Poetry and Prose, Part II.

Nick Nicholson is a friend and  writer.  We met on ERWA three years ago and formed a small writing group with Bill Penrose…also from ERWA.  We pursued our own work and within our small group, developed  in the ‘refining fire’ of criticisms and comments.

Recently Nick and I have been discussing  this issue of poetry.  And perhaps what, to our eyes, defines poetry.  It’s just a beginning glimmer as we work towards a deeper understanding of the subject in general and our poetry in particular.

However, when Nick says  “something inherently “poetic” about it, a different use of language, a different mindset is apparent”, (about forming, writing a poem) I can understand this at some level.  A subjective statement, but nonetheless, something that we share.

Further, we struggle to deepen our understanding of these things that are ‘foggy’ right now, but I do believe  there are many things that will help point us to some broader understanding.  It has recently been the trend to not “study” poetry, but to shoot from the hip in the writing of it.  I think this belittles the art form.

Subjective, yes….but not unknowable.

I believe  there is much to know about the ins and outs of this particular art form. It is not a great muddled mystery.

This winter I am settling down to do a more concentrated study of Japanese poetry forms to get a foothold.  I am drawing from the works of Shuichi Kato (especially his “A History of Japanese Literature”), Kenneth Rexroth (“Women Poets of Japan”) and the very insightful commentaries by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani in their work: “The Ink Dark Moons”.

Some have questioned  what Eastern poetry forms have to do with what Westerners write:  Everything, I think.  There is not a ‘Chinese wall’ between the two cultures.  Poetry speaks forth in all languages, across any divide.

Lady Nyo

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.


Nick: when I wrote “Seasons change” last year, I didn’t realize the ‘layers’ it had.  Obviously (or perhaps not) the narrator of the poem is talking to a dead woman: but it is surprising so many don’t realize this upon reading.  And that is fine.  I feel poems should actually be layered.  Layered in the sense that these few words should propel us backwards into the poem; raise up questions and perhaps a different understanding due to the individual reading of the poem.  Perhaps shades expresses the same sentiment.

To me, it is not enough to write a poem that just expresses an event or a memory.  It is not enough just to report something in your life without trying to ‘broaden’ the scope of the poem to resonate something deeper in the reader than just the words on the page.  This issue of ‘contemplation’ I think is very much part of that.

And about those words? I am of course, influenced by renga and waka (tanka) but the fewer well picked (words)  I think the better.

Poetry is a severe “sharpening” of words:

“The wind is like a sword tonight-

that does not sever sadness.

The moon is  like a hollowed orb-

that does not offer gladness.”

Lady Nyo

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