Do you want to capture your reader’s attention? In this post, we explain how Billy Collins’s 6 pleasures of poetry will help you become a better writer in any genre.
[Billy Collins is an American poet who was born 22 March 1941.]
Bold claim incoming: Above all, reading literature ought to be pleasurable, even—dare I say it—fun.
Now, some readers might bristle and kick at this statement. No! — foremost of all literature must challenge, inform, and enrich!
And, yes, while these may be worthy goals in reading and writing literature, the idea that a work ought to be pleasurable first is purely pragmatic.
Two things drive human behaviour: the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain.
So, if we want to urge readers to continue reading our work, we must give them a solid reason to do so first. Reading that work must be pleasant, so pleasant, and engaging, in fact, that all other activities seem almost painful by comparison.
And if reading work is a chore, dull, even miserable? Well, it doesn’t matter how challenging, informative, or enriching it might be—the promise of such things won’t be enough to motivate the reader to press on, let alone finish reading.
A quick question: Have you gotten to a point in your growth as a writer where your work is technically and mechanically correct, but still a bit dull and unengaging?
It’s tempting to tell yourself these are signs that your work is serious and therefore important. But this is an age-old copout. The truth is it’s time to figure out some strategies to make your work more pleasurable, and thus, engaging.
Well, Billy Collins has theorised about the distinct pleasures literature (and poetry in particular) potentially provides us as readers. (Billy Collins was poet laureate of New York and then the United States.) And, in his essay Poetry, Pleasure, and the Hedonist Reader, and his Masterclass, he enumerates them. I encourage you to check out these primary sources at some point, but I’ve tried to cover the best bits in this article.
Suggested reading: Billy Collins’s 6 Elements Of A Poem
Billy Collins’s 6 Pleasures Of Poetry
1. The Pleasure Of Dance
Essentially, the pleasure of dance is the rhythm of your writing, which is largely governed by sentence length and punctuation. Do you want to create a sense of building tension, of creating suspense with—not just the way your work’s content unfolds—but the flow of your prose itself? Great! Try writing longer compound and complex sentences to lend your work moments of breathlessness. Want to create emphasis instead? To make a point? Use shorter sentences. No commas. No clauses. Whatever you do, use a variety of sentence lengths, types, and structures.
2. The Pleasure Of Sound
Let’s face it; some words are just fun to say.
Words like sibilant, mellifluous, and… kerfuffle.
Collins encourages writers to use words that ‘mean more and sound better’. So, don’t just search for the word that has the precise denotative meaning you looking for, but the right connotation and sound as well.
Because, remember, as Collins says: ‘there is no such thing as a synonym.’
3. The Pleasure Of Travel
Collins suggests great writing ought to transform and transport us. A story, poem, or essay ought to take us to different worlds (and worlds of experience). Whether the piece takes us to a real rarefied and exotic location, or an imaginative dreamscape—it doesn’t matter. Readers just want to be taken from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from Kansas to Oz.
4. The Pleasure Of Metaphoric Connection
This pleasure is all about the surprise of new perspectives—the pleasure of a new synapse forming a connection between two unlikely subjects. Collins calls this moving from the ‘provisional to the discovered subject’; a foundational technique in his work. Probably the most famous example from his oeuvre is his poem The Lanyard which tracks his mind wandering from the word lanyard to an experience making a lanyard as a child, to a revelation about motherhood.
5. The Pleasure Of Meaning
This refers to when a work’s emotional effect crystallises into a significance you can articulate—an epiphany of emotional and intellectual significance. This is often whatever ultimate insight the writer has stumbled across while writing that they share with the reader (whether subtly or explicitly). Collins says the key to making this epiphany feel natural is to never go into the composition process with a thesis statement or moral in mind. Otherwise, he warns the piece will come across as cloying and didactic. However, if you are genuinely going on a journey of discovery and welcome readers to tag along—they are much more likely to accept (or at least be intrigued by) whatever insight you may happen upon.
6. The Pleasure Of Companionship
This, to Collins, is the most precious aspect of literature. A work of literature becomes the reader’s companion when they internalise it and carry it with them. This can happen a number of ways: through memorising a poem or passage of a story or essay or even imbibing whatever emotional and/or intellectual epiphany it gave you. Whatever the case may be, when you really internalise a work, anytime you think of it you get to relive the profound experience of whatever it evokes in you.
The Final Word
And there you have it: Collins’s 6 Pleasures Of Poetry!
Next time your writing or revising, go back through your work, not as a writer, but with a reader’s eye. How many of the above pleasures do you find in your work? Is there a passage you could revise or add to so that it could evoke any of the pleasures that might be missing?
Finally, consider Collins’ simple but effective mantra for his own work: ‘Don’t forget the reader.’
If you enjoyed this, read: Billy Collins’s 6 Elements Of A Poem
Source for photograph: Marcelo Noah, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Billy_Collins_2007_by_Marcelo_Noah.jpg
by Oliver Fox
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