Why Poetry is Harder to Write Than Non-Fiction

photo http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1336055 by Robert Linder http://www.sxc.hu/profile/linder6580All writing is art.

My father worked in Production Control for an electronics company. What that meant was that he was primarily responsible for whether the stuff that was made came out right. (Quality Control, where he started out, is about finding what’s wrong when Production Control fails.) No amount of training and oversight can supplant a good written procedure.

He wrote procedures he could send off from his office in Tijuana to techs in Boston and they could be followed blindly without modification.

That’s art.

Over the years I’ve settled into some assumptions about what kinds of writing are harder than others. (I do not warrant this information to be useful. I just hope it’s interesting.)

From easiest least hard to most hard:

  1. Non-fiction: If you know what you’re talking about (history, guitar playing, the use of silicon bronze fasteners in ocean-going wooden vessels) conveying that information is straightforward. Excellent non-fiction takes more effort, but perfectly serviceable non-fiction requires only competence, not genius.
  2. Novels: Fiction is harder to write, even at a serviceable level. Simulating reality is harder than describing it.
  3. Short stories: Take the challenges of fiction, and distill them, removing every speck of fluff. Hard to do well.
  4. Songs: Take the challenge of a short story and make it even shorter. Disallow things like sentences and paragraphs and most punctuation (I defy you to sing punctuation — unless you’re Victor Borge.) Make the lines scan. Make good use of repetition.
  5. Poetry: Now remove the last remaining crutch: the music. Just the words. No sentences. No real punctuation. No reality. Take some emotions from your limbic system, hope they survive the journey to your prefrontal cortex to be turned into words, send them to someone else’s prefrontal cortex and pray the words get translated into emotions the reader appreciates (forget assuming they’ll be the same emotions as yours; you’re going to be ecstatic if they feel anything but bored disdain.

Brilliant insight? Total nonsense? Absolute mystery?

5 thoughts on “Why Poetry is Harder to Write Than Non-Fiction

  1. Great thought-provoking piece Joel.

    I agree that poetry is the hardest form of writing – and also, partly for that reason, the most fun! Yeats called it ‘the fascination of what’s difficult’.

    W.H. Auden, on the other hand, thought writing novels was nobler and more difficult than writing poetry.

    The one part of your post I’d take issue with is “No sentences. No real punctuation.” – most of the poems I read (and write) have plenty of both. In fact, syntax is one of the most powerful tools in the poet’s kitbag.

    Thanks for the provocation.

    1. I do occasionally chuck a rock into the shrubbery to see what flies out ;)

      My daughter the brilliant poet uses syntax most powerfully in her poetry. Her use of whitespace, though sometimes confusing, adds depth when I understand what she’s doing.

      Where might a curious reader find examples of your poetry, Mark?

  2. Thanks – an interesting article. I agree that all writing should be art, even the writing of procedure. I wish more people would take care with clarity in this respect.

    As someone who has at least attempted all the various kinds of writing listed above, I actually think that, for me, the novel is the hardest, because it requires the greatest engagement with the outside world (even more, in some sense, than non-fiction). One way of explaining what I mean by this would be that a poet or songwriter can very easily (if that’s the appropriate phrase) die young (in their early twenties, say) and still leave behind an impressive body of work. For a novelist, this is far more unlikely.

    The attempts of very brilliant songwriters to make the leap to narrative also usually fail (people can judge this for themselves with the recent Morrissey book). Poets much more often can make this leap (though novelists make the leap to good poetry less often).

    But possibly this merely indicates different kinds of difficulty.

    If we were to judge difficulty by scarcity, then good poetry does seem the hardest thing of all to find, whereas good songs are perhaps much more common. Good novels are not all that common, I’d say, but more common than good poetry.

    1. I’ll agree that novels take much longer than poems (usually) but I’m not sure volume of one’s body of work is how I’d measure difficulty.

      It’s also clear that it’s different for each of us. Perhaps I just find poetry intimidating but storytelling comes naturally.

      Thanks for dropping by, Quentin.

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