Learning from Poetry

If you’re a professional communicator, you probably don’t think that highly of modern poets. That’s because the modern image of the poet is of the stereotypical Beat poet – a drug-addled narcissist wandering vaguely through the English language in search of a point. The Beat poets, as a group, were less disciplined in many ways than their predecessors – although one might well argue that they were disciplined, but in different ways.

That’s not the sort of poetry that I’m talking about. I’m talking about poetry that requires discipline, usually manifested as a strict adherence to form. Most of the classical forms of poetry have very strict rules of one kind or another. A sestina, for example, must feature six stanzas each of six lines, and furthermore, the same six words must be used as the end of each line, but never in the same order from one stanza to the next. A limerick must have five lines, with the first, second and fifth all rhyming, and the third and fourth having a different rhyme, while the first four lines should have the same number of syllables. And then there are haiku.

There are various styles of haiku, but what they have in common is that they are absolute models of ruthless efficiency in communication.

And that is the lesson that poetry can teach us about communicating. In poetry, no word is chosen by chance – a combination of meaning, metre and rhyme (although the last is not essential) guides all choices of wording. Although this approach is sometimes the enemy of clarity in communication, the best poetry transcends this problem.

When done well, poetry can communicate ideas and emotions better than prose ever could – there’s a reason why we have an expression “poetry in motion”, but not “prose in motion”.

Now, this isn’t to say that your every communication should be a villanelle or a flyting – poetry isn’t appropriate for every situation. But the discipline and precision of poetry is almost always appropriate, and can and should be used to benefit the quality of your written and spoken communication.

If you want to know about poetry and poetic forms, I highly recommend Stephen Fry’s excellent book The Ode Less Travelled, which is both an educational and an entertaining read.