by Susan A.J. Lyttek
When I teach high school creative writing, we devote the entire first semester to poetry.
Just typing that line, I can hear people reading this (at least some of you) groaning in agony. Why on earth would I do that? Do I love torturing youth with thees and thous? Do I want to see them bang their heads trying to comprehend the reasoning behind iambic pentameter?
No, of course not. I see it as giving practical history on man’s use of language to touch others, himself and God. And I truly believe that every writer who wants to excel at his or her craft needs a solid poetic foundation.
Poetry, arguably, is the first form human beings used to express themselves creatively. Think about it. You have the Epic of Gilgamesh, in poetry, the Odyssey and the Iliad–as well as much of Greek mythology in verse. Many of the early philosophers, like Virgil and Socrates, have their words and sayings (at least in part) recorded in verse.
Above and beyond that, between 1/3 and ½ of all Scripture (depending on who’s analyzing it) is recorded using poetic form. Most of the poetry in the Bible uses a technique called parallelism. And you know the cool thing about that? Because it doesn’t rely on rhyme or rhythm, its poetic voice translates into any language. You might think God planned it! How amazing is that?
Still, with all that information, why would I put poetry first? I mean it’s so archaic and so hard.
Exactly. That’s why. Most people today have forgotten that the reason poetry came first is that it trains your brain for the rest of writing.
1) Poetry is concise. Yeah, I know that some of the epic poems fill an entire book. But think about telling the same story or stories in prose. In the novel format you’d need at least a trilogy. So poetry helps teach you how to choose the best word or most meaningful phrase.
2) Poetry is mnemonic. Why was the Iliad in verse? So it could be memorized and repeated from town to town. Why did God inspire prophets and kings to record so much of the Bible in verse? So we could memorize His truths easier. For example, when I can’t sleep, I repeat Psalm 23 or a couple of poems that I know until the words calm me. Because these options are verse, a groggy and sleep-deprived mind can still recall them.
3) Poetry has rules. Even with poetry that “breaks” the rules, you need to know which rules you’re breaking. Strict rules and formats actually make writing easier. I have never had a student fail to complete a worthy sonnet by the end of the first semester. However, many have left their fiction piece for the second semester incomplete. The freedom makes it harder.
4) Poetry is where we began. Just like knowing history teaches us how (if we apply its truths) how to avoid the mistakes of our ancestors, poetry has its own lessons to teach us. It reminds us that we were designed with emotions, but they can be reined in and made to behave–for our good and for those around us. And the tools of poetry will help us grow–mind, spirit and soul.
What else can I say? A whole semester’s worth of classes! But may this snippet of those lessons convince you to dust off some old poetry books and then compose a poem or two today.
Susan A. J. Lyttek, author of four novels, award-winning writer, wife and mother to two homeschool graduates, writes in time snippets and on random pieces of scratch paper. She also enjoys training up the next generation of writers by coaching middle and high school students.