Saturday, 24 September 2016

"Prose" and "poetry" again

  • Reading Sunshine by Melissa Lee-Houghton (much of which I liked) made me think again about "poetic language" vs "the language of the mentally ill". The non-standard twists, turns and dis-inhibition that characterise some forms of mental illness can have a strong initial impact, displaying features common to poetic language, but it also lacks features (conciseness, unity) that are common to poetic language. Thanks to new treatments we're less exposed than we used to be to schizophrenic or manic language, and hence perhaps we have trouble assessing its literary merit.
  • Reading Citizen (Claudia Rankine) and "Grief is the thing with feathers" (Porter) have made me think again about the prose-poetry spectrum. I'm surprised the "Citizen" was thought eligible for a poetry prize. Certainly some of the book is, but (equally certainly?) some of it isn't.
  • Reading Jonathan Edwards' "My Family and Other Superheroes" (much of which I liked) I thought that many of the texts were poetic without being poems, much as the Mona Lisa could be considered poetic without being a poem. They don't use language as a medium - the words don't warp the thoughts and the thoughts don't distort the language. The language is transparent, letting us see through to the poetic value.
    Was it market forces that made it into a poetry book? It contains a sestina and a villanelle, and books that combine poetry and poetry aren't popular, so I guess the poetry tag is sensible. And besides, the term "poetry" still has an aura that (say) "micro-literature" lacks.

Again, we see the use and abuse of categories. I find the terms "prose" and "poetry" (and come to that "mainstream") useful as short-hand descriptions, but there are situations (competitions, for example, or bookshops) when a text must be assigned to either the "prose" or "poetry" category. It's analogous to the problem in sports when competitors must be either male or female even if in other situations they'd prefer to be undefined.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could stop petty pigeon-holing and just have "Text competitions" instead of "Poetry competitions" and "Story competitions"! Actually, I think some poetry competitions are already "text competitions" in practice, the only limitation being the number of lines. And the Costa Award eventually matches poetry against prose. However, I can't help thinking that category-based competitions will never die out, just as female-only sports won't die out. I'd be wary of entering a "Text competition" - I'm already dubious about the judges' range of aesthetic sensibilities. Besides, most readers prefer to have a rough idea of what's between the covers before they browse or buy - many novel readers don't want to read poetry.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I, for one, am very much in favour of doing away with the dividing line between poetry and prose. It used to be obvious and in some cases still is—who would suggest for a second a sonnet is not a poem?—but ever since form took a back seat and end rhymes went out the window about the only thing that distinguishes poetry from prose is the line break and where are those during a poetry recital? Meaning should be the measure in my opinion and I know some poets sniff at meaning but if they want to be read by more than a handful they need to get off their high horse. If there is a distinction between poetry and prose nowadays it probably all boils down to accessibility which is odd because poetry (and by ‘poetry’ I mean ‘metaphor’) is the bedrock of language and it beats me why most of us struggle with what’s presented to us as poetry. Maybe it’s just bad poetry. Or bad writing.