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Poetry for Novelists.

poetry Sep 27, 2020
Poetry for Novelists

Sometimes I wonder, do you, what people who don't write do with their thoughts? And what they plan to leave behind them too.

'Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?' Mary Oliver.

I started writing by putting down thoughts in poem form, and I think many writers start that way. We forget over time that here was the spark, and as our novels develop, it's good to be reminded of the ache of the thing, or the mischief of it; the pilot light. In this week's blog, our tutor Emylia Hall serves up some light for your darker days. 

From the desk of Emylia Hall.

When I’m in the middle of a sprawling novel draft, I turn to poetry. You’ll find me with my head bent over my collections just like a beachcomber looks for treasure, hoping for a secret from the deep. Maybe it’s because there’s something particularly possessable about a poem: a few spare stanzas glint with the kind of truth that you can hold in the palm of your hand; a feeling of verisimilitude hat’s more certain than the infinitesimal, disquieting sprawl of a partially written novel.

The brevity of poetry appeals to me too. The more we write, the more we try to fail better, the more familiar we become with our own foibles (and yes, perhaps that is a generous way of putting it, but we’ve got to be kind to ourselves: tough, but kind). My own foibles? Rambling. Reams of description. If I can say it in three sentences, why say it in just the one? I know this now and I catch it where I can. But my first drafts? Oh, they’re flabby. Very flabby. So, in the way that opposites attract, I admire the compactness of verse.

In fact, I think there’s much that novelists can learn from the form, and not just in the ‘make every word count’ stakes. Most of my favourite poems have a lesson in them that I can apply to my fiction writing, some element that reinforces an aspect of process and craft. Let me share some poetical gems with you – and the writerly wisdom they contain; I recommend hitting all the links and reading the works in full.

For attitude and motivation:

There’s no better poem with which to start my writing day than Michèle Roberts’ sumptuous Christina Rossetti Scribbles A Memo To A Young Friend: it’s all about writing as an act of pleasure, something to revel in – and amen to that.

‘Leap out of bed, let greed for words begin

breakfast on bread and honey, butter spread thick as sin

let pleasure on the tongue release the angel within.’

We know we’ve got to embrace our inner darkness when we write, and in Roberts’ poem the co-existence of tenderness and severity is perfectly articulated:

‘drape your cat around your shoulders and stroke her till she’s purred

the part of yourself that is brindled and furred

and can hiss, and pounce, and disembowel a bird.’

And the last stanza? Well, it gives me goosebumps: 

‘Let your skirts flare out, gold petticoats bright

As a rage of seraphs, jostling tight

As a rustle of sunflowers that burn with light

Be brave as these – sit down and write.’

Because bravery is required. Writing a novel can feel like screaming into the void a lot of the time (though of course members of The Noverly have a rather different experience from many here: the embrace is real). It’s making something out of nothing, and that always takes guts.

For the joy of language:

According to, an average 20-year-old native English speaker typically knows 42,000 words – though probably only uses 20,000 of them actively. As a word geek, flicking through a thesaurus is right up there for me in the thrill stakes. Language is ours to make of what we will, and that should be fun. In Fern Hill, Dylan Thomas takes delicious liberties and the effect feels free, and yet precise.

And nightly under the simple stars

 As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away

All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars

Flying with the ricks, and the horses

Flashing into the dark.’

The extent to which we take liberties as a novelist will always depend on our ambitions for the work, the genre that we’re writing in, and our intended audience. But I’d argue that an energetic and joyful approach to language should always fuel our writing, whether we’re about commercial women’s romance or experimental literary dystopias. 

For the role of descriptive narration alongside dialogue:

Tess Gallagher’s The Hug is a wonderful testament to the potency of nonverbal communication and a reminder that interpersonal exchanges are not all about dialogue. Descriptive narration has an important role to play, but sometimes we can be guilty of just dropping in mention of gestures, postures, and body language, in order to break things up. If a moment really matters, don’t be afraid to go deep with it. Consider this:

‘I put my head into his chest and snuggle

I lean into him. I lean my blood and my wishes

into him. He stands for it. This is his

and he’s starting to give it back so well that I know he’s

getting it. This hug. So truly, so tenderly

we stop having arms and I don’t know if

my lover has walked away or what, or

if the woman is still reading the poem, or the houses –

what about them? – the houses.’

 Such devotion to describing the intricacy of a moment could be tedious if we were at it all the time, but when we really want the reader to feel that hug? Go for it, Gallagher style. 

On a side-note, The Hug contains the line ‘when you hug someone you want it/ to be a masterpiece of connection’ and that’s not a bad mantra for any writer’s endeavour; we’re not all going to be writing veritable masterpieces, but masterpieces of connection? That’s a goal for everyone.

For character:

Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou has much to teach fiction writers on the subject of character. Who doesn’t want to know more about the titular phenomenal woman after reading lines such as these? 

‘I walk into a room

just as cool as you please,  

and to a man,

the fellows stand or

fall down on their knees.  

Then they swarm around me,

a hive of honey bees.  

I say,

it’s the fire in my eyes,  

and the flash of my teeth,  

the swing in my waist,  

and the joy in my feet.  

I’m a woman


It’s an ‘I want what she’s having’ moment: our characters should leap from the page – fire in their eyes and joy in their feet. Even if they’re primarily being let loose to skulk and moan, make sure they do it with feeling.

Phenomenal Woman also teaches us to give our characters a distinctive voice. A useful exercise to do away from the page is to spend some time writing as each member of your cast – diary entries or letters are particularly good here – allowing them free rein to express themselves before you start manipulating them for your own ends. I find this particularly productive when I need to cement a character’s emotional state. It’s all too easy to let scenes run on, without remembering that every character is moving sequentially, and is affected by the events of the last scene, and the last, and the last. How do they feel? What’s on their mind? Stepping away from your novel and hanging out with your characters on a one-on-one basis is as valuable as you’re willing to make it. 

For ambition and desire:

I think it’s important for us to understand why we’re writing, and what we want our words to be for: there’s no right answer to this – it only has to be honest. Understanding why you’re in this game will help you manage your relationship with your work, refine your ambition, and decide what time and sacrifice you need to apply to the pursuit of it. Here, I turn to the marvellous Blk Girl Art by Jamila Woods.

‘I won’t write poems unless they are an instruction manual, a bus
card, warm shea butter on elbows, water, a finger massage to the scalp,
a broomstick sometimes used for cleaning and sometimes
to soar.’

Hearing Woods’ reasons for her writing, helps me know my own.

In a lot of poetry there’s a line that remains a bit of a mystery, and the accompanying sense that the poem belongs, above all, to the poet. I think there’s a lesson in this too, that you have to write first and foremost for yourself. I’m undoubtedly romanticising the field, but I reckon there aren’t many poets who eye the market, jump aboard bandwagons, and train a hungry eye on the bestseller list. Not that there’s anything wrong with such things, but if you’re in it for authentic reasons, then you’ll be enriched by your writing, whatever your concept of success.

For inspiration:

Where do ideas come from? So many of us are fascinated in this question because for all that our thoughts can be rationally routed, mapped, tracked back, there’s still an ethereal aspect to the process. Sure, you might have seen a news item in a newspaper and taken it wholesale as your set-up, but you’ve still got your work cut out to make a novel out of it; you’re still going to have to commune with the great wide open at some point. Here, Seamus Heaney’s Postscript says it for me:

‘You are neither here nor there,

A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways

And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.’

Doesn’t this speak to writer and reader alike?  It’s how we might experience the coming of ideas but, also, it’s the effect that we hope our writing might have on ourselves and others.

‘Catch the heart off guard and blow it open’? Yes, please.

Oh, and another thing about poetry for novel writers? Verse defies direct comparison with prose, therefore we’re unlikely to be so completely intimidated by a poem’s brilliance that we end up feeling glum about our own work-in-progress. Reading poetry is always safe ground; a pure experience, untainted by ego. And therefore, the perfect springboard for our own creativity.

Coming soon at The Novelry, a suspense class on Tuesday at The Story Clinic for members.
The formula.

And a special online Home Retreat Week with evening readings from members.

Enjoy on our Catch Up TV recent sessions with fabulous bestselling authors sharing the tricks of the trade.

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