this. The best advice is to read a poem at least once a day and internalize the images, the rhythm, and the feelings. Study things like metaphor, simile, and other literary devices employed by poets. Once you’ve got to grips with poetry, your writing craft is sure to have improved.