Why Novelists Should Read Poetry
Poetry reading has gone out of fashion with much of the reading public. It is dull, dragging, soppy stuff best left to musty academics and high-brow literary types, they say. I say, not so fast. If you are a writer of any kind of fiction (I mean any kind, including popular fiction) there is much you can learn by dipping into the poems of some of the greats. Why? Because their language is diverse , their sentence structures innovative, and their use of metaphor outstanding. By looking at poetry from the world’s greatest poets, you will see examples of language use that is pure genius.
If you are a writer of popular fiction, you may still be thinking ‘so what. I write to entertain. I have no literary pretentions’. Consider this: if your sole aim is to entertain, a great story well told is the most interesting and enjoyable thing a reader can encounter. If your language is limited and repetitive, your sentences awkward, your metaphors clichéd or non-existent, your novel is more likely to bore and annoy than entertain. I do not agree with the modern division of fiction into ‘popular’ and literary. All novels should be enjoyable reads with good stories. All novels should also aim to have some depth and artistic merit. Shallow, trashy novels might offer a few hours of escapism, but, like junk food, they do not make the imbiber feel satisfied and healthy. Neither should books be tortured, twisted masses with no plot, read only by intellectually pretentious people ‘educated’ enough to understand modern art. I do not divide books into popular and literary; I divide them into good and bad.
So, let us begin by having a look at part 1 of The Lady of Shalott (1842) by Alfred Lord Tennyson, the great English Romantic poet.
On either side the river lie Long fields of barley and of rye, That clothe the wold and meet the sky; And thro' the field the road runs by To many-tower'd Camelot; And up and down the people go, Gazing where the lilies blow Round an island there below, The island of Shalott.
With this first stanza, Tennyson draws a vivid scene with only a few broad stokes – a beautiful pastoral idyll. Notice how he begins with a wide focus, and then narrows it in to the island of Shalott. We also have seen the road, which runs by to Camelot, and the people who gaze upon the island in the river, as we do. This piques our interest; what is on the island? Cleverly, Tennyson also strengthens the feeling of Shalott being still, but the world forever passing it by, through the picture of the road where ‘up and down the people go’, and of the river running past. His words add to this: ‘the road runs by to/ many-towered Camelot.’ The road could have snaked, passed, or just been there. But no, it ‘runs’ by. And it is going somewhere exciting too – ‘many-towered Camelot’. Who would not want to follow the people down to there!
Willows whiten, aspens quiver, Little breezes dusk and shiver Thro' the wave that runs for ever By the island in the river Flowing down to Camelot. Four gray walls, and four gray towers, Overlook a space of flowers, And the silent isle imbowers The Lady of Shalott.
The focus has come closer still. We see the trees and the breeze. And we have a direct echo of stanza one, where the road ran by to Camelot. Now, it is the river that flows down to Camelot too. But on the island in the river it is peaceful and still. Four gray walls and four gray towers – a castle. He need say no more. We can picture it just with that one line. It is a fortress, enclosed and gray. Silent, a place which ‘imbowers’ the Lady of Shalott. Again, that still silence contrasts with that road and river forever travelling down to Camelot. A special mention for original, evocative language must be made here. ‘The wave that runs for ever’ – what a beautiful image. The poet could simply have called it a river. But a wave, that has more movement, and one that ‘runs forever’ is a beautiful image of eternity. You can feel Camelot beckoning already. ‘Imbowers’ my computer is telling me, is not a word. It was not part of my vocabulary, but it is a lovely word that I enjoyed discovering. The Lady of Shalott could have dwelt in the castle, lived there, or had it be her home. But imbowers is so much better. With that one word, we know she is beautiful and graceful, as is her isle and its castle.
By the margin, willow-veil'd Slide the heavy barges trail'd By slow horses; and unhail'd The shallop flitteth silken-sail'd Skimming down to Camelot: But who hath seen her wave her hand? Or at the casement seen her stand? Or is she known in all the land, The Lady of Shalott?
We now see some of the people who pass down the river to Camelot; slow, heavy barges and horses, and light boats with silken sails that ‘skim’ (another of those clever words, this one telling us the boat moves fast and is light). And again, we begin with the passing-bys along road and river and end with the Lady of Shalott. The mysterious, hidden Lady of Shalott who ever watches without being seen.
Only reapers, reaping early In among the bearded barley, Hear a song that echoes cheerly From the river winding clearly, Down to tower'd Camelot: And by the moon the reaper weary, Piling sheaves in uplands airy, Listening, whispers "'Tis the fairy Lady of Shalott."
Ah, but she is not entirely unknown – reapers hear her song at night beneath the moon. She is a fairy, magical and of another world… So, as you can see, this poem manages to convey many, many things in only a few words. That is the genius of great poets. Their words are so loaded, evocative and innovative that, with only a handful, they can creative a beautiful and thrilling story. Rather than trying to wade through pages and pages of poetry in one sitting, I suggest that, if you are new to reading poetry, you take one poem and read it slowly several times. Study it. Examine it. Deconstruct it and find out why it works. Then build those elements into your own writing.
The Lady of Shalott, by John William Waterhouse
Part II, III and IV are equally enthralling reading, but these rich examples are enough for my purpose. To spare you from never reaching this sad, beautiful tale’s ending, here is the rest of The Lady of Shalott.
Part II. There she weaves by night and day A magic web with colours gay. She has heard a whisper say, A curse is on her if she stay To look down to Camelot. She knows not what the curse may be, And so she weaveth steadily, And little other care hath she, The Lady of Shalott. And moving thro' a mirror clear That hangs before her all the year, Shadows of the world appear. There she sees the highway near Winding down to Camelot: There the river eddy whirls, And there the surly village-churls, And the red cloaks of market girls, Pass onward from Shalott. Sometimes a troop of damsels glad, An abbot on an ambling pad, Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad, Or long-hair'd page in crimson clad, Goes by to tower'd Camelot; And sometimes thro' the mirror blue The knights come riding two and two: She hath no loyal knight and true, The Lady of Shalott. But in her web she still delights To weave the mirror's magic sights, For often thro' the silent nights A funeral, with plumes and lights And music, went to Camelot: Or when the moon was overhead, Came two young lovers lately wed; "I am half-sick of shadows," said The Lady of Shalott. Part III. A bow-shot from her bower-eaves, He rode between the barley-sheaves, The sun came dazzling thro' the leaves, And flamed upon the brazen greaves Of bold Sir Lancelot. A redcross knight for ever kneel'd To a lady in his shield, That sparkled on the yellow field, Beside remote Shalott. The gemmy bridle glitter'd free, Like to some branch of stars we see Hung in the golden Galaxy. The bridle-bells rang merrily As he rode down to Camelot: And from his blazon'd baldric slung A mighty silver bugle hung, And as he rode his armour rung, Beside remote Shalott. All in the blue unclouded weather Thick-jewell'd shone the saddle-leather, The helmet and the helmet-feather Burn'd like one burning flame together, As he rode down to Camelot. As often thro' the purple night, Below the starry clusters bright, Some bearded meteor, trailing light, Moves over still Shalott. His broad clear brow in sunlight glow'd; On burnish'd hooves his war-horse trode; From underneath his helmet flow'd His coal-black curls as on he rode, As he rode down to Camelot. From the bank and from the river He flash'd into the crystal mirror, "Tirra lirra," by the river Sang Sir Lancelot. She left the web, she left the loom, She made three paces thro' the room, She saw the water-lily bloom, She saw the helmet and the plume, She look'd down to Camelot. Out flew the web and floated wide; The mirror crack'd from side to side; "The curse is come upon me," cried The Lady of Shalott. Part IV. In the stormy east-wind straining, The pale-yellow woods were waning, The broad stream in his banks complaining, Heavily the low sky raining Over tower'd Camelot; Down she came and found a boat Beneath a willow left afloat, And round about the prow she wrote The Lady of Shalott. And down the river's dim expanse – Like some bold seër in a trance, Seeing all his own mischance – With a glassy countenance Did she look to Camelot. And at the closing of the day She loosed the chain, and down she lay; The broad stream bore her far away, The Lady of Shalott. Lying, robed in snowy white That loosely flew to left and right – The leaves upon her falling light – Thro' the noises of the night She floated down to Camelot: And as the boat-head wound along The willowy hills and fields among, They heard her singing her last song, The Lady of Shalott. Heard a carol, mournful, holy, Chanted loudly, chanted lowly, Till her blood was frozen slowly, And her eyes were darken'd wholly, Turn'd to tower'd Camelot; For ere she reach'd upon the tide The first house by the water-side, Singing in her song she died, The Lady of Shalott. Under tower and balcony, By garden-wall and gallery, A gleaming shape she floated by, A corse between the houses high, Silent into Camelot. Out upon the wharfs they came, Knight and burgher, lord and dame, And round the prow they read her name, The Lady of Shalott. Who is this? and what is here? And in the lighted palace near Died the sound of royal cheer; And they cross'd themselves for fear, All the knights at Camelot: But Lancelot mused a little space; He said, "She has a lovely face; God in his mercy lend her grace, The Lady of Shalott."
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