RTW: Outstanding Odes

yahighwayrtw[1]This week’s Road Trip Wednesday/A-to-Z Blogging Challenge mash-up is sheer poetry. No, really–here’s the prompt:

April is National Poetry Month! Share your favorite poem(s) or poet.

I’ve never been much into poetry. Give me a good story anytime; but for some reason poetry just doesn’t resonate with me. The only possible exception is, perhaps, when put to music, i.e., songs. So, I’m going to fudge a little on this one and talk about song lyrics.

A well-written song can teach writers a lot about the value of good word selection. A good lyric will complement the tone of the music. For example, take Come Together by The Beatles (written by John Lennon). The musical arrangement is fairly sparse, lots of space, with jabbing chords. The words complement this effect. Rhythmically, there are lots of single syllable words, and lots of “g” “j” ‘k” sounds that make the words sharp to the ear.

By way of contrast, take My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music (music by Richard Rodgers, lyric by Oscar Hammerstein II). If you know the musical, Maria sings this song to the Von Trapp children who can’t sleep because they’re frightened by a thunderstorm. The words are easy, they flow and bounce with a sense of excitement and anticipation. As well as some clever rhymes and imagery (“Silver white winters that melt into springs/These are a few of my favorite things”) there are some good contrasts. Take the line “Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens.” You can hear the cold hard metal of the bright copper kettles in the words; yet there’s a completely different feel to warm woolen mittens. The words sound soft and cozy. What’s really clever though, is the music underlying the words still has a sense of the children’s fear–the minor key, the rapid tempo, and the slightly odd feel of the melody when the harmonic structure changes in the second line of the verse.The-Sound-of-Music

When it comes to prose, and especially to writing novels, these are things we should think about. How can we get our readers to feel the words, not just read them? If you’re describing harsh winter weather conditions, select words whose sounds reflect that. Instead of “the cold air numbed his face,” how about, “the biting chill cut his cheeks”? Or something like that. And also consider the rhythmic pattern of the words. If you want to pick up the pace, one technique is to select words that are short and flow well together. “He retrieved his Walther PPK, discharged three rounds into the guard, and hurried to the waiting Aston Martin,” is longer to read than, “he picked up his gun, shot the guard, and ran to the car.” There’s a place for the fuller sentence, but for fast action, you want brevity, flow, and punch.

What’s your favorite poem? How has poetry helped you in your prose? Comment below or join the Road Trip (details on the YA Highway blog).

20 Responses to RTW: Outstanding Odes

  1. There’s a Finnish rock band called Poets of the Fall, not very well known but I love their lyrics. My favourite song is Locking up the Sun. It’s about finding heroes in real life, a criticism on a society who fail to help one another or perform selfless acts.

    • Not a bad song at all, Robin (if anyone’s interested, you can find it here. I’m surprised they haven’t had much chart success outside of Finland. Given the theme of today’s RTW, I’m fascinated by the fact that they write in English, and yet have only really had a lot of success in Finland. Is English a better songwriting language than Finnish? Or are they trying to give their music a more universal appeal–even though most Scandinavians can probably understand Finnish? K-pop artists don’t seem to care too much about whether English speakers understand their songs. :)

  2. There seem to be a lot of us who are very much into novels but not so much poetry. You’re very right though – poetry can teach us a lot about word choice and being succinct!

    • Which is why I probably need to read a lot more poetry! I can appreciate good songs, where the lyricist has encapsulated an idea or an emotion with just the right few words. So I should appreciate the same in poetry. I guess it’s finding the right poets. :)

  3. I am a firm believer in the benefits of writing poetry on my own fiction. I really think it reminds me to be concise and merciless in my word choices and overall shaping of a story. To me, poetry is like a snapshot of a larger story. Kind of an amuse bouche of the greater picture. Oh, and I think it’s awesome that you mentioned The Sound of Music. Just had to add that. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you, Amy! Poetry can certainly teach us about word choice, and expressing thoughts in concise language. I probably need to get over my awkward relationship with poetry and read more of it. :)

  4. Great examples. I never really thought of Favorite Things as a poem but it really is. I like your examples of phrases from that song.

    • Thanks, Carrie. “Favorite Things” is actually one of those songs that I think can stand as poetry apart from the music. Though the music certainly helps non-poetry people like me to appreciate it. :)

  5. I also prefer stories to poetry. However, a few poems I’ve studied have stuck in my mind as my favourites. The first is “Kublai Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the second is “Jerusalem” by William Blake. There are others, but I can’t remember them off the top of my head.
    (I like that Finnish song. I think Finnish is a nicer language to sing in than English, it sounds more lyrical to my untrained ears!)

    • We used to sing “Jerusalem” at the end of Spring term every year in school, so I’m quite familiar with it (I still just about remember all the words!). I can’t say I ever really appreciated it as poetry, and you probably need to understand the imagery to “get it.” I remember one year, one of our teachers explained it to us. But that was a loooooooong time ago, and I don’t remember what he said. I think it’s supposed to be a vision of England’s glory in the midst of what appears to be bleakness–or a hope for better times. Or something like that. :)

  6. I had to take an intro to creative writing class in college as part of my English minor, and my class focused on poetry. I found it did help me out a lot with my writing in general – we spent a lot of time focusing on word choice (which probably is the most important thing in poetry), in addition to a lot of time spent observing and noticing sensory details and experiences. I’ve been able to incorporate these things into my novels.

    • I can see how it would help. I don’t know about taking a class, but I certainly do need to take a more positive attitude toward poetry. Thanks for the comment, Stephanie. :)

  7. You’re right. Good examples. I can’t analyze a song as well as you, but Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” comes to mind, a devastatingly quiet song full of despair.
    Jan at Website
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    • I did think of Simon & Garfunkel too. Even the title of “The Sound of Silence” evokes something of the song. Paul Simon generally does a good job of using creative lyrics to fit his music. Thanks for that, Jan! :)

  8. I love poetry, love the distillation of intense emotion and experience into a few lines or verses, which I think holds true for songs as well (good songs, anyway). Choosing favourites causes me ridiculous amounts of stress and anxiety (neurotic, much?), so I won’t do that, but I do have a special fondness for Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty.” I’m not religious, but Hopkins was, and what I love about this poem is not only his ability to find God in everything, from the spots on a trout or a finch’s wing to the prosaic tools of man’s labour, but his ability to make me feel that love and wonder along with him.

    • Since I have been convinced–and I’ve somewhat convinced myself–that I need to read and study more poetry, I appreciate the recommendation, Kern. The ability to, as you say, distill intense emotion and experience into a few lines, is certainly one I would like to cultivate as a writer. Good poetry is ideal for learning to develop this skill.

  9. I admire anybody who can write poetry, my attempts have always ended up a bit cliched and corny. I find a good poem very powerful though.
    I don’t know a great deal about poetry, adult poetry anyway, I’ve used children’s poetry a lot when working with children. I studied Robert Frost at school and still remember how his ‘The Road Not Taken’ poem made me feel, it really appealed to my teenage self. I do love ee cummings too.

    • You’re right that well-written poetry can be powerful. I don’t think I’ll ever be a poet, but I certainly need to read more poetry.

  10. Pingback: RTW: Book of the Month for April, 2013 » Colin D Smith

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