In celebration of National Poetry Month this April, I’m doing a small series featuring poets/poetry. Yesterday, Christina Sng stopped by and shared three of her fabulous poems! Today, Sara Tantlinger is here to discuss how poetry can help strengthen your prose writing.
I really appreciate her offering this piece, because I can’t believe how often I tell other writers that poetry, if not read for enjoyment, at the least, can be a great asset in blossoming lengthier writing. It brings me great pleasure to know that other poets out there feel the same and that she, as well, plays with words and poetry to assist with things such as character development. I’ve only met Sara online this year, but she’s a wonderful and talented human being and I’ve enjoyed getting to know her. I am super excited for her next release later this year, which is a collection of poems inspired by H.H. Holmes (you all KNOW I love me some serial killer anything).
And now, take the advice of this informative, mentoring post! Will you try poetry today?
5 Ways Poetry Can Strengthen Your Prose
by Sara Tantlinger, author of Love for Slaughter
1) Let’s talk about purple prose vs. poetic prose. Purple prose is a term most often used to describe exposition that is “too much” in some way. Perhaps it is dripping with adverbs or excessive adjectives, or maybe the language superfluously describes a tree for two pages. Writing is such a stylistic and subjective field that what is “purple” can be difficult to pinpoint.
For example, the following would most likely be considered purple prose:
“The summer day was bright and warm; the sun beat down with scorching rays, heating the river up to a sizzling temperature. Occasionally, a gust of wind would blow violently through the trees, shaking the sun-soaked leaves onto the rippling water’s surface below.”
Okay, we get it. The day is warm, the sun is bright, the wind is blowing. Let’s boil this down into something more concise but keep the language strong. After all, poetry itself is all about how to say a lot with a little, how to wield language as a powerful tool. It only makes sense that this should translate well into prose.
“The sun beat down with scorching rays, heating the river despite the occasional gust of wind. Speckled leaves from the surrounding woods broke free and cascaded onto the rippling water.”
The description of the sun is enough to let our readers assume it is summer without being told. The descriptions of the heat and wind have been significantly reduced to something more concise, but the meaning is just as clear. The language paints a strong image but does not use superfluous or repetitive descriptions to achieve that objective. The more you write, read, or study poetry, the more natural and easier it becomes to spot these repetitions or “purple” bits in your exposition, thus allowing you to tighten up your prose while keeping it poetic in description.
2) Poetry is meant to be read aloud. Hearing the words better allows you to listen to the rhythm and cadence, to feel the way each word forms in your mouth. Poetry is something to be savored and tasted, and prose should be the same.
As with the above example, concision and strong imagery are the building blocks for poetry. Practicing this in prose can significantly empower the exposition. Adding cadence into the mix can strengthen those descriptions too, but I do caution not to overuse this in prose since it could potentially exhaust the reader if you’re writing like the lovechild of Nathaniel Hawthorne and James Joyce (though I love them both). So, read your prose aloud. Hear it, find the rhythm in the words that make each sentence something wicked or gorgeous or both.
3) Poetry can help immensely with sentence length, sentence variety, and the use of punctuation. With poetry, every punctuation mark, every line break or stanza shift is significant and purposeful. E.E. Cumming’s “Buffalo Bill’s” piece is one of my favorite examples of how to play with spacing. Obviously, most prose isn’t going to do quite that unless you’re getting very experimental, but writing poetry can strengthen your sense of how powerful punctuation, pauses, paragraph breaks, and other structural elements are.
4) One of my favorite exercises is to write a poem from the point of view of different characters when I’m writing prose and feeling stuck with a character. Would your protagonist and antagonist write the same poem if they were forced to write poetry? Probably not, but maybe they would. Maybe they’re more similar than you thought. Maybe they enjoy writing poetry!
Playing around with things like this is a great way to get to know your characters better. It can also help to write a poem about a particular scene or setting to help get the language flowing and translate it into prose later.
5) And finally, poetry is one of our oldest associations to human emotion and is strongly connected with traditions of oral history. Being a verbal art, it was sung and recited, made into chants and hymns to help pass on important stories and information. From Greek epics to contemporary slam poetry, the evolution of words has continued to impact us deeply. Whether the poem is beautiful, haunting, romantic, frightening or something else, poetry has a way of reminding us how much we may have in common with a stranger, of how art itself can break down barriers.
The lessons poetry teaches us about the range of human emotion and the amazing power of words is something we can all continuously learn from, for both our writing and for our mission to live fulfilling lives.
Sara Tantlinger, Biography –
Sara Tantlinger resides outside of Pittsburgh on a hill in the woods. She is the author of the dark poetry collection Love For Slaughter, and her next collection, The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry inspired by H.H. Holmes will be out later in 2018.
She is a contributing editor for The Oddville Press, a graduate of Seton Hill’s MFA program, a member of the SFPA, and an active member of the HWA. She embraces all things strange and can be found lurking in graveyards or on Twitter @SaraJane524 and at her website.
Love for Slaughter, Synopsis –
This debut collection of poetry from Sara Tantlinger takes a dark look at all the horrors of love, the pleasures of flesh, and the lust for blood. For discerning fans of romance and the macabre, look no further than Love For Slaughter.