Using Poetry to Understand Language

Walter Mosley

Lesson time 11:23 min

Explore how poetry can aid in understanding language through three poems Walter has chosen.

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Topics include: A Great Writer Needs to Understand Poetry · James Wright · Gwendolyn Brooks · T.S. Eliot


[MUSIC PLAYING] - In the beginning, there was the word, right? And word as it was passed down from generation to generation was codified in certain ways that made it poetry. And so our deepest social memories are poems that tell us, you know, what's right, what's wrong, what we should do, what we shouldn't do, what happened, what will happen, what's our fate. All of that comes through poetry. And as poetry grew, being the oldest and most sophisticated form of human language, it became so perfected, so specialized that it expresses more than any other thing in language. Now one of the relations of that is song. Song expresses feelings like poetry does. And in the beginning, poetry and song were the same thing. And still, they are very close to that. That's really the most beautiful and the most important form of writing. And any person who wants to do anything with writing, from a great novel to a love letter, needs to understand poetry. I want to read some poems to you because I want you to know how I feel when I'm reading them, and I want you maybe to understand the different ways that poets address the world and tell stories, but really, really, really big stories in ways that fiction can't really do. But if we use the techniques involved, if we learn the techniques involved, we're going to know something. So I'm going to read a few poems, and we'll see what happens. [MUSIC PLAYING] Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly asleep on the black trunk, blowing like a leaf in green shadow. Down the ravine behind the empty house, the cowbells follow one another into the distances of the afternoon. To my right in a field of sunlight between two pines, the droppings of last year's horses blaze up into golden stones. I lean back as the evening darkens and comes on. A chicken hawk floats over looking for home. I have wasted my life. In this poem, James Wright is talking about life-- about the world. How the world lives, how it survives. It talks about the chicken hawk. You know, it's looking for home. It's also probably looking for food. It talks about the cows. It talks about the butterfly hanging on for dear life against this tree in the shadow. And he realizes that he himself and all of these other creatures have just been hanging on in a moment, and that there's such beauty in that moment. And he realizes that this beauty has always existed and he's never been aware of it. And so in that way, he's wasted his life. And I think it's incredibly gorgeous. It's a very sweet sentiment-- bittersweet sentiment. And it's said in so few words it's just unbelievable to me. [MUSIC PLAYING] The next poem I'm going to read to you is by one of America's great poets-- Gwendolyn Brooks. It is a very powerful poem. Like most poems, I don't need to explain it to you because when you hear it, you'll know what she's saying and you know what she means. And your response to it should be somewhat conflict I think. Anyway, the poem is called ...

About the Instructor

Walter Mosley, bestselling author and recipient of the National Book Award’s Lifetime Achievement Medal, has written more than 60 books over his 30-year career and is celebrated for fiction that addresses our culture’s racial divides. Now he’s sharing the elements of storytelling that have helped him along the way. Learn how to choose the right words, structure, genre, and characters to create the novel that’s in you.

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Walter Mosley

In his MasterClass, Walter Mosley teaches you how to rethink genres and the “rules” of fiction and how to approach writing your own novel.

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