- Reformation of the Arts and Music

Poetry and Prose: Choosing the Right Words
© 1997 by Dorothy E. Robbins

A good vocabulary, gained through reading good poetry and prose, enhances poetic expression

This is a poetry column. Why would one discussing how to write good poetry encourage the readers to read good prose? Of course, we know that prose and poetry are closely related and parts of the language of every nation; both are means of communicating ideas and, obviously, one uses the same words for both. The conclusion is, therefore, that a well-read person has a larger vocabulary than one who reads little. This is not just a great asset, it is essential if one wants to write either prose or poetry and write it well. We want to see today how reading good prose helps one write good poetry - as well as discover through this how these two differ - as they very definitely do.

If one has a large vocabulary, one can pick and choose to find just the right word. And choosing the right word can make a difference in several ways. For example, which word would you choose if you were creating a poem using one of the following lines?

"Cry when I'm gone." "Weep when I'm gone."

Perhaps you would say that the word "weep" has a softer, more sympathetic sound. You might also realize that the alliteration between "weep" and "when" is pleasing to the ear and heart. Now, listen to the remainder of the poem and think how different it would have sounded if the word "cry" had been used. Note, also, other uses of alliteration that help to emphasize the ideas and lead one to the conclusion and climax at the end of the verse.

Weep, when I'm gone, if you must,
But know it is true, if you trust,
I'll only be gone for a day;
And soon you'll be going that way.

Of course, most of us would have no problem knowing that we have a choice between cry and weep. But that is because our vocabulary contains both of those words making it easy to bring to our minds the one that is most suitable. Just so, the more words one knows, the easier it is for ones mind to pick just the right one. When I was a younger poet I sent a short poem to an acquaintance who had had several poems published. This is the poem I sent:

Rain drenched smells!
Pools of water,
A full breeze swells.
Smelly sod,
Lilac's nod,
Flash of robin's breast:
Spring's come west!

When she sent it back she had changed one word: smelly. Her choice was "fragrant." Which do you like better? Was the change a good one? I must say that I felt a bit piqued at the time for having my poem "tampered with"! Poets are touchy that way - or have you noticed? Nevertheless, humility is a virtue absolutely essential if we are going to learn and improve. I hope I am learning. I like what she did. Fragrant is aesthetically a much better choice. I'm sure the word "fragrant" was in my vocabulary but it apparently wasn't fixed there strongly enough to influence my choice. Reading, reading, reading enlarges our reservoir of choices for both our poetry and our prose.

With the above in mind we can see the answer to these questions - What difference does it make whether I use one word or its synonym? If they have the same or nearly the same meaning, why choose one over another?

Now suppose you wanted to write about bells. If you were writing an essay about bells, you could say a lot of things that would be interesting; but, if you were to write a poem about bells, you would want to write something that would make those who would read it "hear" those bells and "feel" the circumstances surrounding their ringing. Listen to these lines from Edgar Allen Poe's poem, "The Bells."

Hear the sledges with the bell--
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!

(Do you feel like shivering as those sleigh bells "tinkle" in the dark? What a master he was with words!)

While the stars that over sprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,

(Would you have thought of the phrase "Runic rhyme? But isn't it perfect? What will he think of next! How will he end this stanza about sleigh bells? Listen!)

In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells,-
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

Could one writing prose call up as vividly the picture of a snowy, cold night under the stars with sleigh bells jingle, jangle, tinkling as the old mare weaves through a wintry night? That poem shows so clearly the wide abyss between poetry and prose. Try to make prose out of that!

Incidentally, when was the last time you used the word "tintinnabulation"? Do you like the sound of it on your tongue? I like saying it over and over. Some words are like that. It certainly adds interest to Poe's poem. And, yes, there is such a word. Poe the poet knew it.

Poe not only knew lots of words; he knew how to put them together to get the "sounds" he wanted. One cannot miss his repetition of words. Try reading that poem aloud! Repetition is another device poets use.

Let's return to the first poem we read, "Weep when I'm Gone." The second and third verses are:

Weep when I'm gone if you must
But know it is true if you trust,
The tears you shed now in such sorrow
Will be tears of great joy on the morrow.

Weep when I'm gone if you must
But know it is true if you trust,
Death isn't the end of the story:
It's just the beginning of glory.

It isn't how many unusual words one uses that makes a poet; rather, it's how those words are used. Unusual or little used words can be used to great advantage, but how words are put together is also important. And that's one of the great differences between poetry and prose. Try repeating the first two lines of the above poem three times in such a short space in a prose writing! Well, I suppose it could be done but I'm thinking the writer would quickly be accused of redundance. And imagine a prose piece repeating bells like Poe did! He certainly woudn't last long at an editorial desk.

Will some of you who are reading this write and tell me some other ways you think poetry and prose differ? We'll be coming across this thought a number of times in the course of our writing. I'd like to hear your "input."

And, lest we forget, brethren: "whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, or of good report; if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things." (Philippians iv: 8-9)

Last updated: 12 April 2006
Updated by: Matt Bynum