Poetry for Fiction Writers: From Haiku to Pre-Islamic Arabic Verse

As noted in a prior post—Worry About Words—my greatest anxiety about creative writing is at the nitty-gritty word crafting level. I feel confident enough where non-fiction is concerned. But stringing together words that evoke time, place, action and emotion terrifies me. Okay, that’s a bit of hyperbole, but you get the idea.

I’ve reviewed many editing resources: books, articles, videos, etc., so, I think I understand the principles of ruthless self-editing. If anything, I risk taking the word-crunching too far—cutting so close to the bone that there’s nothing left for the broth. Most beginning fiction writers over-write. I’ve been told that I tend to under-write. I’m content to lean towards minimalism, but I do want to leave the reader satisfied, not rushed through to a dry and exhausting end.

I recently stumbled upon a podcast about the value of poetry for fiction writers. The speaker happened to be an expert on Haiku—that minimalist Japanese genre that we all amused ourselves with in grade school. Intrigued, I ordered a couple of books—collections of the Haiku masters—and dove in. It required some refocusing of my brain but once I made my way, I found myself squealing with pleasure at these spare treasures.

How can you not love this stuff?

A bee
staggers out
of the peony.

Or,

Awake at night—
the sound of the water jar
cracking in the cold.

Or, one of my favorites:

Fleas, lice,
a horse peeing
near my pillow.

That last one made me LOL.

But seriously, the drilled-down immediacy of these tiny moments are exquisite and fun—like little STOP signs saying, Take notice! of everything.

Those three by Matsuo Bashō, 1644-1694 are just a sampling of the hundreds found in The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, & Issa, edited by Robert Hass.

Pre-Islamic Arabic Poetry:

At what may be the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve also begun reading pre-Islamic Arabic poetry—gleaning imagery, vocabulary and hopefully absorbing a bit of rhythm and worldview along the way.

This is from Reynold Alleyne Nicholson’s 1922 translation of the poet Labid’s Mu’allakat, so it is twice removed from our modern ears but that makes it all the more alluring.

Then quits he the field, the rain-floods ebbing round him:
He goes like a race-horse covered with cloths, no faster,
And makes for a winding gully; and now he ambles,
And now he puts forth the utmost of speed, unsparing:
His fore-feet cleave the shrub-sown sands of Dahna
As players for stakes who rummage amidst a sand-heap
He crosses the plain, alone, in his morning glory,
As bright as the blade of sword that is newly polished.

That’s just a taste. There’s so much more. But I’m holding back the best because I’m may put some of it in my characters’ mouths.

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