Learning to Tell the Truth: How Poetry Teaches Us to Write

I'm thrilled to share a guest post today from Kelly Belmonte, the chief muse behind the blog All Nine. Kelly's blog is full of inspiration for the writing life, especially where poetry is concerned. In honor of National Poetry Month this April, her posts looks at how reading poetry is a good practice for writers of any genre or style. I'm grateful to have the voice of a fellow poet and kindred spirit in this space! Happy reading, and stop by the comments to let us know which poets spark your writing.


image credit: Kai Oberhauser

image credit: Kai Oberhauser

Which poets do you have on your night stand?

What is the last poem you read that made you gasp, cry, or exclaim, “Yes, exactly that”?

When did you last quote a poet?

The answers matter. No, I take that back. Your ability to have any answers at all to these questions matters. If you are a writer of any genre – not necessarily a poet – there is no better way to keep your muses active and your words sharp than to maintain a steady diet of good poetry. 

 

Notice everything.

I wonder how you are going to feel
when you find out
that I wrote this instead of you.

From “You, Reader” by Billy Collins (The Trouble With Poetry)

How indeed will you feel when you find out how Mr. Collins got up a bit earlier than you to notice, then record in his poem, a wide range of things you may pass every day but never notice? The rain-soaked windows and unlit candles, the salt and pepper shakers, a whistling car passing by the house, blue hydrangeas… they are all there. Did you ever notice them before?

Don’t feel bad if you are not an early bird, though, and if you don’t have the observational skill of Sherlock Holmes while you are writing. I suspect Billy Collins actually may have slept in that day he wrote this, no matter what he says about getting up early in his poem. And even if he had gotten up early, maybe he didn’t take in all of those details just then. Maybe he had been collecting them, over time. Maybe. 

The point is, in this poem, you the reader believe he the poet did all these things. He is successful at this because he has collected and archived in his brain pieces of life and reality that make his writing authentic. 

This is what reading good poetry will do for you. It helps you recognize truth and authenticity, even when wrapped in a fabrication. Many of the best poems are lies that tell the truth. 

Sweat the fundamentals.

Occasionally a reader will ask me to explain the meaning of one of my poems. Early on when this would happen, I’d try to do just that. That was a mistake. If I have to explain it, either the poem has failed as poetry, or the reader has not been patient enough with the poem or with themselves. 

These days, my response to such questions is either to ask them what they think it means or say, “If I could have said it any other way, I would have.” 

That may sound abrupt, but it’s what poetry is to me: a truth that can be said in no other way. Not for nothing, poets labor over each word, each comma and dash, the line breaks, the structure, everything. A poem does not leave wiggle room in the fundamentals. 

Because of that attention to detail, to the fundamentals, reading poetry can sharpen your writing, any writing, poetry or not. You don’t have to be a poet to benefit from this practice. All writing is made better by such concision, lyric appreciation, and craft. 

Speak with your own voice.

I have heard it said that one value of reading the works of a great poet is that you might gain enough insight to write like that poet one day. If that is your hope, please stop doing that. Now.

You will never be Maya Angelou. Only Maya Angelou could have been Maya Angelou. Nor will you be Shakespeare, or e.e. cummings, or Billy Collins, or Mary Oliver.

At its very very best, your writing will sound like you and no one else. Reading the work of many other poets across a range of styles can help you appreciate the distinctiveness of their voices as well as your own. But it should never change who you are.

Going back to Billy Collins’ poem for a moment, it is so uniquely his voice not only because of the detail he provides (a la blue hydrangeas, etc.), but because of his style of engaging the reader. Not all great poets do this, but Collins is beloved for the way he connects relationally. It’s part of who he is, and being comfortable in his skin as a poet, it comes through. 

Maybe you have a relational personality. Fine, let it show in your writing. Just do it your own way. Or maybe you’re uncomfortable with connecting in that way and prefer to expose only the truth you want to tell at that moment. Fine, do that. Be yourself.

There is nothing more magnetic in writing than an authentic voice.

Who’s on your night stand?

image credit: Annie Spratt

image credit: Annie Spratt

At the beginning of this post, I asked about the poets on your night stand.

Why the night stand? I have a pile of chapbooks and full-length poetry collections at my bedside. Of course, I have books of poetry in many places throughout my house, but the largest collection in terms of critical mass is by far right next to my bed. 

Why? Because my dreams are hungry, and I want to feed them well. 

What are you feeding your dreams?


Kelly Belmonte, founder and Chief Muse of All Nine, is a  poet, blogger, and management consultant with expertise in nonprofit organizational development and youth mentoring. Her work has been published in Atlas Poetica and Relief Journal: A Christian Literary Expression. She is honored to have her poem “How I Talk To God” selected for inclusion in The Word in the Wilderness (2014) edited by poet Malcolm Guite. Kelly also contributed a chapter to Women and C.S. Lewis (2015), a collection of interviews and essays on the theme of Lewis and women in his life and writings. Her two poetry chapbooks, Three Ways of Searching (2013) and  Spare Buttons (2014), are published by Finishing Line Press.