Saturday, October 23, 2010

Poetry and Prose: Against Distinctions, Against Poets and Prosers

I've been told before that I should consider turning my latest novel into prose poetry, on the basis that it is sometimes "very poetic" (and, implicitly, therefore not proseful). I find this a very strange comment. On the one hand, clearly what they were expressing was a sense that the writing was in an awkward or transitional place, that it wasn't quite working on its own terms yet. This is useful knowledge and it was good to hear, and in the sections troubled by this issue I have revisions to do.

There is also an underlying idea that there are inherently poetic structures and inherently prosaic structures. I suppose this is true in the sense that when I see a linebreak I think "that's probably a poem" and when I don't I am inclined to call it prose or, sometimes, prose poetry. And what is prose poetry? It's prose that sounds poemy, I guess. It is probably not very long. Often prose poetry is really only bad prose -- it takes the form of a very small story, without any commitment to precision, structure, character, or any other constraint. In other words, a prose poem could be defined as prose that accomplishes nothing, language strictly for the sake of language (but not enough). (Flash is the more or less the same.)

There are poetry workshops where it is often said that a given poem or sentence structure or style or image is "not poetic." The people who say this can never define what is "poetic," and to the extent that it is necessary to be poetic, it seems only to be because they are poets in a poetry workshop writing poems. It is necessary then to write poetic poemy poems, but it is not necessary to know what those are, what it means, etc.

This is less common in prose workshops, partly because there is less of an idea of the practitioners as the priesthood of a dying God. (Though straight-up literary writers increasingly seem to share this anxiety as their preferred forms and styles become increasingly decrepit.) It does, however, happen that there are moments wherein the distinction is reinforced from the other side. "This could be a lovely prose poem, but it's not fiction." Often of course what we are really saying is that the thing is ugly or ineffective, that it needs to be fixed on a very fundamental level, but we are too kind or too cowardly to say this directly. But I think that we need to stop saying it.

There are people who might agree with much of what I've said here who, as a result, use terms like "texts" to describe their work. I believe at least one of our contributors uses such terminology. I am sympathetic to this but I disagree with it, because the virtue of "text" (that it has no meaning, that it can refer to literally anything one can be said to "read") is also its downfall: a "text" is like a poem or prose in that it needn't accomplish anything beyond existence. It makes no promises and no commitments to its reader. Note that no one says "I am a proser." No one says, "I make proses." People say they write essays, memoir, or stories. These words all contain commitments.

What I am saying is that it may be time for people to stop being poets. It may be time for us to stop writing poetry, and it may also be time for us to stop writing prose. What I would propose in place of poetry, in place of texts, in place of prose, is "stories." We should write stories. We could also use "essays." Essays are a real category. It's a word that means something.

This is meant to be an inflammatory post, but I should clarify that. A story can be very nearly anything. It demands essentially one thing: development. You don't need a character for a story, you don't need a setting, you don't need a theme or anything really beyond a sequence that creates interest and then develops that interest in some way. You could do this with linebreaks or without. You could do this by using characters or by using not-characters. It doesn't matter, really, how you do it. If it's not in some sense a story, then that doesn't make it a poem -- remember, "poem" doesn't mean anything -- it makes it a puzzle, perhaps, or a drawing, or an "experience," or a laser light show. (Of course, most laser light shows are stories.) It might even be music. But it's not a poem. Nothing is.

It's been interesting writing some of my recent short projects, some of which are poems to the extent that anything is a poem, because most magazines make you declare your work poetry or prose. Sometimes I'm really not sure what to do. My strategy is ultimately that I submit to whatever category the thing looks most similar to, or wherever I think it will be best received. It's a marketing strategy, which really we all know; there are people that only like to read fiction, people that only like to read nonfiction, and people that only like to read poems, and these people are often the mid-level readers at your favorite magazine. There's a reason these categories exist, and there's a reason they'll continue existing, and there's a reason I sometimes talk about "writing poetry" even though I don't really believe in the category.

In the long term I think that we would become more rigorous readers and writers, and more interesting human beings, if we combined it all. We should workshop everything together if we have to workshop, and this way instead of worrying about whether something is poetic enough or whether it's proper fiction, we can talk about how it works. We shouldn't cordon the one category from the other in literary magazines or anywhere, and once we've done this we can actually read for once. If poets didn't insist they were poets, if they didn't insist they were writing poetry, then people might read poetry again. They might even enjoy themselves. You'll notice if you go to the submissions page that while we do want poetry, we don't have submission categories in our Submishmash page. We did that without discussion -- it was intuitive. Why we should want to divide the many strategies available to us as writers into two overlapping but distinct categories when we could make everything instead is beyond my comprehension.


  1. Prose is words into sentences and paragraphs. Poetry is words into lines and stanzas. What do the lines and stanzas (which prose does not have) do? They are measures of rhythm, a way of juxtaposing words and a way of interrupting syntax. Now prose poems differ from flash fiction, or fiction in general, in that the grammar bends to the writer, their rhythms, their juxtapositions, and their syntax, to reach an end that is entirely up to the writer. I would say in flash, that fiction is key. So it must be fake, that it cannot be non-fiction. Poems don't have that restraint. They are real and they can be not real.
    hmm, other things too. idk.

  2. Man, you can do all the stuff you just said about poetry in a story. The Last Samurai, for example.

  3. I think there's a practical difference. What my brain must do to read prose feels different than what it must to read poems. But either way I'm not convinced there's anything to gain by combining it. Why would someone who was not a rigorous reader of "poems" or "prose" suddenly become such once we call them all stories?

    That said it's not like the distinction is all that important. Poetry tends to be more figurative and more condensed in meaning. Sometimes it's neither one of those things. That's OK.

    I think the terms are inevitable. If you combined it all there would always be some shorthand for "piece that is usually longer, more conversational" and "piece that is more akin to a condensed figurative utterance."

    It seems like your main problem is with pretentious poets and those who give wishywashy advice. Sadly those types are pretty much facts of life. . .

  4. But if we're proposing new catch-all terms, then: Alligator. "I finished writing a new Alligator today!" "Did you read King's latest Alligator yet?"