More Poetry vs Prose

Earlier this week, Rob posted this exercise on his blog — three pieces of writing in both poetic and prose forms, with the challenge that we identify the poems from the prose.

Every commenter got at least one of them right. Most of the commenters got them all.

Seems to me, then, that there is a distinction between poetry and prose. Not that I ever doubted it; but the discussion about prose poems suggested that the line was blurred. I don’t think it is — or not so much that people believe. I do think that narrative has something to do with it — perhaps not plot, as I pointed out before, but perhaps rather a linearity of movement. Poems don’t have to have that, drawing as they do upon layers of meaning, upon symbol and archetype and image. Poetry is sensual as well as cerebral — I’ll never forget Houseman’s (so-very true) image of the poem that elicits the very physical response of hairs standing on end and goosebumps rising on skin, as quoted in Michael Schmidt’s StAnza Lecture. Houseman wrote:

Poetry indeed seems to me more physical than intellectual. A year or two ago, in common with others, I received from America a request that I would define poetry. I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognised the object by the symptoms which it provoked in us. One of those symptoms was described in connexion with another object by Eliphaz the Temanite: “A spirit passed before my face: the hair of my flesh stood up.” Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. This particular symptom is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists in a constriction of the throat and a precipitation of water to the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keats’s last letters, where he says, speaking of Fanny Brawne, “everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear”. The seat of this sensation is the pit of the stomach.

Schmidt commented:

The poetry that he [Houseman] approved took hold of him, engaged him, at a level he could not, or rather, would not, intellectually plumb. A poem’s effect had to do with music, rhyme and emotional direction, not with teasing out meaning.

***

Most of us would probably concur that what Philip Larkin calls the ‘lift-off’ point in a poem, if it has one, can provoke one of these three localised effects, though we might wish to add several others: a shaking of the sides with comic poetry, a sexual stirring, in other contexts. There are many others. The poet Laura Riding helped Michael Roberts compose the introduction to the definitive anthology of its time, the Faber Book of Modern Verse. They insisted there that ‘the poetic use of language can cause discord as easily as it can cure it. A bad poem, a psychologically disordered poem, if it is technically effective may arouse uneasiness or nausea or anger in the reader.’ Here are some more effects to add to Housman’s list, bad ones as well as good. A poem can have actual consequences for readers. A poem can make something happen.

Poetry that succeeds hits the human being in the gut; but prose is more intellectual, more cerebral.

It’s true that there’s a blurring of lines, that there’s no chasm separating the two, that there’s wonderfully poetic prose and prosy poems. But Rob’s exercise has suggested at least one thing — that even if the line is blurred, it still exists.

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