William Faulkner once called himself a failed poet and intimated that all novelists are, in essence, likewise. I might not go that far, but we prose writers have much to learn from the precision, imagery and persuasiveness of poetry.
Like most people, I don't have much spare time, and when I do, I don't usually pick up a book of prose. It feels too much like work. But I can pick up a book of poems, because poems often have an elemental, garden-like quality that invites me in.
On days when I'm particularly harried, the spare clean language of a poem is balm. For me as a writer, it's also an example. Using one specific, evocative noun instead of a string of adjectives creates a clear picture that invites the reader into the story. Making deliberate word choices says, “I want you to know what this is about, who these characters are.” This isn't the same as giving away all the real estate upfront, but creates an atmosphere of trust that engages readers and encourages them to read on.
Poetry is all about imagery, I've heard poets say. At first blush, this sounds like a cheap thrill, like we're in this calling for the senses, not the substance. But can there be substance without an accurate image that calls to mind what the writer intended — a well-grounded scene that reveals character and advances plot, preferably both at once? Even intentionally misleading scenes, as in mysteries and thrillers, have their place, and are actually harder to do in a way that's convincing.
One aspect of poetry, however, that still surprises me is its subtle ability to persuade. Little words like “so” and “for” and “since”, unobtrusive in their commonality, are woven into the fabric of a poem to persuade the reader of the poet's perspective, the message threaded in the language and conjured by words that rise from the page to form a picture in the reader's mind. Without image there is no scene, and without scene there is no story, and although anti-story is a form of its own, the writer still must know what he or she wants to say and use the appropriate words to say it.
Often accused of being inaccessible, poetry isn't always understandable. Neither are people, neither is life. Yet, even when understanding doesn't quite come, image still appears, with the intentionality of the words giving them weight. Whether I read poems or prose, I usually find less to be more, and in such simplicity, often find rest.
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
“Auguries of Innocence,” William Blake