In Praise of Poetic Prose, Rather Than Prosaic Poetry.
(Today, I am starting a second blog with Kentstead Media, titled, I Write Half, on the subjects of poetry and poetic prose, so this week’s How To Be A Truthspeaker post and the inaugural post of the new blog are written in tandem with each other. – WRG)
“I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry;
that is, prose = words in their best order; — poetry = the best words in the best order.”
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1827)
In this quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, (which also appears in my poetry blog this week), you probably noticed that Coleridge’s definitions both involve “words in their best order”, but that poetry employs “the best words”. I don’t see this as an indictment of prose, such as novels, short stories, or blog posts, and in favor of highfalutin’ poetry, because every piece of writing can benefit from the tools and techniques of poetic creation. (Thus, part of the reason for this week’s parallel “I Write Half” blog post.)
As you know, my friends call me a wordsmith. It’s a label I take seriously, even as I struggle and continue to learn my craft. But, as with any kind of workmanship, there are many different tools and techniques to master. Otherwise, as the saying goes, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, you will treat everything as if it were a nail.” While some tools have become my favorites, I am always trying to expand my toolbox and find new applications for what I learn.
Most of my tools and techniques (such as alliteration and structured meter) are typically associated with poetry, but I have found that most, if not all, great writers also use these tools to improve their prose. Thus, as we read, we can discover examples of poetic prose as well as vibrant poetry.
Opening the Toolbox
A distinction between prose and poetry is that ideas are particularly well expressed in poetry, often using stylistic choices that focus on form as much as content. The same ideas could be expressed in prose, but something often gets lost in translation.
For example, we might paraphrase Robert Frost’s beloved poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, as follows:
“I think I know who owns these woods. But he lives in town; he won’t know I stopped here to watch the falling snow. My horse doesn’t understand why we stopped here in this dark field, and he shakes his harness bells. Other than that, it’s quiet. It’s nice out here, but I have things to do and it’s getting late, so I better get going.”
Kinda blah, huh? All the main facts are there, but the poetic soul of the scene is missing.
The original poem provides much more emotion and imagination. We have woods “filling” with snow, a horse that seemingly questions the sanity of his owner, the sound of falling snow, deeply quiet darkness, and a meditation on responsibility (and perhaps mortality):
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
If we were to present the poem’s content in a little more polished prose, we might get something like this:
“I know the man who owns these woods, but he lives far from here, in town. He will not mind it if I pause to enjoy the falling snow as it accumulates. My little horse must wonder what I am doing, stopping here in the middle of nowhere on such a cold and dark night. He shakes his harness bells as if to question me, but in the ensuing silence I can almost hear the sound of each snowflake as it lands, and a whisper of wind in the trees. This is such a beautiful and peaceful scene, that I hate to leave. But I have other duties and a long road ahead of me — a long road indeed.”
It’s certainly no improvement upon Frost’s original, but can you see this version’s merits when compared to the “blah” of my first bare paraphrase? The speaker now “pauses” to watch the snow accumulate. The horse regains his presumed ability to reason and question his owner and express opinions. The snow retains its mystical pseudo-sound as it falls to earth. The speaker expresses his regret for being unable to stay longer in this dream, muses again on the responsibilities he carries, and steels himself to endure to the end.
I enjoy reading the work of talented poets and writers because of the rich language they use, and I strive to learn from their technique. Modern authors often delight us with the poetic quality of their writing. To test-slash-prove this claim in real time, I’m going to select and analyze a passage in a random book from my nearest shelf — just give me a second. — Okay, my hand has just fallen upon Unnatural Creatures, an anthology of short stories by several authors (including Neil Gaiman, who selected them). Now, let me open and peruse just the introduction… Presto! (Nothing up my sleeve…) It didn’t take long for me to find this gem:
“But I knew how to visit the creatures who would never be sighted in the zoos or the museums or the woods. They were waiting for me in books and in stories, after all, hiding inside the twenty-six characters and a handful of punctuation marks. These letters and words, when placed in the right order, would conjure all manner of exotic beasts and people from the shadows, would reveal the motives and minds of insects and of cats. They were spells, spelled with words to make worlds, waiting for me, in the pages of books.” (Gaiman, pg. 3)
As we would expect from Neil Gaiman, we find elements of wonderfully crafted prose, such as:
- A pleasing trio of places the creatures will never be seen: “the zoos … the museums … the woods.” (Our brains just *love* it when things happen in threes. Notice the parallel structure here, as well.)
- Several pairings of elements: “books and stories”, “characters… and… punctuation marks”, “letters and words”, “exotic beasts and people”, “motives and minds”, and “Insects and cats”.
- The poetic understatement of condensing the definition of stories down to merely “twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks …. letters and words … in the right order”. (Hmmm… now that you mention it, that definition sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)
- Alliterative word choices, like, “Motives and minds”, “spells, spelled”, and “words to make worlds, waiting…”
The words “prose” and “prosaic” come from the same root, with “prosaic” defined as, “heavy, flat, unimaginative, commonplace, dull, and ordinary”. What does that tell us about the expectations prose is typically held to? Prose isn’t always delightful or fun to read, so it is not surprising when poetic polish is lacking in some prose and poetry.
Poems Are More Than Chopped Up Prose
Poems are more than just chopped up prose with lots of white space on the page. Poems that *look* that way are referred to as “free verse”. They appear to have little rigid or fixed meter, rhyme scheme, line length, or “formal format”, but they still include compactness of meaning and “the best words”. Poems involve conscious choices, such as deliberate line breaks, imagery, sound devices, rhythms, and themes.
Some poems work better in the minds and mouths of their readers than others, and some are merely attempts at brilliance and profundity that fall flat. But here I want to tread more carefully. It’s easy for me to praise brilliance in the work of others, and I have my own style and content preferences. That is why I am hesitant to criticize the work of other poets. (“Glass houses” and all that.) However, I already know, and sometimes cringe over, my own work. So, in the interest of offering help (and perhaps entertaining you at my expense), I plan to share poems and writing excerpts with you in both my blogs; stuff that I am pleased with, as well as some of my potentially “cringe worthy” work. I hope you’ll forgive me if I occasionally avoid revealing how embarrassingly recent some of it actually is.
For now, here’s just one example of my past (prosaic?) poetry, with notes, to make my point:
As a kid, I’d cuddle up
On cold frost-windowed days
To a register near the kitchen floor
In the baseboards on linoleum.
This is a reflection on my childhood, which occurred in Canada, showing a vignette of my habit of getting warm by laying on the furnace vents. What devices do you see? There is alliteration in “cuddle” and “cold”, but what else? “Frost-windowed” provides a sensory image. If you go looking for them, there are rhythmic beat patterns in the lines, but they aren’t consistent from line to line. What about deeper meaning in the lines? What does your “other half” of the poem tell you? What do you see between the lines? In what way does the phrase “cuddle up” affect you, that “snuggle up” or “lie down” would not? How does the kitchen setting affect your reading? Does it matter that I don’t actually *say* I was trying to get warm? The poem is brief and creates an image and a feeling, but little more. But, sometimes, that’s all you need.
Until next time,