Saturday 17 September 2011

What is poetry; what is prose?


Poetry comes first - because poetry is in essence mnemonic language: language made easy to remember.

This is achieved in three ways: regular and repeated rhythm, rhyme and alliteration.


1. Rhythm - essentially chanting.

Rhythm can be divided in terms of either a few heavy beats, like nursery rhymes which often have two beats in a line but variable numbers of syllables and clusters of syllables; like

Sally go round the sun
Sally go round the moon
Sally go round the chim-er-ney pots
On a Saturday afternoon

(of course the above example also rhymes)

or in short patterns of stresses (metres) - like the

ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-TUM
ti-tum ti-tum ti-TUM

of  'common metre'. 

Quite of lot of the most famous English verse (Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth) is 'blank verse' which is (mostly) ti-tum all the way - generally avoiding alliteration and (especially) rhyme

Example from Shakepeare's Merchant of Venice, which has five ti-tums per line (iambic pentameter):

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heav'n
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes

Beats and stresses both make it easier to remember language - which is why all chanting (even of disorganized mobs) tends to be organized by beats and/ or stresses.


2. Rhyme - obviously. 'Nuff said.


3. Alliteration - in which the beginnings of words, or their most stressed syllables, are similar. This is almost obsolete and unappreciated - but was standard for Old English and most Middle English verse - especially when it was orally performed.

Here is an Old English pastiche by C.S Lewis (which Tolkien found defective) - the rule is half lines, two stresses in each half line falling on the alliterated sound and at least one alliteration common to the half lines: T, B, S, E, G and the 'ess' sound.

We were talking of dragons, Tolkien and I
In a Berkshire bar. The big workman
Who had sat silent and sucked his pipe
All the evening, from his empty mug
With gleaming eye glanced towards us:
"I seen 'em myself!" he said fiercely.”


And prose?

Prose eschews regular rhythm, rhymes and alliteration but is made memorable by narrative, by telling a story.

Of course poetry can tell a story; and indeed poetry which tells a story - an epic or romance, for example - is the most memorable of all literary forms (probably the earliest formal language) - the characteristic production of 'bards', 'minstrels' and 'ballad singers'.


What this means is that some things that get called poetry are not essentially so, but only so by lineal descent: e.g. poetry based on syllable counting, or 'free verse'

- these are more of a 'high art' commentary on essential poetry - indeed free verse, in particular, is often subversive of essential poetry - and rigorously avoids any mnemonic aids such as regular rhythm, alliteration or rhyme.

(Yes, I know this is almost all of what gets called poetry nowadays - but that only goes to show...)


And prose which does not tell a story (like this essay) is not essentially prose.


THUS cometh the focus of poetry on specific words and images (stock images - such as the Kennings of Old English poetry - whale-road = sea; or poetic cliches such as the 'wine dark sea' from Homer);

and in prose the focus is on sense, on (detachable) message: meaning, morals, stock characters and stock situations (the prohibition which is always broken, the youngest son, the rule of three)...

There we have it: the essence of poetry, the essence of prose...



dearieme said...

Favourite poems from childhood were often rather rude.

Hitler has only got one ball...

Taffy was a Welshman....

What distinguishes those we sang (such as the first) from those we merely recited (such as the second)?

Bruce Charlton said...

@ A tune is yet another thing which makes words memorable - think of advertising jingles, which combine a catchy melody, rhythm, rhyme and sometimes alliteration as well. I have dozens of these stuck in my head from childhood.

Wm Jas said...

"Poetry comes first." Vico had a theory that early man spoke -- and, indeed, thought -- exclusively in verse, and that prose was a much later development. (I'm skeptical, since verse, while easier to remember than prose, is certainly much harder to produce.)


I find poetry's mnemonic powers somewhat mysterious, since it makes it easier to remember even those words which are not constrained by rhyme or rhythm. The "Thirty days hath September" rhyme somehow works even though "August, June, and December" would fit just as well metrically.


I remember you saying in a past post that you didn't consider Yeats to be "real poetry," though most of his stuff rhymes, scans, and is memorable. Did you have some other criteria in mind?

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas -

In this case I am talking about poetry as a form, in the Yeats case I was using poetry as an honorific term.

In terms of form, an obscene limerick is poetry and (say) Alan Ginsberg is not; in honorific terms, the current and previous British poet laureates were not poets at all - the one before that (Ted Hughes) was a poet - just not very good, while the one before that (John Betjeman) was a real poet - and a good one.

When I say poetry comes 'first' I don't mean in terms of vocal production - but in terms of reasonably-accurately reproducible units of public discourse.

Chris said...

Don't you think the best free verse has some sort of internal rhythm, even if it isn't subject to analysis?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Chris. Is it memorable? In so far as it is, then why?

I find that the memorable (not necessarily good, but memorable) lines or sections of free verse is usually a chunk of de facto blank verse, or has strong (nursery rhyme-like) stresses and rhythm-patterns, internal rhymes or alliterations.

As with TS Eliot: the parts I remember all have these traditional poetic characteristics.