By Glynn Young @gyoung9751
Like most of my generation, I read poetry in English classes in high school. It wasn’t until I was a high school senior that I read poetry that stuck in my head. And it was T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Four Quartets.” I read poetry in college as well, but my English literature professor gave brutal tests that put me off poetry for years.
My professional career eventually led me to corporate speech writing. I enjoyed the work, the executives I wrote for liked what I did, and I had that sense of “this is what I was meant to do.” It was a good friend, one who wasn’t a speechwriter, who suggested that if I were really serious about it, then I needed to read poetry. He sent me three books – the collected poems of T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Dylan Thomas. He told me to read them and others on a regular basis.
And I thought, seriously? No speechwriter I knew read poetry regularly. Most then and now would read books about current events, developments in science, politics, and a lot of speeches written by others. But poetry? Really?
I didn’t read them immediately, but I did bring the three books to work. About a year later, when I was struggling with a difficult speech topic (and needed to do anything other than the work in front of me), I opened the Dylan Thomas book and picked a poem at random. These were the first three lines I read:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying the light.
It’s not a long poem, and Thomas uses the first and third lines as a kind of refrain or chorus. The poem stunned me for what it was about, how it said it, and the sheer beauty of the language.Why Poetry Can Make you a Better Writer @gyoung9751 #ACFW #writing Click To Tweet
A light dawned. I understood what my friend meant. You didn’t put that language, or those words, into the mouths of corporate executives. But you could use the rhythm, the cadence, and the repetition. You could use unusual words and ways to describe things. You could look at a speech as a kind of poem, a poem that told a story that could entertain, make a point, present a case, or convince an audience.
It was a revelation. Fortunately, I sensed that I transform my work overnight and inflict bad poetry on an unsuspecting speaker. I read all of the rest of the Dylan Thomas book and then the ones by Eliot and Stevens. I found other poets, including contemporary ones. I rediscovered Shakespeare’s sonnets, and the poetry of the English Romantics. I fell in love all over again with another poet I’d read in high school – Edgar Lee Masters and his Spoon River Anthology.
I was becoming a better writer. Poetry was teaching me about language, and eliminating unnecessary words, and keeping focused. I learned that corporate speeches could be beautifully written and emotionally moving. And the lessons I was learning carried over to all other kinds of writing, including what I was quietly doing on my own – fiction.
Eight years after I read that poem by Dylan Thomas, a speech I wrote won the top speechwriting award in the United States. A year later, another speech won second place. Speeches I’d written appeared in Vital Speeches of the Day, still the No. 1 publication for speeches. And poetry has permeated my fiction writing.
It was the best writing advice I ever received.
Glynn Young is a national award-winning speechwriter, communications practitioner, and novelist. He’s the author of five published novels, Dancing Priest, A Light Shining, Dancing King, Dancing Prophet; and Dancing Prince; and the non-fiction book Poetry at Work. Visit Glynn on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, his blog, the Dancing Priest book page, and his business web site.