Thursday, January 7, 2016

Benefit not mutual for poetry and fiction study

I have a story in mind that I’d like to write, and that’s unusual. I’m a poet and essayist, primarily, and while I’m regularly visited by the kinds of urgencies that lead to work in those genres, stories rarely come knocking.

When they do, I accommodate them the best I can. I struggle a little with plot—pinning down the arc, determining the conflict, providing sufficient action (as a poet, I can get caught up in a character’s fascinating thoughts on a subject, and then forget that a story requires a bit more than that).

Writing a story serves two purposes for me. First and foremost, it makes the story go away. If I don’t write it, I’m going to continue thinking about it until I do. The second use of a story is to clear the poem-mind so that it can more easily move on to some other style or concern. Without a creative project to serve as a palate-cleanser, I can get mired in the same ideas and approaches for a bit too long.

When teaching, I often tell fiction writers that it is an excellent idea to take a poetry workshop. Poetry helps all prose writers in myriad ways. Primarily, it makes them more conscious of language and its rhythms. It also helps them to condense their prose and avoid wordiness. It also offers a practice of thinking in layers, so that there are several things happening at once, and any given statement can be read multiple ways. All of these poetic traits are distinguishing features of literary fiction.

So fiction writers benefit from poetry. But … do poets benefit from learning or experimenting in fiction? I can’t help but think the answer is, largely, no, particularly for the lyric poet.

What could fiction offer to the lyricist? A thorough exploration of Freytag’s pyramid is of limited use to a lyric poet or even a narrative one, because the movements of a poem, and even of a story within a poem, are so very different from those of a typical story. Nor does a poet need to understand character development, something that a fiction practitioner establishes over the course of a story. Contemporary fiction is character driven, and development of a rich inner life adds texture and meaning. But poetry makes meaning differently, and a little more efficiently. This, too, seems like an unnecessary part of a poet’s education.

Would a poet benefit from a deeper understanding of point of view? Maybe. But POV expectations are different in a poem. Would a poet benefit from gaining a fiction writer’s understanding of setting or form or dialogue? Doubtful. These, too, function differently in a poem. Likewise, a deep understanding of the rhetoric or structure of a poem is of limited benefit to a fiction writer, since fiction has its own rhetorics.

Alone in the fiction concerns that a poet might benefit from studying at any length is a thorough grasp of arc. Poets, too, are often guilty of false starts—of not recognizing the boundaries of a piece of writing. It’s a special danger of fiction—this business of writing a long story only to find out that the first eight pages weren’t needed, or that the thing should have ended at the halfway point. Poets struggle with false starts and droning endings, too, but I would suggest that the strategies we employ for determining whether these problems are present are not entirely the same as an interrogation of a story arc.

On the other hand, I think learning more about fiction is just a good thing to do—just like learning about physics or car repair or French cooking can enhance one’s life and one’s writing. I’m really just suggesting that poetry study transfers specific benefits to the prose writer, but fiction study is only generally useful to a poet.

And, no, it’s not true that by writing this, I’m just trying to get a rise out of my fiction-writing friends. That’s just an added benefit.


  1. I'd like to go on record as saying that I agree. However, there are a few fiction writers whose work is somewhat poetic.

    1. I very much agree! I love good fiction, and I benefit from it. The benefits of fiction study to a poet are just not direct; poetry study benefits fiction writers in very specific and direct ways.

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