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What You Can Learn from Poets by Rochelle Melander

April 5, 2016


Note From Rochelle


Dear Writers,

Over spring break, we experienced all of the seasons, including a drenching spring rain and a flurry of snow showers. I’m glad I didn’t pack up my winter boots! I did find a decent cache of poetry books—just in time for National Poetry Month. Today’s post will help you learn tools from poets for your own writing—whether you’re a poet or a technical writer!

Happy Writing!

Rochelle, the Write Now! Coach


What You Can Learn from Poets

by Rochelle Melander


Pro Tip


18263725This spring I’ve been doing an artist residency with middle school students. Each week, I read from The Crossover by Kwami Alexander—the Newbery Award-winning novel in verse, about 12-year-old Josh Bell, who plays basketball, competes with his twin brother Jordan, and wants to be just like his dad.

The students grumble about it: “Why are you reading poetry? It’s going to be boring! We never understand it.”

But when I read, the students pay attention. Still, the next time I bring the book, they complain: “More poetry? Why are you reading? Can’t we paint?” So I skip a week—and a student asks, “Why aren’t you reading that book anymore? I liked it.”


I read to students because when we read the best books and poems, we write better. And writers of all genres can learn valuable lessons from poets. Here are two:


Choose the right words

Poets don’t get thousands of words to tell their story, so they tend to choose the best words. Depending on what you’re describing, you might want a noisy or a quiet word. You might need a word that speeds up the story or slows it down. Choose wisely!

In The Crossover, Alexander opens the story with a hip-hop poem about basketball that begins,

At the top of the key, I’m


POPping and ROCKING—

Why you BUMPING?

Why you LOCKING?

Man, take this THUMPING.


Read it aloud. Can you hear how the word choices convey the rhythm of a basketball game?


Use details

Poets pay attention to life and use the smallest details to share big messages. No matter what kind of a story you’re telling, including details will convey your message and make your tale memorable.

In The Summer Day, Mary Oliver talks about a swan and a black bear before narrowing her focus to her encounter with a grasshopper. As she tells the story, she provides delicious details like these:

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Oliver moves from sharing these details about a grasshopper to wondering about prayer:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention,

And so do we…because Oliver has described her conversation with the grasshopper, we’ve learned how to pay attention, too.


Your turn: What writing lessons have you learned from reading and writing poetry? Leave your suggestions below.






2 Responses

  1. Beth Hoffmann

    Frustration with bills that grew because the original statements didn’t reach me because I didn’t provide change of address to individual merchants in addition to the Post Office led me to write rhyming couplets to try to share humorously with others who want to avoid my trouble.

    Countering Credit Card Chaos

    The outlandish bill was my first clue
    Something with a credit card was askew.

    I called to cancel. They complied.
    The replacement card I have and hide.

    One bill went to a collection group.
    Their first class letter reached my stoop.

    I’d incurred the original charge.
    Undelivered statements made it large.

    The amount due on another card
    Taught me a second lesson hard.

    They quit sending when the statement was returned.
    My call left me feeling I’d really been burned.

    Not getting statements isn’t nice.
    Here’s my version of Post Office advice:

    Telling us is not enough.
    Tell the folk who send you stuff.

    So notify vendors of change of address
    To save yourself expensive stress.

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