Most fiction writers don’t read much poetry, let’s be honest. I confess I don’t read much contemporary American poetry myself. So much of it is either incomprehensible–even to someone who has a higher degree in Creative Writing–or pretentious, or simply tedious in its insistence on the usual woke themes. However, this past few weeks I’ve been reading the Oxford Library of English Poetry, a three-volume anthology edited by John Wain, and have found it not only immensely pleasurable, but also, I believe, useful.
Let’s take the pleasure part first. This anthology contains no American verse, and as Wain himself admits, there have been many great American poets. If you were to make an anthology of the best verse in English, a number of them would have to be included: Whitman and Emily Dickinson are two obvious giants. However, even without the Americans, and starting at Spenser, there are incredible riches, and not just the usual favourites, such as Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton, but plenty of gems by much lesser-known names too like Robert Herrick, or Abraham Cowley. And I’m still on the first volume. English must have one of the richest poetic traditions.
But since I’m making the claim that fiction writers will find reading poetry useful as well as pleasurable, I’d better explain myself. For some time I’ve believed that fiction writers focus too much on craft, and not enough on inspiration. And if that seems a questionable claim, let me develop the point: if they don’t focus too much on craft (which I admit is important), many of them focus on craft in the wrong way. They take too analytical an approach, and are worried too much by the purpose of what they write. It’s fine to have a plot–at some point you will need one!–but if you work it all out in advance, there’s nothing to discover, and the story becomes boring for you, and thus for your readers. There’s no room for inspiration, for the muse. There are two main culprits for the write-by-numbers approach that bedevils so much of current fiction: first, the prevalence of Creative Writing Programs, which are mostly very poor, and second, the general prevalence in western society at this period of an over-analytical, critical way of thinking, which is the result of over-reliance on the left hemisphere of the brain. (I’m simplifying. Anyone interested should read Iain McGilchrist’s brilliant work, The Master and His Emissary, about brain lateralisation and its effect on culture.) The left hemisphere wants you to be successful. It wants you to win prizes, make money, get published. Nothing wrong with any of that. But creativity comes largely from the right hemisphere, which we are using less and less, as we are connected to machines most of the time, and are becoming more machine-like in our thinking. Interestingly, language is mostly processed in the left hemisphere–so you definitely need to engage that when writing fiction! In fact you couldn’t write any if you didn’t. But the left hemisphere has no sense of humour, dislikes ambiguity, fails to understand metaphor, is always sure that it’s right, and often gets angry. Sound familiar? Doesn’t that sound like a lot of current fiction? Including a lot of prize-winning ‘literary’ fiction? Yes. And this is where poetry comes in.
Poetry, like painting, or real music (I’m not talking about genres which reduce it to rhythm–which is left-hemisphere processed) is a right-hemisphere, that is holistic, activity. It relates to other people, and to all living things. It’s interested in ambiguity, in layers of meaning, multiple meanings, and it’s humorous, playful, and it loves metaphor. It’s intuitive. It goes where it feels like going–it explores feelings, hunches, dreams, and often comes up with unthought-of, creative solutions. When you read a great poem, you have no idea where it’s going to lead you. That’s not true of most fiction, is it? Most novels are pretty predictable. Which may be why fewer people (particularly men) are reading them. But immerse yourself in great verse, and you find yourself in new worlds, looking at life, at people, indeed at the universe–dare I say it, at God?–with new eyes. Poetry is a spiritual art. And fiction can be too. But only if we allow ourselves to dream, and stop rationalising everything. You can’t plan everything. There has to be some uncertainty–even some risk. Allow yourself the possibility of failure, and you’re more likely to come up with something original and startling. You can copy some successful formula, of course–that is what most of the misnamed Creative Writing programmes do. That’s what Hollywood has been doing for years, and why current US cinema is so boring. So break out! Read poetry. You probably loved it when you were young. You probably wrote it. Maybe it’s time to write some again. Who knows where it might lead you?