Literary Alchemy: Turning your prose into poetry - Writer's Digest

Literary Alchemy: Turning your prose into poetry

Understanding poetic techniques can strengthen your articles and stories.
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Understanding poetry usually results in writing it.

If you write prose, you may want to try this technique used by published poet-writers:

  1. Identify a section in one of your stories, essays, or articles. The section should have a clear topic and theme and presence of strong emotion, insight, or analysis.
  2. Keep or revise your title so that it foreshadows topic or theme.
  3. Select a sentence from your prose excerpt that contains topic and theme.
  4. Revise the sentence so that it expresses a powerful idea.
  5. Revise and/or break the sentence into phrase-units that begin and end with a noun, adjective, or verb.
  6. Select other lines from your prose excerpt that contain topic or theme statements.
  7. Repeat Step #4.
  8. Optional: Organize your lines into stanzas, each containing at least one substantial theme statement.
  9. Rearrange, revise, or invent theme statements so that they build toward universal truth in the ending.
  10. Express that truth in line format.

Revise, rearrange, or otherwise tinker with your poem each day for one month, showing your commitment to perfection. Your poem may no longer resemble your prose section, but you will have shared your best words in the best order.

Below you will find how Michael J. Bugeja practices this technique. Read his essay, "Writing through Littleton." The paragraph in bold is the one he used to compose his poem, "Littleton," appearing in his latest collection, Millennium's End, from Archer Books.

Writing through Littleton
By Michael Bugeja, for The Quill

Once a student journalist stood up in lecture, mumbling incoherently. Classmates shunned her. Afterward she sidled toward the exit while others hurried by her -- all but one, a student leader I will call Sarah, popular, intelligent and involved -- who invited her to coffee.

This memory returns year after year, the last time at prompt of news about Littleton.


I am a magazine journalist and media ethics teacher at Ohio University, and this is a process piece about covering tragedy to uncover deeper truth.

April 20, 1999: Two shooters at Columbine High School have taken their own and lives of a coach and dozen peers. The reporter in me re-awakens, the urge to participate in a national story.

To do that, I need expert sources.

The next day I email psychologists and professors about the importance of peer leadership in schools. I am writing about Littleton, I inform them, and share my workshop anecdote.

In truth, I did not see Sarah's gesture then as "leadership"; I saw it as "maturity," but I was mistaken. Students rushing for the exit might have been exhibiting maturity, knowing incidents like this are best left to counseling. As such these "non-enablers" would be technically rather than morally correct; however, on that day a popular student interceded as a male teacher, in an academic climate, could not -- as friend and confidant. That spontaneous act of leadership resembled "grace," those times we anticipate the worst -- isolation, social exile -- and receive, instead, compassion and invitation.

Maturity allows for grace but does not require it; leadership does. Maturity shuns risk in the name of responsibility; leadership takes risks in the same name. But there is something else, some abstract essence associated with Littleton which I cannot articulate without expert assistance.

No one answers my emails. I wait a few more days. It is nearly May, end of a busy quarter. Running out of options, I decide to blame media. Why not? We have been inundated with mega- and sound-bytes of terror. Pundits tell us to lose the guns and hire more armed guards, blaming or pardoning parents in interactive debates. In congressional hearings, witnesses reduce those debates to violent video games, movies, and homepages. Meanwhile, our collective wasteland enlarges when Columbine coverage tops that of Kosovo. Images of both are similar -- sensational clips accompanied by "rat-tat-tat" of real ones (to which we have grown accustomed since Waco) -- casting a dull veneer on TVs, which let in more secondhand pain than light.

Littleton can happen anywhere, TV tells us.

I live in Anywhere, Ohio, where it is prom time. The high school has been worried about copycat crimes -- this, according to my daughter. She's upset about the locker checks. A year ago I might have been concerned about her locker; but she has gone vegetarian, lecturing me at parties about sirloin and Merlot. There's talk, she says, of a list -- this one, not by potential copycats about their targets -- but by teachers about potential copycats. Another paradox; but I'm wary because my daughter has been known to play with Daddy's brain.

I stop writing media criticism. There's plenty of it about Littleton already on the internet.

Anyway, I'm late for my son's pizza party, the soccer season's culinary finale. He takes a wooden sword, last year's Medieval Fair souvenir -- but I don't immediately notice. At the park I spot a scientist, Martha. She has a soccer son, too, admiring my boy's sword. She asks what I am working on, and I tell her about Littleton.

Martha listens intently. She knows how it feels to be a teen outcast, she confides. "I loved to read, was intensely into the space program, didn't like makeup, wouldn't 'dis' the teachers.

"And frankly," she adds, "I wasn't really interested in boys."

Our boys are combing the ground for branches.

Martha recounts the cruelties of high school. She got obscene phone calls at home and was sexually harassed at school. "People would sometimes make up nasty poems about me," she says. "It just went on and on."

I empathize with Martha, but keep an eye on our sons sword-fighting now, one using the souvenir and the other a jagged oak branch. Their teammates munch pizzas and gather round. Martha has her back to them, continuing her narrative. She was able to survive, in part, because of a popular student named Charlotte who belonged to a clique that liked fast cars, loud music, and stock car races. "I think back now on Charlotte and how she had the moral conviction to be my friend," Martha says, "and I am amazed."

I am amazed that Martha is still in contact with Charlotte.

"My friendship with her has probably had the greatest impact on me," Martha replies. "We still write to each other, or call once or twice a year."

The whack of wood on wood startles us. Martha sees the boys. I tell mine to put the sword in the car. Martha's son drops the branch. We are parents of boys who still obey us.

Martha turns to me. "You and I may be among the few who can forgive Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold," the Columbine shooters. Perhaps they never were lucky enough to have a Sarah or a Charlotte in their lives. Leadership. Forgiveness. Here lies the elusive component, that deeper truth: Maturity forgives but doesn't forget, concerned about the future. Leadership forgives and accepts the future, concerned about compassion.

In coming weeks I will not write about Littleton but through it, through the loss and morass of media, accepting the tragedies we cannot change and the Sarahs and Charlottes who change us because of their compassion.

That is the story that now must be told.


The schoolyard tolls as once the graveyard did
For trenchcoat Thomas Gray, whose madding crowd
Secured the gates of mercy. Now we heed

The cable aftermath of talking heads
Advising us to hire more armed guards,
To lose illegal guns. Bulletins bombard

The internet and cheapen the debate
About the role of Hollywood and hate
Until the circus folds the tent and goes

When coverage of Columbine plateaus
With Kosovo. The images of that
Seem similar, the eerie "rat-tat-tat"

Of clips accompanied by audio
Of real ones, to which we have since Waco
Grown accustomed on TV as stimulus:

Littleton will slip into unconsciousness
Of information-angst and from our minds.
We've learned to fear a future that rewinds

By click of mouse, by button of remote,
Transmitting terror live by satellite,
Though some of us remember history

When news was truth and not reality.

Michael J. Bugeja is the author of The Art and Craft of Poetry.

* * *


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