Poetry in Fiction


So many people don’t like / understand / know poetry (delete as appropriate) but for the vast majority of its existence fiction has primarily been in poetic form. The epics of Persia, Greece, India and Egypt were all poems, as was Hiawatha and of course the Psalms. (I am not going to get into the argument of whether bits of the Bible are fiction or not. This is a blog about stories, not a theological debate.) Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur is an epic poem and almost all of Shakespeare is written in iambic pentameter. The fiction you read has its roots in poetry.

Prose didn’t come along until around the 16th century, when paper became cheap enough to use as a medium. Poetry is much easier to remember than prose – the epic poems were mostly from an oral tradition, and not written down until around 600BC when writing began to be used for things other than lists. The possibility of privately-owned books meant that fictional prose for individual reading could start to evolve.

Don’t think for a minute that the advent of prose caused poetic fiction to die out. Wendy Cope wrote a fantastic mid-length epic called The Teacher’s Tale (which I can’t find a copy of on t’internet, sorry), one of my favourites is Walter de la Mare’s The Listeners, and there’s the massively under-appreciated book by Alice Duer Miller called Forsaking All Others which includes a verse just detailing the menu of a dinner party, and the heartbreaking lines:

… a middle-aged lady
Knew as she sat and stared at the cold Maine ocean
Every event, every pulse, every emotion
Of that great romance. She knew, none better,
Not by chance or slip, or anonymous letter,
Not through gossip by any tattler carried,
But because she perfectly knew the man she had married.

I love poetry. I don’t know why I write it – just that I have to. It’s a compulsion, and it comes easier to me than prose. Poetry is a jigsaw puzzle, with the challenge of fitting story and voice into a strict rhythm and rhyme. It makes you play with words and vocabulary like nothing else, and that is a lesson that ought to be carried across in prose. The trouble is, of course, that prose has more words which makes the importance of choosing each one diminish. It shouldn’t, but it does.

I have been incredibly lucky in finding a bunch of people who are as obsessed with writing poetry as I am. It started with humble beginnings – a school friend who wanted to keep in touch after leaving sixth form, so started challenging me to exchange poems. This got expanded on at uni, and recently I took it online at deviantArt, where there’s now multiple contributors. The challenge is for everyone to use the same five phrases in a poem (new ones set each time), and see how varied the stories that come out of those same words can be. Anyone is welcome to join – we’re just about to start the next round, so now’s a good time!

If you don’t read poetry, and don’t know where to start, then I highly recommend Wendy Cope. Here’s one to give you an idea of the flavour:

Variation on a Lennon and McCartney Song
All you need is love
Or, failing that, alcohol.

See, there’s another lesson that is can be applied to writing prose – brevity. 😉


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