Perhaps you remember Emily Dickinson’s poem from English class in High School, “I never saw a moor.” If not, allow me to spark your memory. The poem, like nearly all of Dickinson’s work, is brief.
“I never saw a moor”
I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
and what a billow be.
I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.
Like me, many of you are former English majors so I’m fairly confident you studied a couple of Dickinson’s poems at some point in your academic career. If so, you will remember that Ms. Dickinson is admired for poetic brevity, for packing a great deal of punch into as few words as possible.
We’re not here to study poetry, but I hope to give you a little food for thought that your English teacher never did.
Instead of studying the tightly packed words and images in the poem, I want you to notice something else:
Emily Dickinson tells us plainly that she never saw a moor–she was a famous recluse and stuck to her house for most all her life so we can believe her. Yet she says she “knows” how the heather looks. In an age with little photography, how could she know how it looked if she’d never seen it?
She knew because of writers who brought the moor to life for her. Perhaps she read the Brontes. Likewise, she’d never seen the sea, but could imagine a crashing wave. Perhaps she’d read Melville’s Moby Dick.
What landscape do you want your reader to see? It needn’t be dystopian or science fiction to warrant a wonderful description. The point here isn’t to pack your prose as tightly as a poem, but to write so that your reader can see
Whatever it is you are writing about.
Another poem comes to mind here; Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Who can forget the woods that are “lovely, dark and deep?” My husband and I still recite this line when we drive through wooded valleys or darksome country roads, surrounded by silent forest. One line, three descriptive words, and they say so much.
So okay, maybe I will encourage you to be stringent with your words! Get poetic, which means, choose words wisely. Don’t waste them, and don’t misuse them. Be like Dickinson and Frost (Frost could write copious poetry, by the way); Bring your nouns, your persons, places, things or ideas, to life for the reader so well that they can “see” them.
We are, of course, an image driven society today. Yet, though it may be true that an image is worth a thousand words, it remains that a thousand words should bring forth many images.
With winter upon us, I leave you with yet one more poetic landscape; one so well written it has been made into song: Christina Rossetti’s “A Christmas Carol.” (Which you probably know better by the first line..)
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
~Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter,
Not everyone finds inspiration for writing in poetry, but if you’re like me, you can.
Get out a book of your favorite poems or poet and take a look at the words with the eyes of a writer.
Can you use a poetic device in your prose? Describe a common phenomena differently, like Rossetti’s ice storm (“water like a stone”)? Or, take a hint on how to set atmosphere for a scene the way Rossetti does here, using a few well-chosen words (“bleak,” “frosty” “moan,” “hard” and “stone”).
Lyrical words aren’t only for so-called “literary” writers. Find a way to embed the judicious use of
poetic description into a piece of prose you’re working on and see if it brings your scene to life.
While you’re at it, have fun, but resist the temptation to overdo it. Poetry relies upon just the right word for just the right image, and our prose should also.
How about you? Do you use poetic imagery in your writing? If not, have you ever thought about purposefully trying your hand at it?