“Read your work aloud.” How many times have we all heard that? Raise your hands. Yeah, you in the back, too. I see you!
Now. How many of us actually practice it? Ah. I see the hands going down. I see you looking at your desk. Some of you silently shaking your heads.
And why is that? Truly, I don’t know, because I do it all the time.
At the OWFI conference this year, there was a workshop on “Prose and Poetry,” which frankly, I hadn’t thought I’d go to because another session looked better. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your point of view – that session was cancelled and the stand-in presenter was . . . yeah. No. So I snuck out and went to the poetry workshop instead.
Truthfully, I don’t read much poetry. Too many flashbacks to “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” and “The Wreck of the Hesperus” and “The Wasteland.” Poetry, I was given to understand in middle school and high school, had rules. First, it had to rhyme. It had to have a deeper meaning. It had to Be About Something Very Important. When we wrote poetry in Literature, we had to follow these rules. Do you know how bloody hard that is? Let me tell you. It’s bloody hard!
And when I started taking creative writing classes in college, my poems were always trashed because they weren’t About Something, and they didn’t Rhyme, and – OMG – sometimes they even told a story. Try as I might to write something that the teacher and other students considered Poetry with a capital P, I just couldn’t do it.
Which is why I hadn’t wanted to attend this workshop to begin with. Poetry is not fun for me.
But the session was fantastic.
The presenter, Nathan Brown, is a poet. In fact, he was the 2013/14 Oklahoma Poet Laureate. He started to use poetry as a coping mechanism for dealing with personal tragedies, then got into the habit of writing a poem a day. Yes. I said a poem a day. Sometimes his friends give him challenges – write a poem a day for a month about X or Y, or use this word in all your poems for the next year, etc. He also takes things from his daily life – sometimes entire conversations – and uses them as inspiration.
What Nathan wanted to do in this workshop was show us prose writers that poetry can have a place in our repertoire. Doesn’t mean we have to try to become the next Poet Laureate of the United States (yeah, like that’s going to get funded next year), it just means that we can learn to use it to our advantage.
I know. I hear you. I occasionally write short little funny poems from the viewpoints of my cats (and once, my Mini Cooper), and if it takes me more than 3 minutes to write one, it’s taking too long. Here’s an example:
I tell Mum
that the penalty for waking me up
is to rub my tummy.
And to watch me stretch,
shut my eyes
Curl my paws around her hand
Rub my head against her arm
And fall asleep again.
At the start of the workshop, Nathan looked at us – we all looked equally afraid and befuddled – and said, “Okay. How many of you write poetry?”
A few hands went up.
“How many of you write free verse poetry?”
Most of the hands went down.
He smiled. “Everyone thinks poetry has to rhyme. But free verse poetry lets us explore and play. Take, for example, the sentence ‘You are not going to believe what he did next!’ What words do you want to emphasize? How do you hear it in your head? Can you write it like that?”
And then, he typed it out:
going to be-
what he did
Maybe you didn’t think about it that way. Maybe yours was more like
Can you see and – more importantly – hear the difference? Read it out loud. Go on. Don’t just read it silently. Read it out loud! There! Now do you hear the difference? Does one sound better than the other? Line breaks become hesitations and pauses (“Learn to love the pauses!” Nathan told us). Capitalized words become shouted.
Why is that? Because we read it out loud. One of the reasons I so hated poetry when in middle school and high school is because we read it silently. It’s not meant for that! Here’s an example. The first link is to the poem “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou. And then there’s a short video of her reading her poem.
Listen to it. Hear the power of her voice, the emphases on certain words, the line breaks. Does it make you stop and reread the poem? Will you ever see those words the same way again, having heard them?
And this, Nathan argued, is why prose writers should write poetry.
But there’s another reason, going back to my opening paragraphs: the fact that as writers, we need to be reading our work aloud. He asked if any of us did that, and only a few of us raised our hands.
A recent study found that when we read silently – whether it’s a book, a poem, whatever – the muscles and ligaments in our throat and jaw try to ‘speak’ microscopically. We’re not even aware of it. But this is in part why awkward prose tends to trip us up, why we notice it – even when we’re reading silently. So, we really do need to read our work aloud!
Poetry can help with that. I’m not saying you need to dust off your old Lit book. Poetry, as I’ve discovered in the last few years, doesn’t need to rhyme. It doesn’t need to be about Big Issues. It can be inspired by everyday things. I mean, my kitties write them, for crying out loud! How literary can they be? 🙂
And since poetry should be read aloud . . . it will get you in the habit of doing that, too. 🙂