Daryl Farmer: To Write Good Prose, Learn to Love Poetry

“Genuine poetry can
communicate before it’s understood.”
T.S. Eliot
Earlier tonight, I sat at a table with four poets. They are
each successful and brilliant, and each came to poetry in their own unique way.
One of them stumbled into a prestigious graduate program only after dropping
out of school. “The last thing in the world I ever thought I’d call myself is
poet,” he confessed. One is self-taught – for her, an advanced degree was
unnecessary. One had planned on being a veterinarian before finding poetry. One
of them teaches at a local high school. She had recently heard that cayenne
pepper can increase egg productivity in hens and she wanted to know if the rest
of us thought that might be true. None knew the answer, but I could sense their
poet minds storing the question away, shaping it into a potential prompt. As
usual when I’m around poets like this, I reveled in the notion that I had
crashed the cool people’s party.
My love for poetry goes way back, to the first creative
writing class I ever took from a man named Bob Couchman, to this day one of the
best teachers I’ve ever had. He was short and stocky, gentle but strict. He
enjoyed being outdoors, and I’m sure drew inspiration for his writing from
spending time in the Colorado mountains. He himself was a published poet, and
he taught us a love for language and stories. We adored him, and he made it
okay for an athlete such as I to write poems. 
Generally, I think of myself as a prose writer, and only occasional
poet. But there’s much to be gained for a prose writer from studying poetry,
and I find more and more that the books that pile up around me as I seek
inspiration for my own writing are poetry books. I’m not sure that all poets
should study prose. (Okay, they probably should). But I’m convinced that prose
writers should study poetry. When I was a student at the University of
Nebraska, Ted Kooser used to talk about the “writer’s ear.” Good writers learn
to hear language when they read just
as much as they see the words on the page. When read out loud, writing should
flow easily from the lips, and such reading can be physiologically pleasurable
to read; when it thrums, you can feel
it. Because of its reliance on the music of language, and deep engagement with
words, studying poetry and reading it out loud is one of the best ways to
develop this “writer’s ear.”
I’m particularly enamored with poetic lines, and I’ve
started to collect lines that sing to me. At the risk of removing them from the
shelter of the poems where they live, I’d like to share a few:
Here’s a line from a poem called “Preludes” by Tomas Tranströmer:
I shy at something
that comes shuffling crosswise in the sleet.
The alliteration here is obvious, and a better scholar than
myself could scan the meter. But the joy for me is the playfulness of the
language: the surprise of “shy” as a verb, the three dimensional effect of
“shuffling crosswise,” the way the single word “sleet” completes the scene and
makes it come alive.
Here’s a couple more, the first from Kristin Naca’s “The
Adoration at El Montan Motor Lodge” and the second from Louise Mathias’ “Prone,
For hours the lovers’
feet kick at the woozy nightstand.
Just your slow, pink
movements near the doorway.
Each of these lines has a light touch of eroticism.
Adjectives can be overdone, but here, “woozy” and “pink” add just the right
punch to each of the lines. You could take away these words without losing
meaning, but the imagery would suffer. Above all else, these lines are fun to
read out loud. Try it.
This is a line from C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining:
In the seclusionary
cool of the car the mind furnishes a high-ceilinged room with a white piano.
For me this captures perfectly the feeling of calm that can
happen on a long road trip. There is a sense of quiet, but also the piano,
waiting for one to sit down and create. What a perfect metaphor to capture that
elegant space that results from the mind clearing.
Finally, this:
Their silhouettes are
smudges scratched by the gray lines of the cold rain.
This line is taken not from a poem but from prose: it is
from the short story “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly,” by Dave Eggers. It
is lyrical and, examined in isolation, matches up favorably to the lines of
poetry above. Lines like this only come from a writer who has an ear for

What are some of your favorite lines of poetry or prose?
Please post them below.
Daryl Farmer’s first book Bicycling beyond the Divide received a Barnes and Noble Discover Award. His recent work has appeared in Grist, The Whitefish Review, The Potomac Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Fourth RiverHe is an assistant professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks where he teaches creative nonfiction writing.

4 thoughts on “Daryl Farmer: To Write Good Prose, Learn to Love Poetry”

  1. Thanks for this post, Daryl. As we've talked about, I too am a a prose writer who reads poems and uses poetry in drafting prose and I could totally relate to your thoughts.

    I just finished the novel "The Gift of Stones" by Jim Crace and was struck by its incredible lyricism. I thought it was just word choice and syntax at first, but I realized near the end that the strong iambic undertones throughout made it feel as if the whole novel is written in blank verse. It was not only a pleasure to read line by line, it infused the narrative with a timeless, oral quality that recalled Shakespeare, Frost, etc. A good reminder of how formal choices affect voice/tone. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend!

  2. Erin at Being Poetry

    So so so many good lines, but Seamus Heaney always seemed to capture moments like these from "Glanmore Sonnets":

    The mildest February for twenty years
    Is mist bands over furrows, a deep no sound
    Vulnerable to distant gargling tractors.

    Thanks for this thought-producing read.

  3. Nice perspective Daryl. I'm generally not a reader of poetry, but I have a strong response to lyricism in prose, and I find clunky prose hard to read. Thanks for the ideas.

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