Genre Lessons: Poetry

Poetry (1)I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month we’re discussing poetry. I have a weird relationship with poetry. There are lots of poets and collections that are considered lofty, literary works — Poetry with a capital “P” — that I just don’t get. I recognize that these are great works, but they do nothing for me. But at the same time, I love music, and the sound of words, and clever turns of phrase (bonus points if there’s some kind of rhyme, either internal or at the end of a line). I will spend hours turning over a gorgeous line/sentence/paragraph/stanza in my mind. And I am so in awe of some spoken word poets, I can’t even articulate their genius.

So, poetry. It simultaneously delights and confuses me, intrigues and bores me, depending on the poem. Which I guess is true of any format, any medium. But people often speak of poetry as a single thing (genre?), so I sometimes feel like I should be able to form a single opinion on it. Either it’s for me, or it’s not, right?

Wrong. The first lesson I learned when reading poetry for this month’s book club is:

1. No single work is representative of any genre, category, format, medium, etc. Just like there are some mysteries I love and others I couldn’t finish, some romances that make me swoon and others that make me cringe, the label a work is given does not automatically determine who will like or dislike it. Sure, knowing the genre helps, but you might surprise yourself when you try something in a genre you don’t normally read. I find that time and time again with poetry. Also,

2. A piece can read like poetry even if it’s written as prose, in paragraphs rather than stanzas. Some of the most gorgeous, poetic things I’ve read have come from novels by the likes of Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Jandy Nelson, and Maggie Stiefvater. Those lines that make you catch your breath, that you go back and re-read again and again — whether they’re hidden in prose or not, I consider them poetry. Finally,

3. Whether you’re writing poetry or prose, there has to be an overall arc, a theme or story connecting the entire work. In a novel, that’s your story. In a collection of poems, maybe that’s a story (as we see with novels in verse), or maybe it’s a theme that links every poem in that collection. Whatever it is, there has to be a common thread.

Now, I’m off to read some more gorgeous writing. I finally got my hands on the audiobook The Raven King, and I believe Maggie Stiefvater’s prose is so musical it’s even better read aloud.

What has poetry taught you about writing? Any poets or collections you’d recommend?

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