Over the years there have been many occasions when I have heard somebody ranting about the superiority of prose, particularly fiction,over poetry. By contrast, rarely have I heard anyone suggesting that poetry is superior to fictional prose. Does this say something about the supporters of one as opposed to those of the other? Is there an underlying difference between fans on prose and fans of poetry, and are fans of poetry, as an audience, more mature and open-minded?
I would venture to say there may be a little of this involved, but only a very little. My hunch is this: that people who value poetry will, by and large, value prose too as those who enjoy and are able to read poetry will also have the ability to enjoy and read prose. By contrast there is a distinct possibility that those who enjoy prose will not, by necessity, understand poetry. Poetry and prose are entirely different breeds of art which are like largely only in that they share the same tools.
I have heard it said that poetry is for those who cannot write sustained prose, and that the real skill of an author is in writing at length while retaining depth and keeping the reader interested. However, I would immediately like to interject on this point. For whoever holds any such opinion is missing something of dazzling clarity: what kind of prose writer is able to write at length in a manner or style akin to most poetry?
Poetrys aim is different to that of prose, and in this difference is in no way lesser to the skill of writing prose. Most poems want to convey with great weight a particular issue in a way which calls for the readers close attention. It is this attention which grants the poem a great emotional force without a huge narrative to underpin it.
The answer to the question: is prose superior to poetry? is that prose and poetry are two distinct entities which are relatively incomparable but which both require degrees of astuteness and skill in their authors if they are to be successful. Writers of poetry are just as skilled as writers of prose, and its worth remembering that many poets are also successful authors (such as Leonard Cohen). As such, the view that a prose author is superior to one of poetry says more about the knowledge and capacities of the one holding the view than it does about any real differences between the two literary forms.
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