Lessons from poetry that any kind of writer can use

Poetry has a mixed reputation. It’s often represented as esoteric or elite. Yet popular song lyrics and, even more so, rap rhymes, have made poetry mainstream, relevant and politically urgent. I think poetry is a flexible medium that can convey messages in wildly imaginative ways. If you doubt it, grab a Canadian literary magazine from the magazine rack at your local library and read a poem. You’ll find startling voices that will surprise and move you. My own poetry is ever evolving. As I write, I learn.

Here are some insights I’ve had while writing poetry that I think any writer can apply:

Take a minute to tease out meaning.

Most of us work to deadline, which encourages us to go as fast as possible. But poetry has taught me that even a few minutes of thinking – real, uninterrupted thinking – can reveal what’s really going on in writing. What my document is about, the implications of my words, the value of them – teasing these things out is vital. I try to build in those minutes (as few as 30) and make notes to myself about my meaning before I write, or sometimes halfway through.

Trust the reader.

Poetry is a vehicle for complexity (or an affront to complexity, depending on how punk the poet is), but I would argue that almost all writing hides a lot of what it’s saying. As long as we know what is lies the words, we should trust the reader to discern that bigger aura of meanings, rather than hit them over the head with it. (BTW, if you need support when you do read poetry, the Academy of American Poets has a great how-to).

Words are beautiful.

Poets take words seriously. We appreciate the politics, aesthetics, history, and even violence of words. We respect them. I think that’s a good place to start for all writing. Value words, rather than throwing them around. Care for your words, and writing will be a better vehicle for your thinking.

Polish your draft.

Yes, there are amazing poems written in one sitting. But most of the time, poetry, like all writing, arises when the writer takes time to finesse their message. That doesn’t mean adding fancy words, only being patient and finding the right ones.

Celebrate writing.

Writing is hard. It’s also amazing: writing lets us reach one another at great distances, bring the thoughts we’re aching to share into a common space, and work together towards shared goals. Think of how much song lyrics can mean, how we carry them around for years, calling upon them for inspiration. That’s writing. It helps to keep that power in mind when facing a blank page, whether you’re starting a poem or a quarterly report. Celebrate what writing can do!