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Submitted on
August 24, 2006
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Poetry and Prose

I've also been thinking about the gap between poetry and prose and why is exists and what maintains it. Is there something in the nature of a poem as a creation that distinguishes the poet as a creator from the prosodist? Is it worthwhile trying to define it?

If writing is primarily a mode of communication, as all art is, these distinctions must be worth bothering over because they are all concerned with the effectiveness of a particular discourse, via literature, between writer and (targeted) reader. However, the gap between prose and poetry as separate modes is blurred and still blurring.
Perhaps a poem is, at a base level, nothing more the sum of its line breaks. 'Poetic language' is such a vague, inadequate label - presumably it means language particular to poetry that cannot be used with the same effects in prose. Does such a thing exist? There's no reason why a novelist shouldn't indulge in poeticisms. However, a poem cannot be both poem and prose at the same time, surely, nor vice versa. A prose poem is by its very nature intended to be poetry - distinguishable from prose - rather than merely poetic prose. And it cannot possibly be called poetry unless there is indeed some qualifiable element apart from the line break that can be called sufficiently poetic to be outside of the prosodist's arsenal completely.

This is a prose poem by Simic:

Margaret was copying a recipe for "saints roasted with onions" from an old cookbook. The ten thousand sounds of the world were hushed so we could hear the scratching of her pen. The saint was asleep in the bedroom with a wet cloth over his eyes. Outside the window, the owner of the book sat in a flowering apple tree killing lice between his fingernails.

Here there does indeed appear to be something in the cadence and diction that feels unlike typical prose. The sentences seem unnaturally condensed. 'Ten thousand sounds of the world', for example, seems like a poetic phrase. Rythmically, the sentences seem to slide to their conclusions; each is pitched similarly, slowing down, ending on a low note.
But is there anything here identifiable as singularly poetic? It's brevity perhaps? Is poetry nothing more than a pruning of articles and conjunctions, a condensing of ideas that could be adequately expressed in prose; images big and bluff and fired out of a cannon at the reader rather than passed on a plate?

And what about metre? Perhaps metre should be considered an essential element of poetry. Prose falls into its own rhythms, but are not regulated by the line break. I think the line break works most naturally in metrical poetry. In free verse it can suffer from overly blunt usage, and becomes supsceptible to that familiar, insistent melodrama as the poet waves a particular word or line in the readers' face and whistles for attention. In metrical verse, the line break works as a regular device in tandem with an established rhythm or beat. The poem rolls on through the line break rather than being sliced up by it.
"Rubbish!" you retort. "If this were so, most of the poetry written in the last 100 years would not really be poetry at all!" Ah, but maybe free verse is classifiable as a sort of anti-poetry and qualifies primarily as poetry by way of being a reaction against metre, rather than in its own right. Surely, if metre did not exist, or had been forgotten, free verse would lose much of it's poetic substance, that which sets it apart from prose. It is in its purest form an out-pouring, language breaking free; its power is that of bombardment, in unfettered pace, in subverting an established metrical framework and confounding the reader's instinctual expectations of rhythm.

Maybe the nebulous character of poetry as I perceive it is symptomatic of a culture in which in some sense metre is being forgotten, or discarded as irrelevent, and thus our expectations of what a poem should be, and how free verse works as poetry, are being blurred, or lost.


Sorry for this rambling. I imagine it doesn't make much sense. It certainly hasn't helped me decide whether to write a novel or a poem. I'll probably end up choosing whichever seems to take the least time.
An opinion piece on the distinction between poetry and prose by ~Boogster.
Sober-Irish-Guy Featured By Owner Sep 14, 2006   Writer
After writing an artical for in the same subject, I have to say: nothing I wrote amused me more than "Ah, but maybe free verse is classifiable as a sort of anti-poetry and qualifies primarily as poetry by way of being a reaction against metre". That is one of the best sentances I've read. The idea of anti-poetry... ^.-.^

{If you're wondering, I couldn't define the difference between the two either.}
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