Wednesday 13 October 2021

Prose and Poetry (The Dark Horse 44)

In The Dark Horse 44, Edna Longley has an article entitled "Holding the Line: Prose and Poetry: A Pendantic Argument". She writes -

  • "This essay ... starts from the premise that to classify Citizen as 'poetry' raises significant questions"
  • "why did Rankine publish Citizen as 'poetry' rather than as 'hybrid' collage or simply a 'book'? ... if you seek freedoms beyond 'free' verse, what is wrong with calling it 'prose'? In effect, the word 'poetry' retains a prestige or mystique divorced from poetry's actual marginalised cultural status"
  • "Perhaps marginalisation, as well as commitment, leads poets to embrace material that might be thought 'prosaic': to bulk up their work by reclaiming narrative or discursive territory largely abandoned in the late nineteenth century"
  • "'flow' is a verb that desperate students use in their essays on poetry"
  • "apart from metre, no verbal 'techniques and devices' belong exclusively to poetry ... it's just that poetry's 'elliptical intensity' combines more of them simultaneously"
  • "One of the effects of losing the line break is losing the provisionality that poetry achieves, the sense of a mind at work" (Nick Laird)

She compares two passages by Edward Thomas -

  • "She never talks of it, but I wonder how much of the garden she will remember, the hedge with the old damson trees topping it, the vegetable rows, the path bending round the house corner, the old man's beard opposite the door, and me sometimes forbidding her to touch it, if she lives to my years"
  • Not a word she says;
    And I can only wonder how much hereafter
    She will remember, with that bitter scent,
    Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees
    Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door,
    A low thick bush beside the door, and me
    Forbidding her to pick

She then compares a prose and a poetry passage by Ciaran Carson. She thinks he "may be a unique case of a poet actually perched on the frontier"

I go along with Wittgenstein's idea that to understand a definition, one needs to know its purpose. To use an analogy: the Male/Female distinction used in athletics isn't the same as the one to determine state pension age. Being classified as Female for one doesn't mean one's classified as Female for the other. So why was Citizen marketed as poetry? One can try to assess whether it conforms to some common notions of poetry by measuring the density of certain linguistic features, but it's not a reliable metric. Maybe it was classified as such to be provocative or attention-seeking; to have a chance of winning poetry prizes; to escape the QA that prose would be subject to.

If someone wants to get Aunt Maud, who likes a bit of poetry, a book for Xmas, they might depend on the publishers' classifications to decide what book to get. I think Citizen is far enough from the expected norms for there to be a suspicion that the book falls foul of the trade descriptions act. For pages at a time it's not poetry.

To be fair, many poetry books have pages that, but for line-breaks, would be Flash, or anecdotal mini-articles. Short texts, whether they're "prose" or "poetry", are likely to have several features in common - economy; hidden meanings, etc. - and prevailing fashion (rather than any intrinsic qualities) will determinethe format. The problem really is that very few single-author books are openly a mix of poetry and prose. I think John Updike produced one, but they're a marketing nightmare.

In short, I don't think that Citizen has redefined our notions of poetry. It's an example of how genre can be used as a marketing ploy.

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