Editor’s Note: As we approach our tenth year of publishing Fiction Writers Review, we’ve decided to curate a series of “From the Archives” posts that we’ll re-publish each week or so during 2017. Some of these features are editor favorites, some tie in with a new book out from an author whose worked we’ve covered in the past, and some are first conversations with debut authors who are now household names.
In honor of National Poetry Month, we’ve returned this week to Lucas Hunt’s Shop Talk feature “A Story Sung: Why Fiction Writers Should Read Poetry,” which was originally published on May 20 of 2013.
Any writer who desires to get at the truth of human experience should read poetry, because it contains a multitude of possibility. Poetry is the mud that grows the seed that becomes the forest. It is the clay that makes the brick that forms the building. It is the blood that moves the body that holds the spirit. Poetry has the essence of life in it.
Poets voice that which has no voice in this world. They speak in tongues, and hope their words reach the ears and touch the hearts of those who know what it means to live. Much like fiction writers, poets struggle to remember how to make sense of existence. They share a passion for language, and a common, driving need: to imagine the world not just as it is, but how it ought to be.
Poetry tends toward silence. It accounts for the void in a way that fiction is not always able to do. Poetry aspires to be a song, more than a story, to be lyrically rich. It is also full of primal messages that, somehow, can express the inexpressible. There is more than meets the eye. Fiction writers can directly benefit from reading poetry in this way; lines inspire sentences, stanzas transform paragraphs, as poems animate pages.
Poetry has always been integral to fiction. The former is a condensed version of the latter. Prose is poetry expanded. Poetry assimilates many things into one, to create a composite figure, edited down to the bare essentials. It is grossly specific, reducing myriad sensations into single, immeasurable qualities. It can also generalize to an incredible degree, equating objects and subjects in the most unusual ways. Put simply, a poem is like finding the needle in a stack of prose.
Yet because small seeds grow tall trees, baby bricks make big buildings, and single moments have the power to change lives; poetry and fiction have a crucial relationship. It is a matter of fertility, potency, and efficacy. A novel becomes greater than the sum of its chapters when it has the blood and guts of poetry in it. Then people really feel what they read, and understand the meaning of the story on different levels.
The presence of poetry in prose is unmistakable. As lyrics flow into longer forms, the narrative is born. The only real difference between fiction and poetry is one of expression. It is a matter of inspiration, that often becomes epic.