But I have another reason you should read and write poetry. Poetry can be a source of inspiration for your own prose writing. Not only for personal expressive writing, but for business writing that informs, motivates, and sells.
Think about it. Before humans could read and write, we created poetry.
The regular meter, repetition of sounds, and catch phrases in poetry helped our ancestors remember the lines and pass them down generation after generation. Kind of like those song lyrics you can’t get out of your head.
Some poets of old recited with a background of drums or lutes, but poets did not typically sing, they spoke. The music had to come from the rhythm of phrases and the sounds in the words themselves.
For thousands of years, we have used poems to pass on stories, recall battles, track tribal histories, honor leaders, and champion values.
Poetry gave ideas stickiness. And, approaching business writing with a poetic mindset, can make your business messages sticky.
Great poetry past and present offers four key qualities you can use to make your business prose more effective: purpose, organization, energy, and music. Think of the word POEM.
The ultimate meaning of a poem could be debatable and changeable. Maybe there is no meaning. But the purpose of the poem lies in the poet's intention. The purpose might be to teach historical facts, inform about hidden poverty, laud a local hero, explore everyday experiences, persuade to save a child, warn about global warning, profess deep love, or experiment wildly with words.
A poem's purpose might be to share a joyful experience and praise the natural beauty. This is what Romantic poet William Wordsworth does in "I wandered Lonely as a Cloud." A poem might suggest how to live a better life as does Ron Padgett's poem, "A Perfect Life".
The purpose characterizes what the poet wants from the reader.
As part of your purpose writing business prose, consider how you want a reader to feel and react. That's what poets do.
Do you want your audience to laugh, to cry, to fear? Do you them to be horrified and motivated to take action, to be surprised and happy ready to learn more? After reading your piece, will they call you, follow you, write you, tell their friends about you?
Your intention will guide your choice of media, your placement, and the best choice of words. The poet might rely on a muse to define their purpose, but as a business writer you must make sure you have defined your purpose before you begin.
Like a poet, you must master your form – whether it’s a resume, a press release, proposal, corporate email, or tweet. If you are stuck with a certain form, you still have choices to make about the order of paragraphs, sentences, phrases, and words and their placement on the page.
Ancient poets created poems in stanzas to help people remember them. Like a poem’s stanza, a paragraph helps comprehension. Each paragraph needs to have one main point related to your overall message. Order your sentences to follow the logic of your message. Like imagery and symbols in poetry, your statistical data, details, illustrations, and examples can push buttons and open doors in the reader’s mind.
Consider where your major points go – at the top of the article, at eye level on the web page, at the bottom for a surprise effect in a speech. Use headlines, subheads, call-out boxes, bullets, and captions to present your messages the way a poet would the segments of a structured poem. You have the opportunity to be creative within your structure to lead your reader through a flow of meaning. So, act like a poet and get creative.
Your organizational structure should contain graceful transitions that float the reader magically from one idea to the next. Unless you want to obscure and confuse like a wild-penned experimental poet, an elegant simplicity and a nod to tradition may be the best way to put your intended meaning across.
The reader shouldn’t have to slog through words. Diction, or choosing the right words, fuels a force that empowers the reader to be right there in every moment with the writer.
Use high energy positive words like joy, fountain, family, pamper, success, care, peace, or grit. Or use high energy negative words like agony, crush, polluted, taxes, death, stab, or catastrophe to fuel your own writing energy.
But choose high energy words wisely.
Remember tone from high school English? Getting the tone right gets your audience on the right emotional wave-length. Reading poetry can give you insights into the subtle hues of tone and the words and phrases that can ignite specific emotional responses.
A poem's power comes from the intensity of its words and how they act upon the reader. Poetic words are like great film actors. Choose talented actors appropriate to each role and the viewer falls into the plot of the movie as if hypnotized. Choose the perfect words for each point and each emotional response you want and your writing hypnotizes your reader.
Find powerful emotional words to encourage change to use in motivational blog or sales piece. Perhaps dial down the emotional volume for a financial memo. But be aware that the right word in the right place could ring a note of concern or hope in a serious piece when it is most needed.
Go ahead in a humorous article and tickle your audience with irony and innuendo. But beware that irony and innuendo can confuse, or even anger, the reader of a tweet or email announcement. This kind of high energy language requires thorough understanding of your reader, your medium, and careful setup.
Now you have another reason to avoid cliches. To convey your meaning with poetic energy, avoid all weary business phrases like “throw under the bus” “climb the ladder” or “hitting the glass ceiling.” See Peter Leo’s column for more examples. Like a poet, you can make your own metaphors and similes, so you don't have to rely on wimpy ones.
Read poetry and find nouns and verbs you recognize, but don't often use. Make lists of less common, but understandable words that you can sprinkle into your writing to make it energetic, fresh, and original.
But don’t overdo it.
Readers of poetry expect to have to mull over a few words. Yet popular poets favor concrete imagery and everyday words that have clout. Especially poets who frequent poetry slams where their listeners much catch sound and meaning in real time.
Words that are unfamiliar, ambiguous, or bizarre can bog down your reader. Understand your audience and the kind of material they tend to read, so your word choice is exciting yet appropriate. Read aloud to someone else, the way a poet would, to spot unwieldy and pretentious words that could sap energy from your writing.
As poets are often told, take all adverbs and extra adjectives out of your writing. Check your writing for the words “is, are, was, were” and rewrite sentences using verbs with energy. (i.e., don’t write, “He is a climber,” write, “He climbs.”)
Then, remove every word, phrase, line, or even paragraph that is not essential to your meaning and purpose. Let poetic intensity energize your prose.
When writing for business, read your words aloud and listen to their music. Rhythm, the beats and pauses of a sentence, should accentuate the meaning and fit the tone of your messages. As a film composer edits music to fit the actions and moods on screen, the poet varies the arrangements and word choices to make music fit each thought and attitude. Rearrange your own words to make them sound more pleasing and, at the same time, convey your points better.
The natural stresses on certain syllables of words allowed poets to create a regular patterns of meter for different kinds of poems. Words can be ordered to fit a poetic meter, such as iambic pentameter, perfectly.
But poets are known to deliberately insert words to trip up the standard meter and accentuate the word and its meaning. This strategy is like a guitarist rocking out to his own beat for a few measures while the drummer and bass continue at an even one-two-three-four.
Even in free verse, poets tend to fall into a regular rhythm. Prose writers fall into ho-hum patterns. So beware of boring rhythms in your prose. Mix jazzy drum solos with steady taps and use short bursts to wake readers up and strike key points.
Repeating words, phrases, or whole sentences can make your writing more musical. It can also reinforce your message and help your reader remember important points.
Although you can be more playful in your blogs and social media posts, you most likely won’t want to use words that rhyme. Today’s poets rarely end their lines with rhymes unless they are experimenting with older styles or writing for children. Poets often do use internal rhyme, words within sentences that rhyme with other words. Sometimes in prose internal rhyme works wonders, so try it out.
Use the sound of words, phrases, and lines judiciously, so that the music of your lines don’t convey an unintentional tone that distorts the meaning. The music of your words can bolster your seriousness or playfulness, your directness or thoughtfulness.
If you have a bouncing, rhyming music and serious sounding words, you will come off as ironic and even humorous. Repeating initial consonants in the title might sound passionately emphatic. In a sentence in the body, however, such alliteration might simply seem silly. Experiment. Test your words aloud, and listen.
Become aware of the musical elements of writing and how to use them with subtlety. Read poetry aloud and listen to poets read.
As diction and flow appeals to your readers’ minds, the musical elements reach your readers’ hearts and souls. Look at a child's face as you read a rhyming story with words that hoot and tweet like woodland creatures. Consider one of our ancestors chanting words that clank like swords on armor while his enraptured son stares into the fire, watching battling knights.
Get out the poetry books
Poetry expands our awareness of the power of words -- and it makes us stronger communicators.
So, look for those dusty poetry books you left in the attic, and if you have already thrown them out, visit the bookstore to revisit poetry. Or, sign up for poem of the day - you will find old and new poems to read and listen to at http://www.poetryfoundation.org.
Please comment to let me know what you have learned from poetry that helps your writing.