If you grew up watching PBS in the mid-1990s, chances are that you were a big fan of Wishbone. The ongoing adventures of a plucky, book-loving Jack Russell terrier, it featured dramatized versions of classic literary works, with Wishbone himself playing the lead roles alongside live action human costars.
These literary tales (or is it “tails?”) were also paired with the present-day adventures of Wishbone’s devoted owner, Joe, his best friends, Sam and David, Joe’s mom, and their eccentric next-door neighbor.
In the end, the two storylines always featured some kind of thematic convergence, letting kids learn a practical, relatable lesson along with their introduction to books.
As a fifth grader who loved to read, I was pretty much obsessed with Wishbone. Not only did I never miss an episode, but I also actually read many of the books after seeing them featured on the show.
One of my favorite episodes was “Cyranose,” an adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac. In the present-day storyline, the kids’ English teacher gives them the task of writing an original poem. Joe and Sam struggle with finding topics at first, but quickly discover their muses. Joe crafts a passionate tribute to basketball, while Sam writes about living in two homes with divorced parents. David has a harder time. In fact, he has such a hard time that he resorts to desperate measures. In particular…the P-word. No, not "paws." The other P word.
Plagiarism. He takes another poem, puts his name on it, & hands it in. What he doesn’t count on is his teacher going totally nuts for his unique poetic gifts & asking him if he can publish it.
Of course, we are talking about a PBS kids show that aired weekdays at 4:30, so David’s story ends well. He confesses to his literary crime, his grade takes a hit, & he learns a pretty serious lessons about intellectual property in the process The truth is, David’s experience in English class is pretty typical of a lot of middle school kids. They find poetry intimidating because it becomes more about decoding the clues to uncover a theme, memorizing a bunch of big words, and even—horror of horrors—having to recite a poem in front of the class.
I’m not trying to beat on English teachers here—I used to be one. What I am saying is that a lot of English teachers get poetry wrong, and it gives writing poems a bad reputation as a result. There’s another breed of non-poets as well—the kind who have dabbled in poetry or may even kind of like it, but don’t consider themselves poets because fiction or nonfiction is more their comfort zone.
I get it. I’m solidly Team Prose myself. But I also wonder if putting labels on ourselves as writers, saying that we “write fiction” or “write essays” or even “write poetry,” is really beneficial to us.
Are we defining a specific area of our art form…
…or are we conditioning ourselves to believe that there are only certain kinds of writing we’re good at?
Here’s what I’m getting at: no matter what you write or how you feel about it or what your seventh-grade poetry unit was like, writing poetry is valuable for everyone. I would even go so far as to say that it’s valuable even for people who don’t think they are good writers at all.
I’m not saying that you have to write a chapbook or even a lot of poems in order to really gain the benefits of poetry. But I am saying that writing a few or even one poem can profoundly impact writers. There are a lot of reasons for this…but here are my top three…
#1 – You learn to write concisely and deliberately
The challenge of writing poetry is that more than any other genre, every word, every syllable, every punctuation mark, counts. You don’t have the luxury of long sentences or descriptions. For poetry to really pack the punch of brevity and emotion, it has to be tight. You of course have a lot of freedom with your first draft, but once you have raw material to work with, the cutting and refining begins. You take out words, add shorter ones, make lines longer, make lines shorter, and play with how the poem visually looks on the page.
Every change in language brings two more for the form and structure. It’s a delicate balancing act of achieving a precise and moving final product. This process isn’t an exact science and it’s a big reason why some prose writers just don’t like writing poetry. But it also has a lot to teach you about operating within a specific economy of language, learning to say the most with the fewest amount of words, not to mention the right ones. In this same respect, writing poems isn’t just for creative writers. If you work in any form of professional writing, writing poetry can actually make you better at your job.
A few years ago, I worked for a company that does marketing with text messages, and my job was to write the texts.
I had 150 characters to work with. Not words. Characters.
When I interviewed for the position, I cited my poetry writing experience as a valuable skill that would make me good at writing text messages. Guess what? I got the job. There’s another moral to this story, which of course is that you shouldn’t let anyone tell you that writing poetry won’t get you a job, but that’s for another time. #2 – Poetry helps you understand yourself and others better.
Poetry is an intensely emotional form of language, one that allows writers to be expressive and personal with words in a way that other genres don’t allow for. Maybe the idea of teenagers writing emo poetry in their diaries and math notebooks is a cliché, but it has its basis in reality.
Flannery O’Connor famously wrote, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Many people might also say that they don’t know or understand what they feel until they read what they’ve written. Poetry is a particularly apt tool for this because it can give you a language for grief, trauma, confusion, hurt, and other intense emotions that you may not have yet. Countless studies prove that writing poetry is a valuable tool for healing psychological damage. If your response to this is something like, “But even if I wrote a poem like that, it still wouldn’t be any good,” let me say this. It doesn’t matter. You are under no obligation to show your poems to anyone. That means that if you want to write poems just to get insight into what you’re feeling or experiencing, you can do so with total freedom.
Show your work to others, or doubt. Revise it, or don’t. The main point is that you have a clearer understanding of your emotions and experiences. In the same way, writing poetry has also been proven to make people more empathetic. The more you write poetry to gain a better understanding of your own experiences, the more you’ll be able to perceive the experiences of others. #3 – It can lead to surprising creative shifts
Just because you primarily identify as a prose writer doesn’t mean that you are locked into writing essays and stories forever. Just because you want to write novels doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do a short story if the idea strikes you. We waste a lot of time putting restrictions on ourselves, thinking that we “should” be writing a novel or a book instead of playing around with shorter pieces. But in the process, we’re losing the experimental and fun nature of writing.
Poetry can become an exciting component of your writing because it lets you tap into elements of your writing talent that writing prose doesn’t really let you access, or that you didn’t know where there at all.
Here’s a timely example. Shakespeare’s early plays were primarily comedies and histories. They were pretty popular, and Shakespeare was enjoying a fair amount of success. At least until the Black Death hit Europe. Suddenly, all live productions were stalled and there was no demand for any new plays. It is believed that Shakespeare turned to writing mostly poetry during the time he spent in isolation from the plague. If you can get past the scarring memories of having to memorize a sonnet in high school literature, Shakespeare’s poetry is truly marvelous. While there’s still a great deal we don’t know about his life, it’s clear that his poems were a turning point that let him expand his talent into uncharted territories. When he did return to writing plays, he did so with a greater emphasis on tragedy, crafting Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Othello, and many of his most renowned stage dramas. If you’re still feeling stuck because of the pandemic, emotionally or otherwise, writing some poems might give you the creative space you need to do something different, as well as a vital bridge toward the next thing for your work. In the meantime…do you have any questions about your writing? Do you need some direction on a project you’re working on? Schedule a complimentary 30-minute Virtual Meetup on Zoom and we’ll talk about them. My goal is to help as many writers as possible to reach their creative potential so they can make a more powerful impact on readers. This consultation is just one way I do it. You’ll get answers to burning questions about writing, ideas about how to improve your work and process, and exciting next steps to take with your project so you can move forward with confidence. Click here to learn more and grab some time on my calendar.