Poetry for Prose Writers with Maura Dooley

It had been one of those days. I’d made that classic London rush-hour mistake when running late and gambled on an uber instead of taking the bus to our salon, Poetry For Prose Writers, with guest poet, Maura Dooley.  Tumbling out of my ride I barrelled into the Tea House to find a few stalwart Words Away folk, including Maura, had arrived. A cheerful gathering of babies, toddlers and parents were finishing their tea on one of the big tables. A Christmas tree, trimmed in an explosion of  baubles, twinkled in the corner making the room a little more compact than usual. The tea time crowd soon departed and the room filled with keen writers. Drinks were procured, notepads produced and a seat found for all.  At last - and on time - the salon began: what can a prose writer learn from thinking like a poet?

Everyone settling in.

Everyone settling in.

Most of us have preconceived idea of what poetry is. Emma reminded us that T S Eliot’s test of genuine poetry was that it could communicate before it is understood. Maura thinks of a poem as being a moment or a series of moments.  In comparison prose (be it a short story, novel or a work of creative non-fiction) is defined by narrative, this being the string that connects the various moments or scenes. The poet employs metaphor, simile, sound, rhythm and precision of language to create intensity, mood and tone. These elements can be of service to the prose writer too. Maura brought along several books (see links below) which were passed among the audience to illustrate stories that blur the boundaries between form.

Me, Maura Dooley & Emma 

Me, Maura Dooley & Emma 

We talked about the prize-winning novelist and short story writer Jon McGregor’s latest novel, Reservoir 13, a narrative created around an absence. His use of patterning and rhythms display a poet’s approach to language.  For economy of language look at the spare prose of Raymond Carver’s short stories. Raymond Carver also published several collections of poetry. Years after his death it was revealed that Raymond Carver’s stories had been edited and pared down, some up to 70%, by his editor Gordon Lish. Whatever the process toward the final outcome, the stories have a wonderful poetic intensity.

Don't worry about boundaries, just write! YA & Children’s writing is a world seemingly less hung up about categories. Read the US writer Sarah Creech’s book, Love That Dog - simultaneously a book of poems and a novel.  Other brilliant examples of prose narrative books include Carnegie Medal winner, Sarah Crossan’s, One, or her earlier prose poem/novel, The Weight of Water.

Maura suggested reading Elizabeth Smart’s, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, considered to be a key work of poetic prose. In the introduction Brigid Brophy describes the pitfalls of purple language,“If poetic prose is the genre which can shew the fewest masterpieces, it is probably also the genre which can shew the longest list of truly and abysmally bad books - the sad offensive litter left by writers who, in the excitement of discovering that it is unexpectedly  easy to get up on to the heights, neglected to make provision for coming down gracefully…Elizabeth Smart not merely solves the problem but turns it into artistic capital by taking the contrast between the intense and the banal as part of her actual subject….”. To paraphrase Maura, Elizabeth Smart takes you from great heights to the milk bill and does it well.

Maggie the cat trying to stare me out of her chair

Maggie the cat trying to stare me out of her chair

How else can thinking like a poet enrich your prose?

Sound: Read prose aloud like a poet to punctuate and find where the stresses fall. You hear what isn’t lifting up form the page. Read, Citizen, an American Lyric by Claudia Francine, a novel that has won poetry awards.

Precision: every single word must count. Avoid slack. Be surprising. Shun cliche - find a fresh way of looking at something. For a poet it’s all about the words. Mood and tone convey meaning. 

Automatic writing:  use it as a tool to solve a problem or as a warm up exercise. Free writing can be helpful way to tap into your subconscious and oil your writing muscles. Set a timer. Try it first thing in the morning or when you’re blocked.  The author James Kelman uses automatic writing to stock a reserve of images for when stuck.

Language: For a masterclass in narrative, character and intensity of language read Dylan Thomas’, Under Milk Wood. Better still listen to it. Echoing T.S Eliot's test of true poetry, communicating before it is understood, Ray Bradbury says in Zen In The Art of Writing, “you say you don’t understand Dylan Thomas? Yes but your ganglion does, and your secret wits, and all your unborn children. Read him as you can read a horse with your eyes, set free and charging over an endless green meadow on a windy day.”  


It was a thought provoking salon and a departure from our usual ways of looking at the process of writing fiction. By adopting the lens of a poet and challenging rigid categories of form we can find new ways to express something. With thanks to Maura Dooley for being an inspirational  guest, opening up the discussion and offering us lots to think about and experiment with. Thanks also to Emma for her great questions and insight. Finally thank you to everyone who came along and added to the conversation!

We’ll be back on the 15th January with guest agent Jo Unwin discussing How Writers and Agents Work Together. Following that we have some excellent new year salons lined up with writers Louise Doughty, Blake Morrison and Michèle Roberts. Book on the website to secure a place! Look out too for news of workshops in collaboration with Andrew Wille.

Here's wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a joyous New Year!


Links & References: This Itch of Writing: the blog: 10 Reasons For A Writer To Do A Poetry Course by Emma Darwin, A Glossary of Literary Terms by M. H. Abrams,T S EliotReservoir 13 by Jon McGregorRaymond Carver,  Love That Dog by Sarah Creech, One & The Weight of Water by  Sarah CrossanBy Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth SmartCitizen - An American Lyric by Claudia Francine, James Kelman, Under Milk Wood by Dylan ThomasZen In The Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, Gerard WoodwardThe Unfortunates: a novel in a box by B S JohnsonThe Glass Essay by Anne Carson, Happy by Nicola Barker & the Goldsmiths Prize