Are you a poet? Or are you a novelist?

This post will probably come off as a bit snarky.  At least the title I chose seems to be headed that direction.  So, before I get too far into it, here’s a link to someone far more experienced and kind than I am, talking about the same issue: Dr. Doyle on Another Thing Not to Do.

What is that thing you might ask?  Include in your novel or short story a full-length poem or song and use it as some sort of earth-shattering, moving, epic pièce de résistance.  Unless you happen to be so multi-talented that you are a brilliant poet or lyricist, it’s generally a bad idea.

This is why it’s a problem.  If you put anything on a pedestal, you automatically invite people to show you why it shouldn’t be there.  So, you write a poem that supposedly incites a rebellion in your fantasy world and your reader thinks, “I certainly wouldn’t risk life and limb just because of that.  Look at how awkward that second line is.”

Or you write a song that is treasured and sung by generation after generation in your novel.  And your reader thinks, “Really?  They kept singing that?  Year after year?  I think I’d be glad to lose my hearing if the alternative was having to listen to that every year.”

So, as Dr. Doyle rightly points out, you don’t actually include the poem or the song (or the full climactic speech).

(Not a popular example with some, but Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged has a speech in it that’s supposedly moving and earth-shattering, but as I recall she doesn’t quote more than the very beginning of the speech.  She then just writes about how it went on and on and on and had a profound effect.)

You don’t include the actual text, but you show its effect.  You show how people react, you show how events are changed as a result of it.

And even if you are a great poet or lyricist, you’re probably better off doing that anyway.  You can hear the cadence of what you write (I hope), but that doesn’t mean that anyone else will hear it the same way.  If you ever had the pleasure of sitting in an English class where the teacher made people read out loud, you know that everyone reads differently.  So, even a brilliant speech can be butchered beyond recognition in the mind of a reader.

For some reason, the “I Have a Dream” speech comes to mind.  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s oratory is probably half of its power, if not more.  Where he pauses, where he places emphasis, when his voice rises or falls, the timbre of his voice.

You, as a writer, may hear that in your head.  But try to write that and you’ll fail.  You’ll either overwhelm the speech itself with your stage directions or you’ll leave enough room for each reader to get it wrong.

Readers will forgive you for the most part.  They’re not going to put down the book just because you include a poem.  (If they’ve read enough books they may very well skip your lovely poem or song knowing that it really isn’t going to be worth much to them.)  But, you’ll probably have a more successful book if you just stick to showing the effects of the poem, song, or speech instead.

Or at least that’s how I, as a reader, feel.  As a hopefully future novelist I may one day decide to try it just to see if I can pull it off.  (At which point I expect someone to smack me upside the head a la Gibbs on NCIS.)

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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2 Responses to Are you a poet? Or are you a novelist?

  1. Dave Higgins says:

    Sound advice.

    I can remember several examples of famous authors adding a poem (either at the start of a novel or within the text) that did not engage me, but only one where it worked.

    I am not sure if it is due to cadence itself, so much as the mindset for reading poetry and prose being different. When I read poems by the same authors, whether from separate texts or by just reading the poem from a novel, I enjoy them more.

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