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Prose vs. Poetry


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Posted

“I said that the legitimate meanings of the word poetry were themselves so many as to embarrass the discussion of its nature. All the more reason why we should not confound confusion worse by wresting the term to licentious use and affixing it either to dissimilar things already provided with names of their own, or to new things for which new names should be invented.” --A.E. Housmann, “The Name and Nature of Poetry”

I agree with Housmann. The difficulty of defining poetry doesn’t come from poetry’s nature being indistinct, or hard to grasp, but from the application of the word to too many different modes of writing during the past century or so. There’s practically no common ground between the various kinds of poetry that isn’t also shared by prose.

By this time, I don’t think there’s any use in trying to narrow its application. Try telling someone that what they wrote isn’t poetry, and they’re certain to assume that you’re making an aesthetic judgment rather than a taxonomic one. ( Davidm, DaveT, I’m afraid you’ll just have to accept that your forum posts aren’t poetry :finger::heh: )

A more constructive approach might be to consider each of the modes of writing we call poetry on its own ground first—if we can’t define what it has in common with all the others, we can at least define what makes it distinct. I suspect that the line-break poem will never be written that says something that couldn’t have been said better in some other mode, or in straight-out prose, but if someone wants to persuade me otherwise, let them. :-D Just don’t ask me to write any. :freakout:

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Posted

But there is a fuzzy middle ground between poetry and prose, prose poems of which one can find many examples. That's all, after working ten hours Friday night, and another ten hours Saturday morning/afternoon, I am able to say at the current time. :freakout: I hope to be more coherent on Sunday. :deal:

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Posted

While Davidm navigates the morass of the overlap between prose and poetry, here are my initial thoughts:

An easy line of demarcation between prose and poetry comes from Sartre in What is Literature: "The empire of signs is prose, poetry is on the side of painting, sculture and music." Basically, poetry is the playing with language while prose is the use of language to describe the world. Sartre claimed that prose directly addressed the reader, and the world in a concrete and direct sense, whereas poetry distanced the writer from his worldly situation by being involved in abstract and figural language. In prose the writer could commit to the world and therefore to human freedom, but poetry OTOH could only address the poet's self-indulgence.

Barthes counters this with his own distinction: prose experiments with language, while poetry attempts to transcend or destroy it. For Barthes, there is no poetic writing, because of two reasons: one, classical poetry isn't based on any distinctive use of language, because it is already part of classic writing, and two, modern poetry is a language where the stubborn dogma of autonomy annihilates any ethical goal. In Mythologies, Barthes argued that poetry mythically represents the quest for a pre-semiological Truth, Nature. Therefore, modern poetry is the attempt to destructure or destroy language and reduce discourse to words as "static things."

Both Sartre and Barthes perform the same magic trick in their distinctions: identify some domain of literature with the poetic, they ignore it by refusing to include it in their discussions. :noidea:

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Posted

Isaac Newton dismissed poetry as "ingenious nonsense," and that was well before modern poetry. Make of that what you will.

I think there is something to be said for Sartre's definition. As has been said (who first said it escapes me :doh: ), "all art aspires to the condition of music," and I think poetry in general more nearly realizes that aspiration than prose, just as in the visual arts, non-representational art more nearly realizes it than does representational, "realistic" art. There may be an interesting connection between prose and representational visual arts on the one hand, and poetry and non-represenational visual arts on the other.

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Posted

Speaking of poetry, I listened to an opera yesterday of "A Midsummer Nights' Dream."" It was spectacular. I followed it against Shakespeare's text; a number of liberties were taken, including omissions and rearrangements, proving that art, even something seemingly as set in stone as Shakespeare, is malleable and re-interpretable. But boy, Shakespeare was good! :yess:

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Posted

Speaking of poetry, I listened to an opera yesterday of "A Midsummer Nights' Dream."" It was spectacular. I followed it against Shakespeare's text; a number of liberties were taken, including omissions and rearrangements, proving that art, even something seemingly as set in stone as Shakespeare, is malleable and re-interpretable. But boy, Shakespeare was good! :yess:

An excellent example of the above is Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood. If you haven't seen it yet, you should; it's a fantastic adaptation of Macbeth.

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Posted

An easy line of demarcation between prose and poetry comes from Sartre in What is Literature: "The empire of signs is prose, poetry is on the side of painting, sculture and music." Basically, poetry is the playing with language while prose is the use of language to describe the world. Sartre claimed that prose directly addressed the reader, and the world in a concrete and direct sense, whereas poetry distanced the writer from his worldly situation by being involved in abstract and figural language. In prose the writer could commit to the world and therefore to human freedom, but poetry OTOH could only address the poet's self-indulgence.

You know, when I’ve given thought to the matter myself, what I’ve come up with isn’t too different from this. Guess it really is an easy line of demarcation. :lol:

For instance: it’s only in poetry that words are important in their own right. The poetic devices specific to poetry—meter, alliteration,rhyme, and so on— draw attention to the formal features of words, which are accidental in prose. For prose, it wouldn’t matter if the words it was composed of had different patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, or if one of two juxtaposed words beginning with the same letter were replaced with a synonym beginning with some other letter. Very little would be lost if the work were paraphrased, which is never true of a good poem.

But the problem is that while this may say something meaningful about poetry, it completely fails to do justice to prose. It seems to deny that there’s any such thing as a prose style, as if the prose of a novel isn’t significantly different from the prose of an instruction manual. :scratch:

(BTW, I would say that figurative language as it’s typically used in poetry involves our senses more directly than ordinary language does—it’s more immediate, and concrete rather than abstract. As far as I can tell, it’s mainly philosophers and literary critics who use abstract figurative language, and I find it more of a barrier to understanding than the aid I think it’s supposed to be. :dizzy: )

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Posted

Thanks for introducing me to :dizzy: Never saw it before. :yo:

More later, I'm still waking up. :freakout: But for now I'd say there's a fuzzy ground between poetry and prose. It's not one or the other. Some of the best prose is poetical, and examples of this abound. OTOH, it's often said that there are at least a couple of theories of prose: given that prose fiction is primarily about story-telling (except when it isn't), then under one theory the language should not call attention to itself, as it does in poetry, but simply be propulsive, propelling the story onward. I'd say this theory is mostly employed in the writing of commercial fiction, when action and plot is primary, even over and above character. Another theory is that the language is primary. In the latter case, prose most nearly approaches poetry, though of course it isn't exactly poetry, at least in the sense of rhyme, meter, etc.

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