when is it a poem? when is it prose?

Okay, I’m back. And I’m being asked to talk about what the difference is between prose and poetry. I’ve seen this debate on poetry message boards, where someone posts up a poem for critique and someone else says: “That is terrible. It’s not a poem.”

And you’re like, what? What kind of a thing is that to say?

Sometimes someone says, “That’s just lineated prose.”

Again: what?

So it seems that one way of talking about prose – especially among poets – is to start by talking about poetry. After all, the concept of “prose” only exists in our world as a counterfoil for “poetry,” or “verse.” (I differentiate partly because “verse” implies versification – i.e., prosody – whereas “poetry” doesn’t need, these days, overtly to have it. Note all the qualifiers.)

It seems to me that a good place to start looking at this binary is with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous remark that:

The definition of good prose is – proper words in their proper places; of good verse – the most proper words in their proper places. The words in prose ought to express their intended meaning, and no more… But in verse, you must do more; there the words [are] the media

Very prescient of him, I think. And then there’s Yeats, writing to Lady Wellesley – specifically about poetry as opposed to prose – that, “The correction of prose, because it has no laws, is endless; a poem comes right with a click like a closing box.”

We could ask the novelists what they think about that “no laws” remark; it’s tempting to say prose has more laws, and poetry ust has more of a guideline… And it is possible there is a single moment when novelists know they’re done; maybe it just isn’t like a click.

Housman said: “Poetry is not the thing said but the way of saying it.” He also said, “Meaning is of the intellect, poetry is not.” And he said “Poetry indeed seems to be more physical than intellectual.”

This is where you get into the idea that poetry is partly about, not only sound, but the movement of the sounds through both the ear and the mouth; rhythm and pattern, on either the large scale or at letter or sound level. It’s abut waves and reverberations.

One of the most particular prose stylists of the late 19th century was, surprisingly, RL Stevenson. He would write and rewrite to get the assonance right, to get the sounds to work in service of the thing. But he was definitely writing prose. He’d have said so.

One way of thinking about it is to think of prose as something that can be paraphrased. As Frost said: “poetry is what’s lost in translation.” So you can translate prose – a novel, say – and even with the odd infelicitous word or clunky phrase, you get the meaning and can understand the point.

Try that with Mallarmé* or Celan.

And what about prose poems? Are they poems because each word is particular and necessary to a meta-meaning, and no word can be replaced?(I’m asking; I’m really asking! I find prose poems harder to read than poetry-poems. I’ve written a couple, two or three, and they did come to me differently, and defied the line. But I can’t define it. And then someone said to me once that when I read one of them out it was in metre – which it had defied on the page – so who knows?)

On the whole, I think the kind of poetry that gives poetry a good name is the kind where you can’t “describe what it’s about” because the whole thing is so integral: lineation, word play, double meanings, sonic effects, the particular timbre of a set of allusions or changes in register (though you can do many of these things in prose). As Auden said, “A poem must be a closed system.” An ecosystem, if you like.

To say any of this, of course, is to invite the exceptions: the Sebalds, the Steins, the other people who don’t begin with S…

But just for the sake of argument, let’s say a poem is a closed system. And, except for the the subset “bad poetry”, prose is everything else…

* Here’s a good description from Wikipedia of the kind of thing I mean:

Some consider Mallarmé one of the French poets most difficult to translate into English. The difficulty is due in part to the vague nature of much of his work, but mostly to the important role that the sound of the words, rather than their meaning, plays in his poetry. When recited in French, his poems allow alternative meanings which are not evident on reading the work on the page. For example, Mallarmé’s Sonnet en ‘-yx’ opens with the phrase ses purs ongles (‘her pure nails’), whose first syllables when spoken aloud sound very similar to the words c’est pur son (‘it’s pure sound’). Indeed, the ‘pure sound’ aspect of his poetry has been the subject of musical analysis and has inspired musical compositions.

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