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Are you a poet and you didn't know it? Tags: Writers Abroad writing ex-pat writers poetry

Some members of Writers Abroad write poetry. Some of us don’t. If I’m honest, I am always slightly uncomfortable critiquing a poem, since I don’t feel qualified in the technical aspects. I often read the winning poems in Writing Magazine competitions, but I skip over the accompanying critique.

The leader of our writing group suggested recently that we look at using poetry to sharpen our prose.

“Let’s all try writing a Haiku for homework,” she said.

I wondered if I could plead a prior engagement for our next meeting. I’ve heard of Haikus (Japanese poem of 17 syllables divided into 3 lines of 5, 7 and 5 non-rhyming syllables), but this will be my first attempt at writing poetry since I was a child. And that was pretty turgid stuff.

When I read the material she circulated about using poetic techniques in writing prose, my interest was pricked. Poets use words to present an image or an idea, often in a very economical way. I learned that the first line of a poem is crucial in challenging or surprising the reader and setting up the idea. The last line is equally important in rounding off the theme. The two provide a unity that the lines in between develop. Try applying this to one of your favourite poems.

I tried this with John Donne, one of my poets of choice.

1st line: No man is an island entire of itself

Last line: And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

In between: development of the theme of our common humanity.

Sounds familiar? You can apply this to the first and last lines of a short story or a novel. Is the theme clear from the start? Have you taken the reader on a journey from a problem or a challenge to a destination? Does what happens in between develop that journey?

The use of individual words or phrases is also significant. To keep the reader’s interest, poets have to find new ways of presenting emotions or describing images without falling back into cliché. The novelist Helen Dunmore was a poet. The language in her novels shines. She sometimes used words that made you sit up, but when you thought about it, you knew they were exactly right.

Have a look at one of your works in progress, identify any clichéd language or emotion and try to come up with more original turns of phrase. Focus particularly on the first paragraph or two.

Now I am off to tackle the biggest writing challenge of the year so far: composing a Haiku.

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