Thursday 29 September 2016

Poetry in prose - its rarity

Poetry in verse is - by my understanding - rare: very rare.

I have a thing which I recognise as poetry - I can point at the passages where it occurs; and this thing is seldom found. Most 'poets' never once achieve it, and among the true poets, it is only ever to be found occasionaly or intermittently (and of some, I cannot decide).

But poetry in prose can happen too. How may it be defined? Well, most prose - almost all prose - is about things; but poetic prose is the thing itself: poetic prose is that which it describes.

Many writers strive for, or contrive to, impersonate poetic prose, by rhetorical tricks. And they may 'fool' us for a while (and the prose writers may also fool themselves that they have actually achieved poetry); but genuinely poetic prose is far beyond most prose writers, and repeated reading will reveal this, if it is allowed to.

The main repository of poetic prose in the English Language is in the Authorised ('King James') Version of the Bible. And there is also some in Shakespeare's plays. From the next generation, the 'Centuries' of Thomas Traherne stand-out. In the modern era, if we compare CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien; it seems clear to me that Lewis never writes poetic prose, but Tolkien sometimes does.

Interestingly. I first became aware of the distinction between poetry and prose in the prose writings of Roberts Graves (such as The White Goddess) - yet Graves's own prose is always prosaic (superb in quality, but always 'about' - never 'it' - and indeed the same applies to his verse: it never rises to real poetry (although Grave's himself hotly asserted otherwise).

My understanding is that real poetry, whether found in verse or in prose, is rare, intermittent, uncontrollable, and only somewhat related to overall literary quality (some genuine poetry is found among minor poets like WH Davies or Walter de la Mare, while absent from major writers like WH Auden or TS Eliot).

We live on prose, it is our bread-and-butter - our staple diet - but poetry is there if we are open to it. What poetry 'does' is hard to say; mostly it points to the sheer possibility of itself - of language also being what language is about. A world where people communicated in poetry rather than prose would certainly be a better place!


Nicholas Fulford said...

But poetry in prose can happen too. How may it be defined? Well, most prose - almost all prose - is about things; but poetic prose is the thing itself: poetic prose is that which it describes.

Alright, I will have a crack at it. No promises about the quality, just the form.

The Art of BE-ing

Be alive
Be alive to experience
Be alive to joys and sorrows
Be alive to all that life brings your way
Be alive to engagement

Be dead
Be dead to hate
Be dead to indifference
Be dead to the ego’s cries for more, more, more
Be dead to every irrational fear

Be present
Be present to nature
Be present to beauty
Be present to suffering
Be present to joy

Be absent
Be absent to resentment
Be absent to envy
Be absent to obsession
Be absent to anxiety

Be authentic
Be whole
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Be kind


Anonymous said...

stephen c said - without looking it up, I can remember 2 places where Lewis wrote prose that struck me with all the force of poetry - somewhere early in his autobiography, he makes something like a brutal vow of complete forgiveness of all of those who were senior to him and disliked him in a nasty way at boarding school, noting the Fates that destroyed so many of them on the Western Front - the "vow" nature of those lines makes it so poetically effective - and there are four or five lines, maybe more, in the bus queue at the beginning of the Great Divorce that are actually better, at what they do, than anything Dante - a real poet, most people would say - said at the beginning of the Inferno about our first moments after death. Not pleasant violets and roses poetry in either case! I like the description of Heaven near the end of the Narnia chronicles, too, but I can see why someone would call that particular passage words "about" something rather than words "as" something - even if the something is remarkably and heartbreakingly wonderful. Although, having read up about the literary influences on Narnia, and having read some of the works Lewis was paying tribute to, that passage closely reminds me of George McDonald, who was always veering into poetry... maybe if I read it right now I would say that it *is* the rare poetry you are talking about, Bruce.