Poetic Prose and Prose Poetry

Recently I have been privileged to read  a rather sharp discussion about what is prose and what is poetry and do the two mix at all?

Or is there really a clear cut difference?

There are great traditions of poetic prose and prose poetry.  Certain poets come to mind:  Byron’s  Don Juan rhyme’s but reads very much like prose.

So, what defines poetry and what defines prose?

A perhaps ‘sharper’ organization of language (and into stanzas) is generally associated with poetry.  And somewhere I read that lines, too, tend towards poetry, and sentences towards prose.  Meter towards poetry, but not always.  Confused yet?

Poetry usually has fewer structural guidelines:  Prose is bound up in formal language, sentences/paragraphs  that write ‘stories’.  Poetry expresses thoughts in much fewer words, otherwise, it falls into prose. (Unless you use a rhyming scheme).

In these much fewer words they have to express ‘more’ in a sense.  They have to create images and emotional pulls in  sharp proportion to prose.

And this: “Poetry is an art form in which human language is used for its aestetic qualities.”

Poetry has rhythm  like music, and cadence like a drum.

Which brings up the question….why isn’t prose an art form?

(I leaned heavily on a couple of articles from wikipedia )

All this is rather…..well, it begs the point.  I think that amongst poets, the ‘territory’ (of what is poetry) is fiercely guarded.  Each poet has their own ideas about this issue.

Beyond structure, beyond rhyme, beyond all of these things, I think a couple of things remain ‘true’, at least to me.

They must communicate to the reader what you have experienced, but they must also resonate strongly within that reader.  It is not enough, and I see this a lot…..to enumerate your lovers, your experiences, your opinions.  I think the issue of communication only comes when you are writing something that speaks strongly to some universal experience that we understand we are just a part of.  We attempt to transcend ourselves, our experience and appeal ‘outside’ that individual experience.   I’ve read enough of poetry that really is prose that really belongs in a diary.  But I can’t, in all honesty, call it poetry.

Self-revealment might seem courageous, but is it good poetry?  And would an article (prose) do better to make that revealment?

It’s a very subjective subject I think…at least for now.

This argument will clarify later on.  Or perhaps there will always be gray, fuzzie areas.  I think that is more the point.

Lady Nyo

The poem below is titled “SEASONS CHANGE”


I took a walk this morning.

The season has changed here

Though where you are they don’t.

The dried, brittle grass beneath my feet

Made a consistent crackle,

Echoed by the gossip of sparrows above.

The leaves are gone now from the birches and maples.

They fell like rain on a fallow ground one day

And I didn’t see them go.

I think of your rounded arms when I see the Shedding birches, the smooth bark

White skin with a faint pulse of the river beneath.

Do you remember that river, where it scared you to stand close to the bank?

You thought the earth would slip inward,

Take you on a wild ride downstream where

I couldn’t retrieve you,

And I saw for an instant your raised arms to me, imploring me silently to save you,

though it never happened and you never slipped down the bank and I never could save you.

But imagination plays with your mind

when it is all you have left.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2009

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9 Responses to “Poetic Prose and Prose Poetry”

  1. Berowne Says:

    I have a feeling this debate could get more heated than Mac versus Windows, but I wanted to comment on one point. For me,
    > why isn’t prose an art form
    does not follow from
    > Poetry is an art form in which human language is used for its aesthetic qualities

    Rather, poetry is a particular kind of art form. Novels, short stories, essays may also be art forms, but they use the tools of language in a different way. Not that I could define the difference; some stories use short choppy words or unadorned syntax (Hemingway, say) to convey immediacy, but remain firmly within the prose column.


  2. ladynyo Says:

    Yes, but the bigger question, which I am losing sight of, is this: the gray shades are all!

    And defining the difference…a very subjective thing I suppose.

    would differ.


  3. Berowne Says:

    Here’s an experiment in prose / poetry boundaries that occurred to me yesterday. Which category does the Magnificat fall into? In English, the first line is plainly iambic: “My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit rejoice in God my Saviour.” But the second line is as prosy as you can get: “For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden.” And so on, you can see it at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnificat
    A Catholic priory down the street held an open house for the neighbors last October and I hung around for evening prayers, where they sang this. (They grilled hamburgers and served beer afterwards, those jolly Dominicans!) Chanted it, really, because it’s not very singable. But I got to considering it and Gregorian chant generally in the context of your post.


  4. Rose Says:

    I don’t visit too many blogs and leave comments, but you’re always starting great discussions, so I thought I’d throw in my two bits’ worth into this one.

    I’m no great poet; not sure if I’m a poet at all, though I’ve been told I am. I don’t know if the jury’s still out and can’t make up its mind, or it’s back and just ended up hung. (Ahh… a hung jury… now *that’s* a vision.)

    But this discussion of what’s poetry and what’s prose actually begs the question…at least in my mind, why make the the definitions more complex than they need to be?

    I checked out thefreedictionary.com (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/prose), for ‘prose,’ and this is the first definition:

    1. Ordinary speech or writing, without metrical structure.
    (from the American Heritage Dictionary)

    and another one,

    1. spoken or written language as in ordinary usage, distinguished from poetry by its lack of a marked metrical structure
    (from the Collins English Dictionary)

    So then I looked up “poetry,” (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/poetry) and here are two of the definitions I found:

    3. A piece of literature written in meter; verse.
    4. Prose that resembles a poem in some respect, as in form or sound.

    What is so difficult to understand about these definitions?

    The only issue I can see is one of *reader* interpretation, by virtue of someone simply not *reading* poetry with the marked metric structure, or “cadence,” that was *intended* by the author.

    I mean it is simple enough for me to write phrases in what *I* consider to be a “poetic” form:

    “The night wind sighs
    my heart responds.
    in words you’ll never hear.”

    But I could write it as two sentences, instead:

    “The night wind sighs. My heart responds in words you’ll never hear.”

    What makes them different except where the line breaks indicate a “cadence.”

    It *feels,* or *sounds,* different, for sure. But the thought’s the same, right?

    Frankly, I find the whole prose versus poetry debate a little tedious, because of that very question you’ve posed: Why isn’t prose an art form?

    The short answer is that the question is invalid, if not pointless.

    Prose *is* an art form. Who says it *isn’t* and who died and made them the grand poobah of art? How can prose (non-fiction, fiction, whatever) not be considered an art form? If you’re a writer and you’ve created something out of nothing (or, at least, out of separate elements… disparate words brought together to form coherent thoughts), then then it’s art. Just because there isn’t some ooo-ahh “mystique” about it, doesn’t mean it isn’t art.

    To me that’s like saying just because someone doesn’t draw within a certain set of guidelines, they’re not an artist. The impressionists went through all that kind of bullcrap over a century ago. They didn’t paint within the accepted parameters of the time and were mocked and not considered *real* artists.

    The fact is *we* define our art and the definitions are fluid. But why the conflict? Poet, writer, author, artist… creator. We create. Call it prose or call it poetry…what the hell difference does it make? Fine, get a bunch of wordsmiths calling themselves poets or writers in a room and let them duke it out if they want to, but what *exactly,* is the point? It’s as if some exclusive little enclave of creators doesn’t want to accept that all creators are created equal, or that what one person creates is not as valid as what another person creates.

    Poetry or prose? WHY does it make a difference? In fact, HOW does it make a difference. Does it make one creation more worth reading than another? Does it make one creator a more worthwhile person than another? Is the creator of prose somehow a lesser artist than a creator of poetry? If I create both prose *and* poetry, am I suddenly somehow a more worthy person than if I just create prose? Is my prose less worthy than my poetry? Who decides? What arbiter of art decides that one work is art and the other is just…well, what? Trash?

    This type of discussion echoes exactly the type of discussion that usually ends up in frayed nerves and flared tempers, because the word “real,” pops up. What is *real* poetry? Who is a *real* poet?

    It’s entirely possible that I’m missing the whole point of the discussion, but it seems to me that a question, such as “Why isn’t prose an art form?” serves only to create a kind of elitist attitude, a mindset that reflects, “You’re not a *real* artist. You’ll never be as worthy as *we* are, unless you write poetry.” To put it in what is still the most appropriate response, as coined by comedic actor, Steve Martin, “Well, ex-cuuuuuuuuuse me.” Should I cut my throat now and save the world from my prose, or should I just let the “poets” stone me to death for daring to write anything at all if I don’t write what is considered to be “art.”

    Rose 😉


  5. ladynyo Says:

    Don’t cut your throat and it’s all in the shades of gray.

    And prose IS part of art. form.


    Merry Christmas, my dear Rose!


  6. ladynyo Says:

    Oh! I love this, Berowne…and I LOVE the Magnificat!

    Thank you, Berowne….and I love those beer swilling Dominicans, too!

    Merry Xmas and Happy Holidays!!

    With Love and a Greater Peace flowing….


  7. Steve Isaak Says:

    Being a story writer first and a poet second, I don’t concern myself in the “prose v. poetry” debate, aside from two things:
    (1) If it’s poetry, it has to have poetic FLOW, whether you’re reading it silently in your head (hello, Rose!), or aloud;
    (2) it has to “resonate strongly” (using your words, Jane) with readers — or, if it doesn’t, it should be relatable on some level (intellectual, emotional, whatever).

    Aside from that. . . well, Rose nailed that mofo in her last comment on this thread.

    Loved “Seasons Change,” btw, Jane. 🙂

    Merry holidays, etc., my friend!


  8. ladynyo Says:

    Hey Steve!!

    Merry Holidays indeed! and to you, my friend.

    Steve, I agree with both of your points. Poetic flow is that ‘river of life’ that brings a poem into being…makes it sing, makes it run through the music. It probably IS the music of poetry. There is so much ‘dead’ poetry….it’s just, as Nick Nicholson sez: verbal diarrhea. It says little to readers, because it’s just a personal statement with no interest in anything except getting some thoughts on paper.

    Poetry needs a refining fire, usually. I would say all the time….LOL!

    Poets who put down their poetry and say that it’s “just their conversations with themselves” should further think what they are mumbling. LOL. Not all conversations with oneself should be heard by others. And, this is tricky, ….is it Art?

    Most times probably not. Art takes refining and work, and unfortunately the excuse that “I write for myself” means that you shouldn’t really expect others to read it.

    This sounds hard, but damn it. Writing…whether prose or poetry…is all work. Mental shaving off and sifting and trying to place things in the most ‘poetic’ way possible. Whatever that comes down to mean.

    As to this ” resonate strongly “…this speaks to the above.

    Thank you for your encouraging words on “Seasons Change”.

    I just went to your blog…..Good God!! I love to read your reviews of all the books I will never read because of time and it’s a challenge and a mortal tease! But your website is one of my favorites and for some reason I have trouble making comments there but I’ll fix that soon.

    Bill Penrose tells me that “The Zar Tales” will be formatted this early January….and it will be then published by lulu.com. But I am really looking forward to two things, Steve….this January…getting back to this novel, “The Kimono” and working on “White Cranes of Heaven” where I put my ‘ideas’ of poetry to the test.

    Thank you, dear friend, for visiting this blog and commenting. May this New Year bring us both lots of inspiration in prose and poetry!


  9. Nick Nicholson Says:

    Hi Jane,

    You’ve raised an interesting point of discussion. On the surface of it, the difference between poetry and prose is, for most people, pretty clear – put a Stephen King novel and a Shakespeare sonnet next to each other and no-one will be confused as to which is prose and which is poetry. Using these simple examples, one could say that prose involves a plot-driven narrative written with sentences and paragraphs, whereas poetry involves short lines/line breaks, a more distilled use of language, and relies more on things like imagery and metaphor to express an idea. Speaking of ideas, a poem also usually focuses on one “idea”, whereas a novel, or even a short story, can contain numerous “ideas” that are expressed by the writer.

    One could draw another comparison: a poem is to prose as a painting is to a movie. A painting is a single, still object that one tends to “contemplate”, whereas a movie is a sequence of multiple images that forms an ongoing narrative. On the other hand, to complicate matters, can a painting tell a “story”? Certainly. Can a movie be “poetic” without much of a story? Absolutely.

    So when you look deeper into the prose/poetry matter, things start to get murky and fuzzy. What about those long book-length epic poems that tell whole stories (involving multiple characters, places and events) in verse? Is that primarily poetry or primarily prose? Hard to say.

    What about the contemporary (one might even say, ‘avant garde’) “prose poem”? No line breaks, and often consisting of sentences and even dialogue…and yet…somehow, even with the modern “prose poem”, it’s possible to argue that, yes, it stretches the definition of poetry, but there is still something inherently “poetic” about it, a different use of language, a different mindset is apparent. (What kind of stuff am I referring to? As just one example, various kinds of “prose poems” can be found on this site – http://www.elimae.com – if you poke around a bit.)

    Other grey areas: can a novel be “poetic” and yet still be called a novel? Yes, I believe it can. A novel can be quite plotless sometimes and can employ rich imagery and metaphor where the focus is on the aesthetics of the words and wordplay rather than trying to tell a plot-driven “story”.

    Can a poem use “prosaic” language and still be called poetry? Yes, I believe it can. Just look at Bukowski – very ordinary, everyday language a lot of the time, and if you re-formatted it, you could make it look exactly like prose and it would read perfectly well as prose. And yet…and yet…it “works” as poetry.

    So it’s very difficult at times to draw the line between one and the other. Faced with these “grey areas”, oftentimes it comes down to a subjective judgement call on the part of the individual reader. And that’s fine. Who says that everything has to be black & white ALL the time? In the realm of art (and I consider both poetry and prose to be forms of art) there is a lot of crossover, intermingling of elements and techniques and sensibilities.

    With writing that appears to straddle an uneasy border between poetry and prose, sometimes I have to rely on the old argument that someone once said about pornography: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” This argument is plainly subjective (how could it be any other way?) and yet it contains a big dose of common sense that most people can understand, even if the lines between one thing and the other are shifting and blurry.

    Jane, your poem, “Seasons change”, is a good case in point. Does it contain “sentences”? Yes. Does it tell a “story”? Yes, albeit loosely. Would it be possible to re-format it into “prose” without altering a single word? Yes, I think so. Given all that, then, is it still “poetry”? To my mind, the resounding answer is “yes”. There is a different ‘mindset’ apparent here. The piece has a contemplative atmosphere about it, the focus is introspective. There is also (and I know this is almost impossible to quantify or explain) a “poetic sensibility” present, in the particular choices of words and ideas expressed. So, yes, I think it could be re-written as a prose piece, but if it was – and here’s the important thing – *it wouldn’t be the same*. Something ineffable would be lost if it was converted to prose. So this is a good example where one could say, well, there are some prose-like things present here, but, it’s not prose, it’s poetry – *I know it when I see it*.

    I enjoyed “Seasons change” very much, Jane, thanks for posting it here on your blog.



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