A Fiction Writer’s Appreciation for Poetry
by Brad Windhauser
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
My high school English teacher, Dr. Vanderbok, assigned this Langston Hughes poem to us. Few things make high students, especially ones who dislike reading, feel as stoked as receiving a poem (and a short one at that): cool, only a little to read for homework. I was hot and cold with poetry. I loved Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic when I was a kid, but outside of The Iliad and some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, I hadn’t found many poems I liked. Although my classmates were fairly indifferent to this Hughes poem, I inhaled these lines over and over at home and couldn’t wait to discuss it.
I loved the language, the imagery, the variety of senses invoked, the line breaks and, perhaps especially, the rage at what a person—the speaker—felt by being prevented from fulfilling his dream. Then, I lacked an understanding of the context—even with my teacher’s explanation of the plight of African Americans in this country during that era—but I related to the rage—even if mine was mostly teenage angst.
I’d dreamed of being a writer myself, but found the task of writing a book incredibly daunting. Short stories were a hassle—they needed to be revised and revised. This poem, though, something short like it; I could handle something like this. I could knock out something terse, infuse it with some emotion, bam! Tell a story in an elliptical way without having to worry about details. Why didn’t everyone write poems?
There are days where I wish I could still be so naive.
What I eventually learned is that poetry takes even more time to craft. Every syllable requires such careful consideration; every line break carefully weighed, every image chosen for its impact: poetry demands that you must do more with less.
I have to admit that although I enjoy poems from the Romantic period, I can’t say that I spend much time reading them, in part because I haven’t encountered the right voices for me. Which just means I am no longer lucky enough to have a teacher handy with recommendations. Still, when I do find poems that resonate with me (I highly recommend Suzanne Parker’s Viral) I enjoy the ones that aim for deep social meaning rather than ones that explore the author’s life. This is strange, for the opposite is true in the fiction I typically read.
Perhaps the best thing I get out of poetry is what I learn from a skilled poet, a person who can infuse every moment of every line with significance. A poet who allows the lines to breath, encouraging the reader to enter the poem, experience the moments with the speaker, filling in the intentional gaps with experience fiction writers often feel the need to provide. This is something I aim for in my writing and occasionally lose control of.