Poetry, Prose, or Both?

Originally posted on April 18, 2011 at 12:02 PM

I stand in a somewhat unique perspective as a writer in that I work on poetry and fiction almost equally. Of course, fiction takes longer to actually write, but I would say that my personal evaluation of poetry and fiction in my life has them neck-and-neck. I pursue each with equal passion, and firmly believe in the value of both. (Oh, I know I’m not the only one. Most writers at least dabble in both.) This recently got me thinking.

Is my dual writing life a good thing, or a bad thing?

I can’t help but wonder if it’s like playing two sports as a kid. Sure, when you’re little you can do basketball, soccer, and baseball. Why not? It’s testing the waters – seeing what’s out there, what you’re good at, and what feels best to you. But eventually, as you get into jr. high and then high school, most people are pushed to specialize. If you stretch yourself thin playing three sports, the practices begin to overlap, your team spirit gets stretched thin, and you never get quite enough time to excel at any of them. I’ve seen this first hand: if you get serious about sports – let’s say you want a scholarship and to eventually go pro – you need to pick one and put every bit of your effort, skill, and practice into it. It sets you up for the highest probability of success.

So it stands to reason that writing could be the same. When you’re young you can experiment with fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and no one minds. They encourage it, even. You learn a lot, find what you’re best at, and stretch your creative muscles by doing all three. But if you want to go pro – let’s say you want to start seeking publication – is it time to narrow down your field and specialize in one sport? I mean genre? I know some would argue yes. Obviously, based on the “fiction” and “poetry” tabs at the top of my page, I say no.

Here’s why.

Poetry Makes Prose More Beautiful

I can already hear angry novelists asserting that ___InsertFamousAuthorHere____ has the most lovely prose of all time and he/she LOATHED poetry. Thought it was a big bag full of steaming horse crap dipped in bologna sauce. Well, sure. There are always exceptions. If you’re into that sort of thing. But in my experience, the best passages of fiction, while still prose, have a poetic quality to them. A beauty belied by unique word choice, musical sentence structure, and rhythm. Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Bronte, Maya Angelou, and Ray Bradbury are just a few examples.

Story Plotting Makes Poetry More Structured

When you get really serious about becoming a published poet, you start putting together collections in either a chapbook or full-length manuscript. I’ve see many a manuscript that appears to be, quite simply, all of the poems a poet has written, smashed between two covers and given a vague title, and I can’t help but wonder if this practice is born of a lack of knowledge of how to do otherwise. Poets don’t think large-scale, usually. We think one poem at a time. We get a little idea, write it down, and move on. Our poems don’t have to connect to one another. And it is often only until we begin putting together a collection that we realize, Hey, maybe they should.

If there’s one thing a novelist has to have down, it’s the big picture. Very few fiction writers (of long pieces, I should specify) sit down, begin writing, and hope it gets them to a logical conclusion in 80,000 words or so. That novel would either be the most boring story ever or the most bizarre. We novelists know how to plan; we know how to step back and make sure these little things (poems, scenes) add up and contribute to a big thing that works.

Now, I’m not saying that a writer has to be a novelist to produce a coherent poetry collection. And I’m not saying a writer has to be a poet to write a lovely novel. I’m sure, with work, those skills can be learned in each craft without ever dipping into the other. All I’m saying is that perhaps this process is made easier by dipping into both. And after all, this isn’t high school. There are no scholarships here. Why not play both sports? If you’re truly passionate about each and willing to put in twice the practice time, there’s no reason to kick one to the curb. Double dip.

What do you think? Is specializing a sad necessity of the industry these days, or do the skill sets for one genre boost the products of another?

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