Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Prose/Poetry - ten comments

  1. Most of the time I don't classify texts - I just read and enjoy them.
  2. If I buy a novel and it turns out to be haiku, I'd ask for my money back. If I enter a poetry competition and the winning entry looks like a Daily Mirror sports report I'd be grumpy.
  3. Judging by many book lovers I know, the poetry/prose divide matters. Even experienced prose readers/writers often can't abide poetry. In books with mixed poetry and prose (John Updike wrote one) half the book would be waste of money for them.
  4. Conventionally, if people have to classify a text as prose or poetry, they look at the vocabulary, sound effects, shape on the page, discontinuities, length etc. Clearly there are grey areas, and the classification shifts over the centuries, but for many texts the classification is clear enough.
  5. People often classify so that they know how to interpret the text. Poetic features lend themselves to a poetry mode of reading - tolerance of ambiguity, awareness of linguistic effects etc.
  6. When an author asserts that a text is "Poetry", the reader's likely to start reading it in a "poetry-reading" mode. If they discover that reading it that way is inappropriate, they might shift their approach, wondering what the author's game is. If they're a poetry judge, they might play safe and reject the piece categorically.
  7. In the last decade or so, there's been an increasing amount of outlets for short texts, bridging the gap between prose and poetry. 20 years ago, a short anecdotal piece with a moral twist at the end had to be presented as a free-form poem to get published. Now we have Flash, etc. In the past anything with a form (e.g. abcedarian, shopping list) or a "Found" piece could only be published as a poem. That's no longer true.
  8. Poetry magazines are more open to poetry-without-linebreaks than they used to be. And it seems to be a rule for debut collections that they should contain at least one piece without line-breaks.
  9. Book classifications are looser now. Novels like Max Porter's "Grief is the thing with Feathers" has many poetic aspects (indeed, I'd say it was more poetic than Rankine's "Citizen", that won poetry prizes). Saunders' novel "Lincoln in the Bardo" has passages of multiple, unattributed voices.
  10. Consequently nowadays writers have more freedom, and readers need to be more agile. With freedom come responsibility. For example, I think there's less excuse for producing texts that look like "prose with line-breaks". And readers are less likely to give poetic license to a work which though presented as poetry, seems to be like prose - they're likely to switch to a prose mode of interpretation. Experimental poetry may be fairly mainstream literary prose.


  1. I have a poem sitting on my desktop at the moment which includes the line, “This is not a poem, merely a thing shaped like a poem.” It has the provisional title ‘Thin Gestures (Soap Gun)’ and I have no idea where that came from. I’ve googled it and nothing; I’m baffled. I’ve never written a poem without line breaks. The closest I came was the poem ‘High Windows’ which was fully justified to look like a window and that was the thing the editor who rejected it commented on; he couldn’t see what it added. I think that’s the key word for me when it comes to format: What does it add to the text? It’s like capital letters at the beginning of lines. Yes, it’s old-fashioned but personally I think it distracts the reader. That’s what’s always puzzled me about Larkin. He said, when asked, that poetry should be punctuated the same and prose and yet he still capitalised the first letter of every line. Of course he was old-fashioned in most ways subject matter aside. The first prose poems I ever read were, oddly enough, by Solzhenitsyn and I couldn’t fathom what made then not tiny stories. I’ve never written anything I’d describe as a prose poem either. I would like to but when I remove line breaks the poems never look right; they lose something. I think it all boils down to your point 6. I don’t want there to be any doubt how to read the text. A poem doesn’t have to look like a poem but it doesn’t hurt if it does. Interestingly enough I am reading a book of prose pieces and poems by Jim Dodge at the moment. So far it’s working okay but that might be because his poetry is a little on the prosaic side.

    1. Much of the time I don't really want readers to be distracted by the format of my pieces, which is why I tend to make them look like other people's - regular box-shaped stanzas. If I got rid of the line-breaks (which would be more honest) it would look I'm trying to make a point.