Death and Poetry – How Writing Poetry Helps Me Improve My Prose

A lot of you already know I write short horror stories with dark and twisty themes. What you don’t know, is that I sometimes I write poetry and it helps me improve my prose.

A little backstory

I started writing poetry in 1991 when I was sixteen. My mother died that year from complications due to long term Type 1 Diabetes. She was diagnosed in the 1950s and did not have access to any of the tools available today for blood sugar monitoring because they didn’t exist. Her doctor told her to boil up a syringe once in the morning and once in the evening and inject a dose of pork insulin. So you can imagine how out of control her blood sugar levels were for decades. By the mid ’80s, technology and understanding improved, and she was able to test her blood sugar with a handbag-sized device. But the majority of damage had already taken hold. My father and I were her carers for the last three years of her life. Her body packed in by the time she was forty-seven.

How does this experience help with my prose? For a start, my poetry is dark, my fiction is dark, so they complement each other. From a technical point of view it means I have been writing poetry for twenty-eight years and that has trained me think differently. I’ll tell you how I do it.

Poetry helps me in two main ways:

  1. It makes me encapsulate an emotion succinctly using showing rather than telling thereby making it more accessible to readers.
  2. It gives me a tool to avoid cliche.

Let’s have a look in a little more detail. 

Exploring and Showing Emotion

If I wanted to express grief or feeling sad at the loss of something or someone, it would not be very good if I simply wrote:

I am sad,  
They left me alone.
I feel like there is nothing now.

While that is rather stark, it isn’t very emotive. It pushes people away rather than draws them in. What if I wrote:

This darkness ebbs at consciousness,
Stealing each day.
I see it from the corner of my eye,
But then,
It swarms,
A flock of malevolent wings and catching claws,
Grasping and pulling at your memory.
Soon, all will be barren
Where once you were.

It’s the same emotion, sadness and emptiness at loss, but the latter is far more evocative. It shows us more. It gets inside and makes us feel. It creates a vulnerability that can be used to bring your readers closer to your characters.

I then go through the poem and choose bits of it I feel will fit the best with the prose. In the example above, I particularly like the malevolent wings and catching claws that are grasping at the character’s memory of a loved one. I probably would not use the wings and claws, but malevolent and catching are good. I also like the notion of ebbing darkness stealing from the character, as if they have no control over how they feel; just like one person has little control over the ebb and flow of the tide. I can then write those things into the scene and hopefully make it subtle and relatable. 

Avoiding Cliche

Poetry is perfect for avoiding cliche or broken down, worn out expressions. It gives me an easy method of thinking outside the box. I can experiment quickly and find a solution without too much disruption to my writing flow. That’s not to say you have to do this in the first draft. I sometimes just get any old thing down and highlight an area I’ll need to go back over to improve in subsequent versions.

Here are a couple examples of tired expressions where I use poetry to come up with something better. It shouldn’t be overt or flowery, just changing a few words will give the desired result.

The sun set.

I start with a small poem, almost list of things that remind me of a setting sun, such as:

End of day,
Beneath the horizon.
Floundering memorial of the day’s death,
Stumbling to rest.

From that I will choose a couple of things that stand out the most to me and write them as sentences.

  • The sun stumbled against the horizon.
  • The sun wallowed with the last of the day.

I don’t try and overwrite it – The glowing, crimson orb, mottled with cloud stumbled with a shimmer at the edge of the world – that’s just super bad. Simple but expressive is best. You don’t want to drown your reader. You want them to recognise that you really do mean a setting sun.

Let’s take another one:

Gravel crunched underfoot.

Sandpaper scuffing.
Rhythmic grinding of machine feet
Tuneless maraca footprints,
Hollowed toes,
Heels pushed out of the way.
Depression left by tumbled pebbles.

And then rewrite it:

  • Gravel grated as I walked.
  • His feet beat a maraca rhythm down the gravel drive.

Of those two, I like the second best. I can hear the maracas in the gravel.

There is a bonus to working this way. You also end up with a myriad of small poems. I usually keep mine in a folder on my computer, but there is no reason why you could not choose the best of them and put them together in a collection. They could be used as bonus material for your readers, teasers between releases, or sold as a companion volume to the book they helped create. 

Do you have any tricks up your sleeve to help with emotions and avoiding cliche? Let us know in the comments.

If you’d like to know more about me and my writing or join my email list, click the image below.

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