Thursday, November 01, 2012

Add a Pinch–or a Pound–of Poetry to Your Prose

By Robyn Hood Black

Consider this bit of prose from a 15-year-old:
The blacksmith shop stands in the village, under a spreading chestnut-tree. The smith is a mighty man. His hands are large and sinewy; and the muscles of his arm are so strong, that they look like bands of iron.
This is an exercise presented in A PROGRESSIVE GRAMMAR OF THE ENGLISH TONGUE: BASED ON THE RESULTS OF MODERN PHILOLOGY by William Swinton, published in 1876 by Harper & Brothers, New York. The young writer was converting into prose the following stanza from Longfellow’s The Village Blacksmith:

Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.

Would practicing these nineteenth-century exercises sharpen your poetic claws for writing fiction? Maybe. And it might be fun to try with narrative poems.

But today we’ll take a look at some more modern examples of poetry informing prose, and you can be on the lookout for examples in whatever book you’re currently reading.

The Unexpected

Poetry is all about images and associations.

One of my husband’s favorite lines from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee concerns Aunt Alexandra. She was, among other things, “born in the objective case.” That little phrase is open to a wide variety of interpretations, as is poetry. I prefer to settle on its simply meaning she is rigid and disagreeable. Even if those few words resist being fully caught, they’re very funny.

In school visits, I tell kids that one way to create humor is to smash two things together that don’t normally go together–like you’re making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. (Or, maybe peanut butter and toothpaste–to keep with our humorous theme.) When Harper Lee describes a human being as being born in a grammatical “case” with a potentially negative meaning, it’s funny.

Adding poetry to your prose can also add a dash of humor or whimsy to a serious description. Author and poet Joyce Ray graciously agreed to let me share some gems from a recent post of hers.

She selected some sentences rich in poetry from the novel, THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS, by Arundhati Roy (HarperCollins, 1998). Joyce writes in her post: “The first thing I noticed about The God of Small Things was lushness—the lushness of India’s setting and the lushness of a multitude of striking images created with unexpected metaphor.”

Here’s one of the examples Joyce picked:
It could be argued that it began long before Christianity arrived in a boat and seeped into Kerala like tea from a teabag.
I love that. It makes me smile–that such a powerful force as Christianity could seep like tea from a teabag. (And notice that tea is an appropriate and evocative image to use when describing India.)

From the same book, Joyce also selected this serious and powerful description:
It was raining when Rahel came back to Ayemenen. Slanting silver ropes slammed into loose earth, plowing it up like gunfire.
Think of all the senses evoked in those two sentences–the look, feel, and sound of the rain – and that image of it striking the earth, with its ominous association of gunfire.

But That’s Not My Style

So, you might be thinking, This poetry stuff is fine for other people, but I subscribe to the Mark Twain “ When in doubt, strike it out” school regarding modifiers.

Well, look at the verb choice in that last sentence, “slammed.” Your sentences must have verbs, so why not put them to work to evoke images and associations?

Let’s take an example from Janice’s second book in the Healing Wars Trilogy, BLUE FIRE (Balzar + Bray, 2010). On page 125, here are just some of the verbs employed: flashed, whimpered, bolted, gasped, fled, smashed, raced, and pounced. No one will suggest that Janice’s fast-paced fantasies are verse novels. But there is certainly much thought given to word choice so that the text conveys images and actions.

And now let’s look at a similar image used in different ways by two different authors.

One of my favorite writers of all time is Nancy Willard. In her wonderful book of essays on writing, TELLING TIME – ANGELS, ANCESTORS, and STORIES (Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1993), the first chapter is “How Poetry Came into the World and Why God Doesn’t Write It.” (We’ll have to come back to that another day!) Here are the opening sentences:
Several months ago I walked into a bookshop determined not to buy a book and saw, among the remainders, a small volume called The Lost Books of Eden. It beckoned to me like the serpent poised at the Tree of Knowledge. I considered the price. I considered my purse. I said to myself, Opening that book could be dangerous to my economy, and I went out.
Nancy Willard’s writings are magical, with rhythmic, occasionally meandering, language.

Back to Janice. For her rapid-fire adventure, she opens BLUE FIRE with a similar financial image, but she casts personal responsibility as a metaphor of what one can afford. Here is the opening paragraph:
Responsibility was overrated. Sure, it sounded good–take control of your own life, make your own choices–but that also meant you had to pay for your own mistakes. And if your life and choices hadn’t gone the way you’d planned, well, then your mistakes might reach deeper than your pockets could afford.
Both authors are using the image of being able to afford something literally and figuratively. Both have used these few opening sentences and this imagery to establish voice. Very different passages, but each one successful, don’t you think?

How much is overdoing it?

Your story will have to tell you.

At our recent SCBWI Southern Breeze fall conference, another writer and I were perusing books on display in the media center of the high school where we met. I picked up a highly acclaimed and popular YA novel, part of a series, and asked my friend, “Have you read these? I haven’t.”

“They’re beautifully written,” my friend said. “There are strings of pretty sentences. As the series progresses, though, there are still many pretty sentences, but the books get lighter on plot.”

Well, it’s always something with this writing business, isn’t it? For guidance on developing a great plot, click on Janice’s extensive resources in this blog. When you get it all working together–just the right images helping to tell a terrific story–you’ll have the kind of writing a reader won’t be able to put down from his large, sinewy hands.

Robyn Hood Black writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction for young readers from the foothills of north Georgia. Her books include SIR MIKE (Scholastic Library, 2005), and WOLVES (Intervisual Books, 2008). Her poems appear in THE ARROW FINDS ITS MARK (Roaring Brook, 2012) and THE POETRY FRIDAY ANTHOLOGY (2012). Her haiku have been published in leading haiku journals. She’s also just launched an art business with “art for your literary side” at


  1. I've always thought that JRR Tolkien had a certain lyric quality to his writing, aside from the poems he includes. A lovely post, Ms. Black, thank you!

  2. Great examples. I love adding a little bit of imagery to intangibles. Helps me get a better grasp on them.

  3. Great post from the perfect poster for the topic! THanks Robyn! :) e

  4. Hi, Rachel6 - Thanks for your comments. Great example - probably one reason Tolkien's work beckons decade after decade.

    Amelia, thanks! I love that idea that imagery helps us grasp what we're trying to write about.

    Hi, e - thanks for your confidence! ;0)

  5. Robyn, I am honored to be included in this fabulous post. You make a good point about the story helping a writer to determine how much figurative language is too much. That's something I struggle with. Beautifully written language alone will not carry a weak plot. Now I want to find Janice's and Nancy Willard's books!

  6. I hope I can learn to write like that someday.

  7. Thank you, Joyce, for letting me share your wisdom and keen ear!

    You'll enjoy Janice's on-the-edge-of-your-seat adventures, and the timeless wisdom and wit of Nancy Willard. (I always turn to her if my Muse needs a lift.)

  8. Hi, R. E. - Take comfort in knowing we just see what made it into print - not what's in the bin or lost to the delete button! Thanks for visiting.

  9. Wonderful, wonderful post! You hit me where I live. I remember arguing with my advisor at school when she challenged me to read more poetry in order to learn to be more playful with language. (She objected to some of my weird metaphors and similes, which she explained were not character driven.) I grumbled, but found she was absolutely right. And here you are confirming her advice!

  10. Hi, LinWash - What a great comment! Thanks for sharing your experience. We're all learning, every day. :0)

  11. Wonderful images float through my brain as I read these examples. Thank you for great information and the introduction to a writing blog. Always good for an artist to understand another perspective.

  12. Hi, Beth! Thanks so much for clicking over. I love the examples Joyce let me share.

  13. The opening made me laugh. I had to memorize `The Village Blacksmith' in high school. I love your connection of poetic images to humor.

  14. Thanks, Chicory. Laughter is good! I appreciate your comments.

  15. Robyn, this is just wonderful, and so beautifully written! So much food for thought, even for those of us who don't write long fiction. I love the Nancy Willard passage. :)

  16. What a wonderful post! Thank you!

  17. Hi, Renee! Thank you. I love Nancy Willard's books for adults and her picture books. :0)

    Many thanks, Ruth - thank you for clicking over.

  18. Hi Robyn! Thanks for bringing up this topic. I like making prose poems by pulling the poetry out of prose; maybe the flip side of that is bringing poetry to prose.

    Love your peanut butter poem that Jama linked to today!

  19. Hi, Tabatha! Thanks so much for your comments. It would be a fun exercise to do both - convert poems into prose AND vice versa, maybe with texts on similar topics. :0)

  20. Wonderful post, Robyn. I love reading lyrical prose. That which is spare and carefully wrought belies how difficult it was to write. Just because something is "prose" doesn't mean it shouldn't sing with the same elements that make poetry so satisfying: rhythm, cadence, carefully chosen imagery,metaphor. :)

  21. So eloquent, Jama - thank you. I will probably have to quote you on that!

  22. Hi Janice,
    I thoroughly enjoyed this post!
    And I learned something new today. :)