I don’t think anything strikes as much fear into a prose writer’s heart as writing poetry. Seems funny, in a way. You’re a writer, poetry is a form of writing, what’s the deal? They are just words.
Nevertheless, signing up for a poetry course with Susan Musgrave last summer has been among the more nerve-wracking things I’ve done, and I have been bungee jumping. I spent months freaking out over having to write poetry. Upon meeting my classmates, I made a point of telling everyone that I am not a poet… pre-excusing my ineptitude. They were quick to tell me that they would have never known that from my poetry, but of course, I assumed they were liars. Nice, polite, Canadian liars, but liars nonetheless.
I came out a convert. I am a poet. Who knew? But so, I think, is every writer. They just haven’t admitted it to themselves, and perhaps every prose writer needs to get in touch with their inner poet.
More than any other genre, poetry forces you to confront language directly, in all its weirdness, playfulness, depth and absurdity, but also in its sound, its meaning, its shape and placement on the page.
But in looking at language in such a raw way, you also need to confront the fears that you hide in the language. I am a good writer because I have an excellent grasp of spelling and grammar. I am a good writer because my sentences are clear and easy to understand. I am a good writer because there is a logical flow to my words. These are important qualities for writing, say, a business letter, but poetry allows you to challenge all that. Poetry can be clear and easy to understand, but poetry can also be convoluted and incomprehensible.
Poetry also encourages meaningful risks. If you can do anything with language, then why not do anything? But then, if you can do anything, the decision to do it matters. That is, if I don’t have to restrict line breaks to the end of the paragraph, then I can put them in anywhere I want. But then I have to know for myself, why here? Or here? Sometimes that knowledge is simply instinct.
Poetry, I think, also forces you to stop thinking “Am I good?” or “Did I do this right?” and start thinking “Is this what I intend?”
I’m not sure that there’s a clear way to define good poetry. Emily Dickinson’s, “It blows the top of my head off” seems to be the most useful, but I suspect that what blows the top of my head off may be different from what blows the top of your head off. So when you look at your own work, what can you judge it by except what it does to your own head? You have to go with that, and trust in that, at a deep level where despite questioning every letter and every comma you feel that what is on the page is doing what you want it to do, and perhaps that will blow someone else’s head off.
It’s a useful attitude to take for writing prose. Not everyone will love your prose, or get your prose. At some point, you need to dig into your intentions, and your instincts. You need to take risks because you feel that this is what is best for your story. And you need to let the language reveal the story, and not hide behind what it says about you.
And fall back in love with language. Why else are you doing this anyway?