Last year, I took a poetry class for the first time. Despite being an avid reader and writer of fiction, I didn’t have much experience with poetry. I often found it boring, vague, or difficult to read. However, I was interested in learning more about the art form, and I felt poetry was something I should have a basic understanding of as a writer.

The class was rough at first: I spent hours flipping through our course text—The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry—struggling to find any poems that spoke to me, or at least made sense to me. However, as the semester continued, I was able to find some fantastic poems that shaped the way I think about poetry—and about writing as a whole.

One of my favorite poems from that book is “Winter Stars” by poet Larry Levis. It’s a beautiful poem about a son’s grief for his dying father, and reading it gives me a feeling akin to walking slowly and reverently through a gorgeous natural landscape or listening to a tear-inducing piece of orchestral music.

The conversational way the poem is written is actually quite similar to a prose piece written in the first person. However, Levis used poetic devices such as enjambment and end-stopped lines to carefully craft the poem line by line, and to me, that’s what makes the piece beautiful. This poem—and many others I read for this class, taught me that prose and poetry aren’t all that different after all. At their core, both mediums are ways to promote thought and induce emotion in readers through words.

I had to write a fair share of poetry for this class. As a fiction writer, writing poetry was outside my comfort zone at first, but as I had the epiphanies above, writing poetry became easier. The techniques I had to focus on were the same things I practice whenever I work on a short story: grounding the reader with details and imagery while using strong word choice and smooth-sounding syntax.

In writing fiction, I often struggle to integrate compelling imagery and metaphorical language into my work. Sometimes this makes my prose feel too simple and practical, simply telling what the reader needs to see instead of finding beauty or meaning in the details. Despite my earlier argument that poetry and prose are more alike than one might think, a compelling poem lives or dies by its imagery and symbolism. Similarly, every word matters in a poem even more so than it does in prose; a single awkward phrase or weak choice of words may hurt a short story, but a mistake like that could easily destroy a poem. A poem by nature is an exercise in finding beauty and emotion through carefully crafted language; if not written with care and deliberation, a poem falls apart.

What I’m ultimately trying to say here is that learning about poetry is an excellent way to improve one’s prose writing. A fiction piece uses language to tell a story and uses evocative, meaningful, and well-crafted language to make that story compelling. Many beginning writers tend to focus on the story first, which can put the language of the piece at a lower priority. In contrast, poetry is all about the language. A poem puts the background elements of a prose piece into the foreground; it puts beautiful language on display for the world to see. In practicing poetry, a writer learns how to wield language like a paintbrush that can paint gorgeous vistas, nostalgic locations, and representations of our strongest felt emotions. That brush can be used to paint a novel, short story, or essay just as beautiful as any poem.

Meet the blogger:

The writer is standing on a deck or porch that has a metal railing behind him. He is wearing glasses and has short, curly hair. He is also wearing a dress vest and tie. The writer is smiling with his mouth open looking directly at the camera.WILL WALKER is a Creative Writing student at Hamline University. In addition to writing poetry and speculative fiction (some of which may actually be worth reading someday), Will finds joy in tabletop role-playing games, fall weather, and spending time with friends and family.

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