Headline Blog #5: Poetry

This is my fifth week blogging at headline.co.uk. And for some reason, I think the posts get longer every time.

When We Were Very Young
March 20, 2009

When I was a kid my Mom would recite poems to us; there were several, but I remember three of them more than any others: Bed in Summer by R. L. Stevenson, Animal Crackers by Cristopher Morley, and Vespers by A.A. Milne. I will admit that I had to look up those first two just now in order to find the authors, but the third, Vespers, I did not: I’ve had it memorized for most of my life, I own three copies of both Christopher Robin poem collections, and I’ve read them all countless times. My mother, and arguably that one poem, sparked a lifelong love of poetry that only continues to grow.

The best poetry is like a puzzle: how can you say something, or evoke an emotion, or prompt a specific reaction, in the simplest way possible? Poetry allows you to paint with words, to create images and feelings in your reader that ordinary prose cannot.

It started with Milne, so I’ll start there now: A.A. Milne is one of the greatest poets of the English language, and if he had written “grown up” poems instead of children’s poems he would be widely celebrated as such. Read Disobedience and look at the way he uses such strict rhythm and rhyme, yet managing to be completely playful and even conversational. Read Happiness out loud and listen to the way the sparse, simple words create such a perfect syncopation. Then read Politeness, and Halfway Down, and Teddy Bear, and The King’s Breakfast, and…well, all of it. The man is a genius.

Robert Browning is not one of my favorite poets, but in My Last Duchess he taught me one of the most important writing lessons I’ve ever learned: narrators can lie. I’ve essentially built a career on that premise, and it’s certainly nothing new, but reading My Last Duchess opened a whole new world of possibilities. Read it now and watch the way Browning tells you two stories at once: one on the surface, as a duke shows his visitor a portrait on his late wife, and another story buried in subtext in which we begin to suspect that the duke killed his wife out of baseless jealousy. You can see this concept of the “unreliable narrator” all over the place, from music (Operator by Jim Croce) to movies (The Usual Suspects by Christoher McQuarrie) to books (I Am Not a Serial Killer by…me). The ability to tell one story, while suggesting multiple layers of truth underneath it, is one of the reasons I love writing.

One of the many books in my parent’s library was a collection of poems that I read several times as a child, and through which I discovered the romantic poets: Lord Byron, Lord Tennyson, William Blake, and John Keats. I love almost everything they ever wrote, from the heartwarming (Byron’s Epitaph to a Dog) to the horrifying (Byron’s Darkness); from extended narrative (Keats’s The Eve of St. Agnes) to pure imagery (Keats’s To Autumn). I also discovered more modern poets, like Langston Hughes and ee cummings and T.S. Eliot; Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is probably my favorite piece of writing ever.

Somewhere in the middle there is Emily Dickinson, who I used to like until I realized that you can sing every poem she ever wrote to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas. Try it: “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me. The carriage held but just ourselves, and Immortality.” And now I apologize for telling you that, because it will ruin Dickinson for you completely. It took me years to get over it, but I’ve finally re-convinced myself of how awesome she is.

When I was in eighth grade we were in the midst of the first Gulf War, and my English teacher compiled an incredible little pamphlet of poetry about war, death, and loss. I still have it, and I consider it one of the highlights of my education. It included everything from the ubiquitous The Second Coming by Yeats and Ozymandias by Shelley (proof that Shelley is not the total hack I sometimes accuse him being), through the funereal The Dark Hills by Robinson, to such horrifying poems as Death of a Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell, or Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen. These poems taught me that poetry was not all happy, and that the grotesque could hold its own kind of beauty.

So who is my favorite poet? Eliot’s a contender, based solely on the strength of Prufrock; Milne is up there, too, and certainly Keats, but the crowned champion is actually one I stumbled on by accident. I’ve never studied her poetry in any English class, or seen it printed in any academic anthology, but my favorite poet is Emily Bronte, hands down. Most people know her for Wuthering Heights, which is dark and seething, and her poetry is very similar: she’s a little low on technical skill, but with a vast well of raw talent just roiling violently under the surface. I believe in a life after this, where we will be reunited with those who have gone before, and one of the very first people I want to meet is Emily Bronte—I’m going to get her, John Wilkes Booth, and Philip K. Dick into a room and just talk for hours. And then we’re going to go find William Carlos Williams and kidney punch him so hard his great grandchildren won’t be able to eat for a week.

One of the questions I get a lot is “how can I become a better writer?” and my answer is simple: “If you want to learn how to tell stories, study fiction. If you want to learn how to use words, study poetry.” The skills and principles of language you learn from poetry will improve every aspect of your writing, and when you learn how to evoke image and emotion as powerfully as, for example, Ezra Pound’s In a Station of the Metro, no force on Earth will stop you from getting published.

This week I’m going to leave you with some homework—a reading list—and, being a horror writer, I’m going to choose some of my favorite “dark” poems. Read them, ponder them, and post your comments.

Darkness, Lord Byron
Elegy, Chidiock Tichborne
Isabella, or, The Pot of Basil, John Keats
Suicide’s Note, Langston Hughes
At Castlewood, Emily Bronte
A Day in the Life, Lennon/McCartney (Yes, it totally counts)

21 Responses to “Headline Blog #5: Poetry”

  1. Arlene says:

    I haven’t actually read the poetry list yet, having read Serial Killer in the space of six hours. I couldn’t put it down! I finished it at three in the morning, which was the MOST awesome time to finish it. Congratulations on an incredibly written debut novel. And, on a personal note, thank you again for the opportunity to have dinner with you and your wife (and your sweet boy) at the LTUE. (I guess Dashner was there, too, but you win hands down). Anyway, I can’t wait for the sequels. I can only imagine they will be extraordinary.

  2. Arlene says:

    You forgot “being eaten by sharks” in your fear poll, btw.

  3. L.T. Elliot says:

    I adore Bronte, although thanks to Serial Killer I love Blake too. That line…by the demon, I’m incapable of describing the emotion I felt there.
    Thanks for the poetry homework. I can’t wait to get to it. BTW, loved: “If you want to learn how to tell stories, study fiction. If you want to learn how to use words, study poetry.”

  4. Arlene says:

    L.T.- Thanks for the heads up on Dan’s blog!

  5. L.T. Elliot says:

    Arlene–You’re welcome! Dan Wells rocks hardcore, eh? Seriously though, I feel like I’ve waited for a writer like Dan to come along and now that he has…all is right in the world. =]

  6. admin says:

    Oh, you guys are making me blush.

  7. Arlene says:

    Yay! I’m glad we could help out in the blushing department.

    Okay, so I just read ‘Isabella’ and I have to say that that is very probably the saddest thing I have ever read.

  8. Arlene says:

    Oh, and I posted a review on amazon.uk. I don’t know why I gave it four stars instead of five. I’m really sorry and I hope you can forgive me.

  9. L.T. Elliot says:

    Blush away because there ain’t no hiding from it now. The books out. You’re doomed to a flushed face. =]

    As for the amazon review, I haven’t posted one yet because I want it to be as spectacular of a review as I can give. I’m taking my time to compose my thoughts (My brain’s slow.)

    Arlene, you’re review is great. Just the kind of thing I think every author would want of a reader: eyes glued to the page. =]

  10. Arlene says:

    Hey L.T.! We are kind of like twins, aren’t we?

    Dan, so when exactly do I get the rest of the books?

  11. Arlene says:

    All of this talk of poetry has been very inspiring, mainly because it’s reminded me of a poem I remember my grandma telling me when I was little. It’s called “Little Boy Blue” by Eugene Field and I’m fairly sure it’s famous. But you know how that is when you share something special with someone you love, it’s like you’re the only one who knows about it. Anyway, it’s a favorite even though it’s simple. I think it’s beautiful.

  12. admin says:

    I Am a Genius
    by William Carlos Williams

    I can write whatever I want
    And call it poetry
    And if you don’t like it it’s just because you’re not
    Very smart.
    See what I did with that line break?
    That’s called poetry, b****.

  13. Arlene says:

    You didn’t answer my question about when I get the next book. I think I may be strung out for them. Is that weird coming from someone who has never had an ounce of drugs or alcohol her entire life?

  14. admin says:

    I’m afraid the other books won’t hit shelves for another year. I’m sorry you’re strung out for them, but I’ve heard the best way to deal with that is to tell all your friends to buy it. Works wonders.

  15. Arlene says:

    I’m on it. :)

  16. Rob Wells says:

    I looked up each of the poems that you mentioned and read them, and I have to say that I quite liked them, with one glaring exception: In a Station of the Metro. I absolutely don’t get it. I feel like I’m missing some context–like there’s some history I’m unaware of, or that it’s some kind of performance art. I don’t know. It was weird.

  17. Donna says:

    I finally found you all. Dan, did you know that there is some strange blonde comedian guy out there with your same name and his blog is lame.
    I probably won’t read Serial Killer although I proudly wear the pin from LTUE and as far as the dinner goes I’d have to disagree with Arlene’s earlier comment and say that you and Dashner were equally entertaining…but then again I’m not a horror fan…in fact the woods on the main part of your blog kind of creep me out and I’ll have to remember to check in during the daylight hours next time..hehe.
    Still, I am suggesting your book to anyone Arlene says can handle it. So that’s my little push for the cause.
    Love the poetry info..it reminded me that once long before my brain was fried by screaming children, 2am feedings, kindergarten homework and the general nonsense of motherhood, I actually really liked poetry and My Last Duchess is a fabulous poem. I am more a Wordswoth and Tennyson fan but to each his own.
    Byron has his moments too…well he did until I dated a guy by that name and now Lord Byron’s poems are forever tainted to me.
    WELL, on that very personal note, remind me not to post when I’m tired and I’ll see you here again soon.

  18. Arlene says:

    I AM excited for Maze Runner to come out, by Dashner. If it’s as good as his reading then I’ll agree with you, Donna.

  19. admin says:

    You can talk about Dashner on his blog–this one is all about ME. Who does he think he is anyway?

  20. Donna says:

    You tell her Dan. All things according to Dan on this blog. So glad I could join the party. LOL

  21. Arlene says:

    Don’t worry. I totally talked about Serial Killer on Dashner’s blog. It goes both ways.

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