Saturday, November 24, 2007

Walter Mosley on the Uses of Poetry in Fiction Writing

In This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley writes of having taken several poetry workshops at the City College of New York in Harlem, and he says that though he has yet to write "even a passable poem," he is convinced that reading, studying, and attempting to write poems has served his fiction well. Here's an excerpt from what he has to say about what a fiction writer can learn from poetry:

     Of all writing, the discipline in poetry is the most demanding. You have to learn to distill what you mean into the most economic and at the same time the most elegant and accurate language. In poetry you have to see language as both music and content. A poet must be the master of simile, metaphor, and form, and of the precise use of vernacular and grammar, implication and innuendo. The poet has to be able to create symbols that are muted and yet undeniable. The poet, above all other writers, must know how to edit out the extraneous, received, repetitious, and misleading. A poet will ask herself, "Why did I use that word, and how will that usage affect meaning later in the poem when the same word is used again? A similar word?"
     The poet seeks perfection in every line and sentence; she demands flawlessness of form.
     If the fiction writer demands half of what the poet asks of herself, then that writer will render an exquisitely written novel.

When I began writing, I aspired to write poetry. I wrote reams of poems which ranged from mediocre to downright bad, and I didn't find my feet as a writer until I switched to fiction. But I've never felt that my attempts at poetry were a waste of time. Like Mosley, I'm convinced that writing poetry sharpened my fiction-writing skills.

Are there other fiction-writers out there who feel that reading or writing poetry has served their fiction in this way? And what about the link between reading poetry and reading fiction? Given the attentiveness to language that it requires, might regularly reading poetry also make one a more discerning and appreciative reader of fiction?


Cheryl said...

I hope so! The woman who published my novel told me that it was the language that sold her on the book. After three published collections of poetry, I was glad to hear it, I tell you!

I'm enjoying your blog, Kate.

Zachariah Wells said...

I think it's made me utterly unforgiving of weak prose. I'm unable to enjoy an author's gifts for plot or character or ideas if the sentences aren't up to snuff.

LK said...

I have this book and can't wait to dig into it.

Poetry brings rhythm and sound to my fiction writing, and often prods me into feeling more imagery and metaphor.

Oh, Kate, I am feeling like writing again, and it has been a good two years! Yay.

bloglily said...

I think this is particularly true in short story writing, which seems in some ways closer to poetry than it does to prose. Faulkner, Emily Bronte and Hardy all wrote poetry (and I'm sure many other fiction writers were/are poets). It's seems to have given all of them a sharper pen, which is reason enough to read and write poetry.