Using Poetry to Improve Your Writingby Mika Teachout
The Internet Writing Journal, May 1998
A number of months ago, I wrote an article for The Internet Writing
Journal® discussing Wilfred Owen's poem "Dulce Et Decorum Est." In that article I discussed reasons why an active present-day poet should have a working knowledge of, or at least an understanding of, past forms of poetry. I argued that poetry is a dynamic force, changing with each new poet who attempts to write. The poet must understand what has come before in order to change what exists. It is only then that Poetry can evolve and progress. I am not talking about monumental change but merely change that offers a new way of looking at a thing (be it the subject, imagery, symbolism, or even form).
In retrospect, my article was obviously geared toward poets more than anyone else. If you are a novelist or if you write non-fiction, knowing the different forms of poetry such as sonnet, villanelle, or sestina probably won't help you. However, is it possible to use poetic elements or devices to make your writing more effective? Will poetry help your writing and how? Outside of poetry, is there room for poetry?
If you are writing for personal enjoyment, perhaps the next statement will not apply to you. If, however, you are writing with the end goal of publication and success from your writing (be it recognition and/or money), then you will agree that other than you (the writer), the most important person involved with your writing is your audience. You are creator, bard, salesperson, and entertainer all in one. How do you keep your audience's attention? Drawing them in is one thing, but keeping them there is quite another. If you are (dare I say it?) boring, the thing you have to say may very well go unsaid even if it is the most important point to ever be made. Sometimes what you have to say cannot be heard until you figure out how to say it. Perhaps here is where we can learn a valuable lesson from the world of poetry.
The elements I will be discussing are imagery/symbolism/metaphor. Although imagery, symbolism, and metaphor aren't exclusive of poetry, "tightness of imagery" and how it makes symbolism and metaphor evolve is best illustrated by poetry. When I say "tightness of imagery," I mean a recurring image or images throughout the poem which tie the idea of the poem together. Sometimes there is only one image, but usually there is a group of images working together to illustrate or describe something. When the images in a poem are "tight," the reader stays with the poem. When the images loosen or the poem goes off on a tangent, you lose the reader. A tight image will keep occurring within the poem and point the reader back to a previous part of the poem where the image first appeared or re-appeared for a second or third time. In effect, the second time the image appears it points to the first, the third points to the second, and so on. The poem eventually circles back upon itself and the images tie the poem together. By the end of the poem, the images hopefully will have evolved into something symbolic and eventually, metaphoric.
To illustrate "tightness of imagery" let's take a moment and look at the following e.e. cummings poem:
somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near
your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously) her first rose
or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands
What are Cummings' images, we ask. There are two main image groups including sensory images, and images taken from nature.
The sensory image group includes sight, touch, and sound. Instances of the sight image are found in line 2-"eyes have their silence," line 5-"slightest look," and line 19-"the voice of your eyes." Instances of the touch image are found in line 4-"i cannot touch," line 6-"closed myself as fingers," line 8-"touching skilfully," and line 20-"has such small hands." Instances of the sound image are found in line 2-"have their silence," and line 19-"the voice of your eyes." The group of images taken from nature works with images of seasons and roses. We see the seasonal images in line 7-"as Spring opens," line 12-"snow carefully," and line 20-"not even the rain." We see the rose image occurring in line 7-"petal by petal," line 8-"her first rose," line 11-"of this flower," and line 19-"deeper than all roses." Both of the image groups are continued constantly throughout the poem. For example, if you start drawing lines between words having to do with the sight image, you will see that the image of sight points back to itself. Where sight is found in line 5, it points back to where sight is found in line 2 and where sight is found in line 19, it points back to where sight is found in line 5.
The next question we need to ask is what do these images symbolize? First, let's look at the functions of opening and closing. Throughout the poem we are shown words that have to do with something opening or closing. Eyes open and close, hands open and close, the rose opens and closes, even the heart in line 11 and the breathing in line 16 could be argued to be a way of opening and closing. Eyes, hands, roses, heart, lungs, the woman he's writing to, and even himself all symbolize things that close and open. The opening and closing symbol becomes a metaphor for the power that the woman has over the poet. The poet even says that "if your wish be to close me, i and/my life will shut" (meaning that the poet will eventually die but initially shut just like the flower that imagines the snow). Even though he refers to her as frail (line 3) and fragile (line 14), there is a power contained in the weakness i.e. "power of your intense fragility". She has the power to open up her hand and let him go or hold him in her hand, enclosing him. Throughout the poem Cummings gives us more of these juxtaposed symbols. Not only closing/opening and frailty/power are here but also rain/snow, winter/spring, silence/voice, and touch/inability to touch. These symbols become metaphors. In the poem as a whole, open/close is a metaphor for entrapment/freedom, rain/snow and winter/spring are metaphors for death/life, silence/voice is a metaphor for a language that doesn't require words, and touch/inability to touch is a metaphor for the completeness of the poet's and his muse's union (judging by lines 3 & 4 "in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,/or which i cannot touch because they are too near", she is so much a part of him and he is so much a part of her that he cannot see or touch). It is almost as if he is metaphorically contained within her.
The first thing that you need to do as a the writer, especially if you write fiction, is give your story a particular image that you intend to use throughout the novel. Saul Bellow in Seize the Day uses the image of water/sea/ocean throughout his book. Second, you must decide what this image will symbolize. Bellow's water image symbolizes something that can drown or cleanse. Third, you must make the symbol become a metaphor. Bellow's water image, which symbolizes drowning/cleansing, becomes a metaphor for a man who is drowning in society, drowning in his own life, and desperately wants to be made whole again. Throughout the novel, Bellow shows us and reinforces the water image. He gives us an initial image and then builds his story around what the water symbolizes.
I can't tell you how to create your image, your symbol, or your metaphor. This is up to you, the creator, the bard, the salesperson, the entertainer, the writer. I can offer this advice. Use one main image, one main symbol, one main metaphor and then build your story around it. Yes, you can have other images, symbols, and metaphors, but one main one will give your poem, your story, or your essay consistency, depth, and a richness that many strive for but, unfortunately, few achieve. Perhaps it's best to close with an excerpt from Ray Bradbury's novel, Dandelion Wine and a comment by him about his main image/symbol/metaphor.
Yes, even Grandma, drawn to the cellar of winter for a June adventure, might stand alone and quietly, in secret conclave with her own soul and spirit, as did Grandfather and Father and Uncle Bert, or some or the boarders, communing with a last touch of a calendar long departed, with the picnics and the warm rains and the smell of fields of wheat and new popcorn and bending hay. Even Grandma, repeating and repeating the fine and golden words, even as they were said now in this moment when the flowers were dropped into the press, as they would be repeated every winter for all the white winters in time. Saying them over and over on the lips, like a smile, like a sudden path of sunlight in the dark. Dandelion wine. Dandelion wine. Dandelion wine.
"What you have here in this book then is a gathering of dandelions from all those years. The wine metaphor which appears again and again in these pages is wonderfully apt. I was gathering images all of my life, storing them away, and forgetting them. Somehow I had to send myself back, with words as catalysts, to open the memories out and see what they had to offer."
**Mika Teachout is a writer living and working in Chicago. She holds a Masters in English Literature from DePaul University. She may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org