Iowa Summer Writing FestivalIs your novel suffering from bloat? Have your words lost their bouncy and lean touch? Tired of the lumpiness in your paragraphs? Fear not, reading poetry can improve your writing and get you back on the smooth writing track.

We tell each other poetry to make sense of our world and to communicate feelings when mere words are inadequate. Poetry can open us up to possibilities of sound, rhythm, and image. Through poetry, we can connect emotionally to current and historical events, as well as the small moments in all of our lives.

In addition to inspiring us and creating the right mood, poetry can help us find the perfect word and image, while giving us similes and metaphors to successfully communicate connections and patterns. Poetry can also help us avoid cliché, and it forces us to be as detailed as possible. Details help us avoid redundancies by condensing our prose so our readers get our message faster.


Here is an example of a metaphor and simile:

The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
—“Diving Into the Wreck” Adrienne Rich  

The baled wheat scattered
everywhere like missing coffins.
— “For the Stranger” Carolyn Forché 

Poets know that every emotion and feeling has been expressed before and their job is to make common emotions feel uncommon and fresh. Using the right simile and metaphor is key to make this a reality. As the poet strives to create original combinations, she makes sure to avoid cliché at all costs. A cliché is a trite commonplace expression that conveys a popular or common thought or idea.

Here are several examples of clichés:

avoid like the plague
old as dirt
raining cats and dogs
talk is cheap
where’s there’s smoke there’s fire
think outside the box 

As you read your classic or contemporary poetry, circle the strongest images in the poem. Did they come alive through the senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste or sound?) or colors? Poets know a central image is vital for capturing a reader’s imagination

Here is an example of an image:

Nature’s first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so for an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down today.
Nothing gold can stay.
— “Nothing Gold Can Stay” Robert Frost 

One of my earliest poems using image and color, “Ghostcards,” was about the dual hanging deaths of two 14-year-old African American boys in Shubuta, Mississippi in 1942. Langston Hughes had portrayed the boys’ fate in “Bitter River” and I wanted to present my own version using the color gray throughout the poem.

The name “Ghostcards” came to me in a dream and wouldn’t let me go until I had written the poem.  A lot of my poems emerge similarly, while others come from the newspaper, random encounters, personal experiences or strange family behaviors.

Speaking of behaviors, getting the right feeling in a poem is all about finding the right word to match the right detail.

Consider William Carlos Williams’s poem “Graph” for word choice—why do you think he chose “belly” instead of another word?

There was another, too
a half-breed Cherokee
tried to thumb a ride
out of Tulsa, standing there
with a bunch of wildflowers
in her left hand
pressed close
just below the belly 

He did this because the woman in the poem is pregnant and belly is the best word to communicate her condition, rather than stomach, abdomen, middle or tummy. Also check to see where you can add concrete details. Adding details gives the reader the sense of being there with you, which makes your story come alive. If you talk about a tree, give the reader the name of the tree, along with giving naming flowers, cities, stores, clothing, food, drinks, etc.

Even you have no intention of ever writing poetry I encourage you to read a few masters to discover a fresh insight into an old idea or to see how the poet performs acrobatics with his words. Sometimes falling asleep with a good book of poetry can open you up to images and details you never before considered. Be sure to write them all down when you wake up! You may have just figured out how to end your novel.

Now it’s Your Turn!
Let me know right here in the comments that you read this post. What did you think? How have you used poetry to help your writing? How was this post useful to you?