I am much more of a prose writer than a poet. It’s pretty rare for me to write a poem these days, and historically my poetry has generally been more for myself than for an audience. Still, I think it’s good for prose writers to dabble in poetry from time to time – it encourages precision in word choice, concise description, and, often, getting across a mood or emotion without ever directly stating what the mood or emotion is. That’s excellent practise for a prose writer, because it’s so much more powerful and evocative to show something shifting within a character than to tell us it’s happened. Everywhere you turn, you hear the phrase, “Show, don’t tell,” and, although I’ve seen instances where breaking that rule works beautifully, for the most part, it is excellent advice.
With poetry, if you tell, the whole experience is over. You might as well write down the words, “Trees are pretty and they make me happy,” and get on with doing something else, because you’re not writing poetry at that point. Journaling, maybe, but not writing poetry. Again, I’m not really a poet, so I won’t try to define what IS poetry, but I know what isn’t when I see it. 😉
Occasionally requiring myself to use a limited number of words to try and paint a powerful mental image, preferably while also evoking some sense of mood or tone, is a great exercise for my prose writing muscles. So, although sometimes I’ll write free verse just for self-expression, I turn to haiku when I want to challenge my brain to be more on the ball with making every word count.
The rules for haiku are simple: three lines long, the first line has five syllables (not words, syllables), the second has seven syllables, and the third has five syllables. Traditionally, it’s supposed to describe a moment in nature, but I don’t always follow that rule with mine. Sometimes I have titles for them, and sometimes I don’t.
So there is a writing exercise for you – write some haiku. See how much you can get across with such a small “word allowance”. Here are a few of mine, with, I think, varying levels of success at doing more than just describing:
Breathe–thick, wet, and green
A smooth white twist of a tree
Stretched in pagan prayer.
Slate-blue, the angry
Sky opens and lets loose sheets
Of silver bullets.
Broken feathers, blood;
A small, still bird–believed there
Were no barriers.
Morning light through blinds
Paints me with stripes as I wake
Wrapped in potential.
Green races to fill
The tips of the trees’ fingers,
Settles, and unfurls.