Strange Brouhaha

Monday, August 28, 2006

Prose and poetry

I had the misfortune to read a thread on an Internet forum recently about "the difference between prose and poetry". There was a problem, you see, with people submitting prose under the poetry category and vice versa. The forum moderator said, basically, "here is the difference between prose and poetry" (that would be the "logical and CLEAR difference") and posted two samples.

The prose was a piece by William S. Burroughs--the beginning of "Feedback from Watergate to the Garden of Eden"--which sounded a heck of a lot like modern poetry (although it's not). The poem was a bit of ABAB from Shakespeare.

Chaos ensues; "poetry HAS TO RHYME" and "prose is anything not presented with linebreaks" and "prose is not poetry and poetry is not prose" and my personal, depressing favorite "I write a lot and I've never heard of prose."

I'm sure that they had a real problem with people submitting things in the wrong category, but...come on. Don't people go to school any more? In my opinion, which isn't worth much, the lines are so blurred that it's hard to tell anymore, especially with free verse and the prose poem. I think a much more useful definition (more useful, at any rate, than the "no definition at all" that was provided) would have to start with the idea that a poem uses language specifically for its aesthetic qualities, while prose uses language specifically for its communicative qualities.

"Poetry has to rhyme." Sheesh. What part of "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix" rhymes?

And saying that the TYPESETTING makes a poem a poem is just as ridiculous:

It was the best of times,
It was the worst of times,
It was the age of wisdom,
It was the age of foolishness,
It was the epoch of belief,
It was the epoch of incredulity,
It was the season of Light,
It was the season of Despair,
It was the spring of hope,
It was the winter of despair,
We had everything before us,
We had nothing before us,
We were all going direct to Heaven,
We were all going direct the other way--
In short,
The period was
so far
like the present period,
that some of its noisiest
insisted on its being
for good or for evil,
in the superlative degree of comparison

And yes, I chose those two examples deliberately: The longest run-on sentence in the history of the known universe ("Howl") is still a poem even though it doesn't rhyme, and "A Tale Of Two Cities" is still prose (and boring) even though the opening almost sounds like it could be a poem.

What really frustrated me were all the people who were saying "Well, duh, the difference is obvious," when it clearly isn't, with no attempt at all to make a stab at concrete definitions for either. I know I can't really have high expectations for the Internet, but it was still pretty disappointing.


  • I ain't one for poetry. I ain't one for prose. One fact I do know. I sure get a kick out of that Beavis and Butthead show. ;)

    (FP with a props to Prof. Claypool)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:20 AM  

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