March 8, 2019

Poetry for Worldbuilding

        At Boskone I presented a workshop on how poetry is a great tool for worldbuilding, both in the sense of helping the creator create the world and in the sense of helping the reader be more immersed in the world.  I thought I’d post my main points here today.  Let’s start with a reminder about how pervasive poetry actually is in the real world, something people often don’t seem to notice.  You can check out previous posts Poetry is Everywhere Part I and II.  Think about all the different forms poetry can take: songs (including lullabies, hymns, love songs, ballads, drinking songs, work songs), riddles, epics and historical lays, casual snippets, advertising jingles, laments, children’s games, prophesies, mnemonic lists, psalms, satires, proverbs, challenges/taunts/trash-talking…
        Now consider how all those different forms of poetic language can gives clues about culture
- by referring to gods, historical or legendary figures, or pop figures
- by showing what metaphors are meaningful
            what images are striking
- by hinting at what’s an insult, what’s a compliment, what’s amusing
- by highlighting what’s important
            what everyone recognizes and knows
            proverbs, idioms, clichés, wisdom
        Poetry is a great place to use “archaic” or untranslated words such as names of people (gods, historical or legendary figures, or pop figures, as mentioned above), strange creatures, plants, tools, etc.  Generally in writing fantasy if you lard your prose with too many of these words, it gets in the way of the story, makes things hard to understand, and seems jarring because, after all, your story may be set in another world but it’s all supposed to be “translated” into English.  On the other hand, fantasy words can be a fantastic tool for helping the reader feel that they really are in a different place and not just the everyday, ordinary world; too few strange creatures or mythic characters and the world you’ve created just doesn’t seem very magical or marvelous or different.  Poetry to the rescue, because it is a perfect place to refer to things with which the reader won’t already be familiar.  Firstly, it works because within the created world of the story, poetry is a place where archaic words and unexplained allusions really would turn up, so it doesn’t seem jarring or artificial to encounter them there.  Secondly , it works because in the meta sense it doesn’t matter if a reader doesn’t understand everything in a song or poem within the story.  The gist and purpose of the poem can be clear without understanding every word.
        Poetry can also be a great way to help establish the differences between different cultures within a world.  All the elements of poetry:
   structure – form, line length and meter, stanzas, refrains
   sound patterns – rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, onomatopoeia, repetition, parallel structure
   meaning – simile, metaphor, allegory, symbol
   image – description, senses, emotions
   register - the varieties of language that a speaker uses in a particular social context
can vary from culture to culture or from era to era.  Of course these elements can also vary widely within a single culture, but think, for example, of how Old English poetry tends to use alliteration across two halves of each line, while Japanese poetry tends to be built around stress patterns, classic English poetry loves rhyme, while modern English poetry tends to favor blank verse.  Considering how your different invented cultures might use poetry is a great discipline to help the creator to think about what’s important in each culture, what metaphors or images will be meaningful to them (and what won’t), what gods or historical figures will people allude to, and so on.  It’s also a great way to show  these things to the reader, which gives cultures much more feeling of depth.
        And finally, poetry can be used to give clues about individual characters.
What sorts of verse would this character know?
How learned are they in the history, religion, pop culture, or literature of their own culture?
How seriously do they take it?
What’s meaningful to them?
        Ultimately, what poetry requires of you is that you truly observe the world, both the physical world and the internal landscapes of people - and that’s also exactly what you need to be doing to create new worlds and the characters within them.

[Pictures: Sibyl Reading, chiaroscuro woodcut by Ugo da Carpi, between 1500-1530 (Image from the Library of Congress);
Girl Reading a Book, woodcut by Weaver Hawkins, c.1926-8 (Image from Centre for Australian Art);
Ovid, woodcut from Metamorphoses by Ovid, probably 1549, although seriously, Penn Libraries, you didn’t think to give a proper source for your own picture??? (Image from Penn Libraries).]

1 comment:

Pax said...

Thanks for this helpful summary. Makes me almost wish that I could write fiction, but my efforts just don't work. Too many years being an historian or writing essays. I have very much enjoyed the Otherworld Series. Fun to read fantasy even if I can't write it myself.