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.
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson