Verse May Not be High Art, but it Trains Writers to Heed Cadence
by James J. Kilpatrick, The Writers Art
If you aspire, dear reader, to write really good prose, first hone your skills by writing verse - that is, by writing verse that scans and rhymes.
That advice is prompted by a story in The New York Times three weeks ago. Two professional poets, Paul Muldoon and Thylias Moss, accepted a good-natured challenge from an Internet site. They had 15 minutes to compose a poem. The assigned topic: "Writing poetry is an unnatural act." They could choose their own prosodic form. There were no prizes.
Both chose to write in free verse. Muldoon, who holds a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, used his whole 15 minutes to write "Aim." If the Times quoted it exactly, his poem read, in full: "The sense of the poem as having always been,/as the redknot is bent on that selfsame patch/of tundra grass on which it was hatched."
Let us assume, generously, that as a matter of grammar the subject of Muldoon's epic was "sense." If that subject had a predicate, it flopped away in translation.
Moss used only 13 minutes and 19 seconds. She is a professor at the University of Michigan; she has written 10 books. Her untitled poem read, in full: "my headache remains/a kind of proof of the seriousness/of what is locked in my brain, everything tucked in there, fusing there/into a feeling so tremendous it hurts."
Now, the eggs laid by Mr. Muldoon and Ms. Moss were, arguably, poetry. I'm suggesting that readers who want to improve their style write verse. There's a difference.
Lexicologists have trouble defining "poetry." The Oxford American Dictionary cops out: Poetry is "the art or work of a poet." Right on! The Encarta dictionary says, rightly, that poetry is distinguished from "verse" by its high quality, emotional sincerity or profound insight. Encarta defines "verse," wrongly, as poetry that is "trivial in content or inferior in quality." American Heritage sniffs that verse is "metrical writing that lacks depth or artistic merit."
Well, pooh to Encarta and American Heritage! Verse is an art form to be defended. Metaphorically, it may not be pheasant, but it can be excellent fried chicken. And writing rhymed verse - jingles, limericks, couplets, quatrains, even sentimental sonnets - is superb practice for anyone who aspires to become a better writer.
Although poetic cadence can be overdone, the best prose falls trippingly on the ear. If you're writing a bursar's report on accounts overdue, rhythm is not a concern, but listen! Even if you're assigned only to write a report on air-breathing arthropods, you can try your hand with your own duck-tailed dactyl or a triple-tongued trochee. Let's see: An insect hymenopterous/has jaws that are simply prepopterous./His formidable mandibles/chew like so many cannibles/and his appetite is often unstopperous. And that won't take more than half an hour, either.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist and author of books on language. Write him at 2555 Pennsylvania Ave., Apt. 902, Washington, DC 20037 or at email@example.com.