What Poetry Does for Books

I’ve written a little bit on poetry before, but I think this is the first time I’ve written about its impact on other forms of literature, specifically novels. Many novels begin with quotations or even full reproductions of poems to help set the theme and tone of the book. For example, Inkheart by Cornelia Funke begins with a short extract by Shel Silversteen; The Host by Stephenie Meyer with the poem Question by May Swenson; and Impossible by Nancy Werlin with a slightly edited and re-named version of Scarborough Fair. In each of these novels, the poem means something different. For Inkheart, it sort of embodies the way the books in the story pull people into their pages. For The Host, the poem encapsulates the theme and the questions running through the book. For Impossible, the poem is the basis for the plot of the book, and features heavily throughout the novel.


Up until recently, I never really thought about the effect these poems have on the reading experience, or why exactly the writer chose to place them at the beginning of their book. Then, after writing about music in books, I started to wonder whether poetry can be looked at in the same way: perhaps the author feels that it contributes an essential piece to the scene, much as they might think a piece of music is necessary to convey the atmosphere. Then, I realised there was one story and poem combination that I felt the exact same way about…


Sea Fever by John Masefield (one of my favourite poems, up there with The Lake Isle of Inisfree by WB Yeats, and Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney) is a poem about a man who longs to sail on the sea in a tall ship, not to make money trading or to fight for his country, but simply for the sake of sailing. He describes his yearning as insatiable, a call from the sea that “cannot be denied”.


For years, I’ve had this idea of a story or novel about pirates, the eighteenth-century English Navy, and an unquenchable thirst for freedom and exploration. The characters are pulled to the sea with every atom in their bodies; they yearn for the freedom and simplicity it brings. For me, the poem Sea Fever epitomizes this feeling exactly. The poem is bursting with the barely contained hunger for the sea; poetic and romantic longing emanate from every word. Masefield describes perfectly the beauty of the full canvas sails cracking in the wind, the smell of the briny sea air, the feeling of the deck rolling beneath your feet. Without directly saying it, the poem brims with the search for adventure, exploration, and freedom.


I know I could never recreate this yearning in the same way John Masefield did, yet I still want it to be apparent throughout the story, from the very offset. I’d also like to acknowledge the fact that other people through history felt the exact same way about the sea, about tall ships, about freedom. Therefore, I feel like the inclusion of Sea Fever in the opening of my story would be advisable, if not completely necessary.


But would the poem have the same effect on people who have never read it before, and would it directly impact on how they perceive the story? I am ashamed, but must admit, that I for one usually think quotations and extracts at the beginnings of books are unnecessary, unless I have read the book or poem in question and can put the quote in context.


What’s your opinion of poetry and literature? Do quotes at the beginnings of books serve primarily to aid the writer when crafting the world of their story, or do they impact on the reader to an equal extent?


2 thoughts on “What Poetry Does for Books

  1. Pingback: A favourite poem, what’s yours? #2 « poetArt

  2. I usually hate it when stories use poems to somehow introduce or comment on the action, because as a rule I think they don’t add much to the narrative or the drama. The only poem that I like that I first encountered as a quote begins (if memory serves) ‘She is not any common earth, water, wood or air, but Merlin’s Isle of Gramary, where you and I must fare’. I came across this at the start of the Once and Future King (I think I may have misquoted it a bit?) and thought the poem a far, far more evocative thing than the book itself. Then later I found out it’s by Kipling, and I knew why I felt that. I was also impressed and rather shaken by the way Conrad quotes from Despair at the start of the Rover. I was quite young then.

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