I don’t know that this is an Unlikely place to find inspiration, but more of an Overlooked place. But when I’m feeling particularly distant from the Muse, I drag out my battered old Norton Anthology and read some poetry.
Wait. Don’t run. Hear me out. Fiction writers should read poetry. I do, because it forces me to think about rhythm and meter, about alliteration, consonance, assonance, metaphor, simile, and intuition. Too often I think, when we talk about what goes into a story, we are only concerned about the nuts and bolts of plot and structure. I know I can get bogged down in these things. But reading poetry reminds me of the importance of language choice, of intuition and of trope. If you’ve never read a poem outside a classroom, try it. It’s much more enjoyable without a well-meaning teacher breathing down your neck to list three examples of metaphor and then explain what you think it all means.*
*full disclosure- as a high school student I lived for that kind of crap, but I am aware that my peers did not.
Anyway, back to intuition and trope. When I say trope, I don’t mean the definition of “cliche” that has risen to prominence in the last few years, but the definition taught to me years ago by American poet Diane Wakoski, which is that the trope is the “turn”. The moment of trope in poetry is the moment when everything turns, clicks together or falls apart, leaving the reader with an emotional revelation.
Trope doesn’t just dazzle you, though. Read some poetry that speaks to you, and you will find your mind turning images and phrases over and over, trying to fit, to parse, to unlock, tumbling tropes like stones until you find yourself left with a new idea, strangely familiar and yet wholly unknown.
Some poems I find myself returning to over and over again, rereading, re-mining. Ginsburg’s Kaddish. Blake’s entire body of work, but especially The Proverbs of Hell from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Yeat’s The Second Coming (and I’m in good company there- Wikipedia’s list of other works that reference The Second Coming is impressive in length).
I’ll leave you with a well-known poem by Dylan Thomas, one which I think all of us ink-spattered wretches can relate to.
In my craft or sullen art
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.