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The Difference Between Prose and Poetry

October 14, 2016

 

Classically, prose is defined as a form of language based on grammatical structure and the natural flow of speech. It is normally contrasted with poetry or verse which is said to depend on a rhythmic structure, using meter or rhyme. Spoken dialogue, factual discourse, and a whole range of forms of writing normally use prose: literature, journalism, history, philosophy, encyclopedias, film and law rely upon it for the bulk of what they have to say.

 

The word ‘prose’ first appears in English in the 14th century and comes from the Old French prose. This originates in the Latin expression prosa oratio, which means literally, 'straightforward or direct speech'. Prose tends to comprise of full grammatical sentences, building to paragraphs; poetry typically contains a metrical scheme and often some element of rhyme.

 

In fact, though, observation reveals that, rather than separate entities, they are part of a spectrum of communication using words.

 

At one end of the spectrum, we have a highly precise, usually much shorter and concentrated focus not only on the choice of particular words, their meanings and their sounds, but also upon the gaps between them. The gaps, holes, absences or vacuums both in sound and in meaning create the pulse of attention which we call rhythm. At the other end, we have an often imprecise, usually much longer and less concentrated pattern of words in which meanings and sounds are looser, and the gaps between them less significant. Rhythm plays a less important role.

 

As Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined the two, prose is ‘words in their best order; poetry - the best words in their best order.’ If one requires less attention from a reader to achieve what one has to say, one can safely use prose; if, however, one is keen to transmit an exact and intense experience, one tends to move towards the poetic end of the spectrum.

 

A good example of this is the poem ‘Where I Come From’ by Canadian poet Elizabeth Brewster. Written in free verse, the poem does not have any rhyme scheme. In fact, it reads almost like prose:

 

People are made of places. They carry with them

hints of jungles or mountains, a tropic grace

or the cool eyes of sea gazers. Atmosphere of cities

how different drops from them, like the smell of smog

or the almost-not-smell of tulips in the spring,

nature tidily plotted with a guidebook;

or the smell of work, glue factories maybe,

chromium-plated offices; smell of subways

crowded at rush hours.

 

Where I come from, people

carry woods in their minds, acres of pine woods;

blueberry patches in the burned-out bush;

wooden farmhouses, old, in need of paint,

with yards where hens and chickens circle about,

clucking aimlessly; battered schoolhouses

behind which violets grow. Spring and winter

are the mind's chief seasons: ice and the breaking of ice.

 

A door in the mind blows open, and there blows

a frosty wind from fields of snow.

 

If prose is the better medium for conveying philosophical ideas, then the opening of ‘Where I Come From’ opens with a simple enough proposition: ‘People are made of places. They carry with them/hints of jungles or mountains, a tropic grace/or the cool eyes of sea gazers.’ However, there are already clear signs that this is not simple prose: the juxtaposition of images is not something prose generally uses in this way: ‘hints of jungles or mountains’, for example, would be said differently were one to extract any ‘poetry’ from it. The grace is ‘tropic’; the eyes of the sea gazers are ‘cool’. These aesthetic injections immediately differentiate this from a commonplace statement.

 

The next sign that what we are reading is not prose comes in the following lines:

 

Atmosphere of cities

how different drops from them, like the smell of smog

or the almost-not-smell of tulips in the spring

 

in which prose syntax has been subtly altered: ‘how different’ doesn’t fit in there in prose terms; the ‘almost-not-smell of tulips’ shows a more careful playing with words than a piece of prose writing. It is precisely these differences, these variations from an expected prose line, which create the tiny vacuums or gaps which draw in our attention more fully than had the writer said something like ‘the atmosphere of cities drops from them in a different fashion’ or ‘the very faint smell of tulips clings to them’. The word ‘drops’ and the sound at the end of ‘tulips’ indicate scrupuo engineering.

 

A little further down, the lines 

 

the smell of work, glue factories maybe,

chromium-plated offices; smell of subways

crowded at rush hours

 

slip toward prose. Our olfactory sense is engaged, has it has been since ‘Atmosphere’ was mentioned, but otherwise the appeal is to the well-recognised. Here, Brewster draws on the common experiences of most of her readers, who will know the scent of ‘chromium-plated offices’, if not of ‘glue factories’. The universally-experienced (for the city dweller) ‘smell of subways/crowded at rush hour’ has the effect of evoking that experience while also suggesting that it is indeed universal.

 

And that is the point. Brewster’s first stanza is aimed at opening up the familiar hollowness of modern existence; her second stanza, like the sestet of a sonnet, then fills that hollowness with the vibrancy of a different kind of life:

 

Where I come from, people

carry woods in their minds, acres of pine woods;

 

The repetition of ‘woods’ and the expansion of the image to ‘acres of pine woods’ transforms the emptiness created by the first stanza into a space richly filled. Using the poetic tools of alliteration and assonance, the poet evokes a visual scene:

 

blueberry patches in the burned-out bush;

wooden farmhouses, old, in need of paint,

with yards where hens and chickens circle about,

clucking aimlessly; battered schoolhouses

behind which violets grow

 

‘Blueberry’ and ‘violet’ splash colour; the age of the farmhouses, their ‘need of paint’ and the circling about of chickens ‘clucking aimlessly’, the ‘battered schoolhouses’ are in subtle opposition to the ‘chromium-plated’ offices and the tightly-controlled subway.

 

We are further away from prose, despite the lack of rhyme or distinct rhythm: more care has been chosen in selecting words that have shrewd differences in meaning. The fertility of these images, the depth of significance plumbed - even the choice of ‘violets’ as the flower often symbolising death -  indicate a move toward a more meticulous word-choreography than a prose writer would normally utilise. 

 

Of course, the same point that she makes - her longing for a simpler and more natural life, orientated to the ‘Spring and winter’ of ‘the mind's chief seasons’ - ‘ice and the breaking of ice’ in the rural Canada of her youth - could be made with prose too. A significance-heavy ‘literary’ prose could capture almost exactly the same longing that this poem elicits, expressed most succinctly in its last lines, with its repetition of ‘blows’ and the almost-rhyming ‘snow’:   

 

A door in the mind blows open, and there blows

a frosty wind from fields of snow.

 

But poetry is more ‘glue-like’: a prose passage could transmit ideas, even images, perhaps even the subtle beauty of the poem, but the poet wants to stick readers to her own experience. And the way to do that is through the vacuums more evident at the poetic end of the spectrum.

 

For much more about poetry and prose, visit Writing and Publishing World here.

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