‘When I wanted to become a writer, the one thing I did was to take poetry classes with a poet names Bill Matthews who is gone now. Everything you learn about poetry you can apply to fiction better; it makes it stronger. There are too many writers who are lax with their word.’ Walter Mosley in Art in the Blood by Craig McDonald 2006
I noticed this quote in the latest edition of Red Herrings, which is the newsletter of the Crime Writers Association, and I nodded so hard I think I pulled something in my neck.
I started going to poetry workshops with Roddy Lumsden long before I started writing my novels, and if my prose has any merit, it’s because of those classes. The format has been roughly the same the entire time I’ve been going. We spend the first hour discussing a particular topic ‘What is a muse?’ ‘How do your poems start?’ for example, or looking at recently published work. The second hour we spend going through each other’s poems. The writer reads their poem then we all re-read it then make our comments. That period of silence after you’ve finished reading is frightening, but we’re a nice bunch, if forthright. The comments start, or questions, then suggestions made. People often disagree with each other. It’s a healthy, high level debate about the poem, then ten minutes later you move onto the next piece. After class we often end up in the pub.
So why is it so useful? And why is it so useful to a prose writer? There is no question of plot here, of how to construct a character or create a page turning narrative, of how to handle time or dialogue. The poems are often elliptical, opaque. We are talking here about peices of work normally less than 30 lines long rather than 120K words. Well it’s useful because these workshops are a masterclass in the power and placing of words, in the endless manipulations possible of language, of sound, cadence. They are also full of people who are never going to let you get away with cliche, lazy choices, or a tired or meaningless phrase. That’s useful.
I absolutely believe if you want to write good prose, you should study great poetry. Don’t get me wrong, you need all that other stuff too, but turning up at the page without a feel for the heft, flow and music of individual words or phrases is like being a carpenter who only carries a chainsaw.
Here are a couple of brilliant books that can help you get some of the experience of a great poetry group without leaving your room:
Ruth Padel: 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem – I keep having to buy this again, having lent it to so many people.
Edward Hirsch: Poet’s Choice – Wide range of poets from across the world with notes to place them in context.
And here are a couple of great anthologies:
The Best British Poetry 2011 – ed. Roddy Lumsden – From the wonderful poetry publishers Salt, and full of up to the minute gems
Emergency Kit – ed. Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeny – Another book I’ve bought half a dozen times. First published in 1996