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poetry and prose - Sidney Beck's Blog

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poetry and prose


Blog Posted:12/11/2011 10:55:00 AM

I read with great interest Cyndi McMillan’s blog recently about poetry and prose , and couldn’t resist saying a few words.

There is much emotional mumbo jumbo spoken about what the difference is between poetry and prose. People will pontificate about verse and rhyme, and notions of assonance and metaphor…..even really intelligent poets like Stephen Fry in his books spend a deal of time skirting around the essence of what poetry is.

First let us examine what poetry is NOT. It is not a work of lines and verses, although it often appears in this form. It is not essentially a rhyming structure of words, although it often takes this shape. It is not highly emotional, nor does it have a tendency to be over-descriptive, although sometimes these traits are seen. It does not deal with “deep” topics which only the erudite or self-styled experts can understand. It does not require extensive knowledge of the work of other poets and critics. Sometimes, of course, such topics and the work of other poets are dealt with in poetry. And it needs no strict formula such as poems/haiku'>haiku or limerick or sonnet to express itself .

Now we can imagine what poetry really is. Poetry is written language where the power of words is intensified so that the reader may “see” a new meaning every time he reads the poem. Each word is deliberately selected to be ambiguous. Great poetry like Shakespeare’s or Keats’s is well understood t o have multiple meanings depending on the reader’s point of view. Simple poetry like that of a child
has perhaps only one possible meaning. Even in organisations such as Poetry Soup, the prizes usually go to poems which have the most possible meanings. Poetry buffs love “double meanings” or multiple meanings. Multiple meanings can arise from the word itself such as “saw” which means the past tense of “see” but also means “a tool to cut wood”. Thus, “I saw the wood” means what? Meanings can also be hinted at by the positioning of the word at the end of a line. Or repeating it three lines below etc. Meaning also arises from the accepted practice of changing normal word order. For example “a big black dog’ may be written poetically as “a dog big and black”. Endless examples could be cited. It is this possibility of multiple meanings that drives people t ore-read Shakespeare over and over again, because they see new meaning s in it every time.

Prose is written language where the meaning of each word is clear and unambiguous. Poetry is written language where the meaning of each word is deliberately unclear and ambiguous. I have read novels( prose) which were plainly very poetic. And I have read many “poems” where the writer was really expressing prose ideas, as are commonly found, for example, in narrative “poems”. The writing of poetry is therefore essentially easy, but is made to seem more difficult by the self-styled experts who can utter the mumbo jumbo.


Let me tell you a short story about similar mumbo jumbo in music. Years ago, I wanted to learn to play the violin, so I advertised for a teacher. First thing she tried to do was insist on me learning scales and knowing all about B flat and F major and god-knows-what-else. I said “No, just show me where the fingers go in this tune , and I will pick it up from there.” She said, “It’s impossible.” But she showed me the finger positions. Two weeks later I played the violin in a folk music concert, no problem. Playing the instrument is actually easy….it’s no problem, it’s easier than the guitar. The problem arises in the mumbo jumbo of learning B flat and do ra me fa etc. Unnecessary hindrances to music. I have played now for twenty years, and still don’t know my F sharps from my C majors, but many people have enjoyed my playing.

Don’t be afraid to write your poem….it is your own view of the world in your own poetic way, and who will stand up and say it is unworthy? And the more you write, and hear people’s views, the more rapidly you will learn better poetic techniques.

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Date: 12/13/2011 6:03:00 PM
yup as one who doesn't read music and would not hear a sound if she did I totally agree in the disconnect between the ability to make pleasing music and understanding the notation!
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Date: 12/13/2011 7:06:00 AM
Hi Friend this blog is very informative for me thanks for this blog. http://www.heypoetry.com/cate/love-poems.aspx
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Date: 12/12/2011 10:20:00 AM
Syd, A note on the ambiguity of words. I love ambiguity. Quite often humor rests on the fact that something is ambiguous and can have more than one meaning. This is a staple of what I do when writing a funny poem. When the writing intentionally misdirects the reader so a fast one can be pulled it is so a laugh can be bought with the misinterpretation of the word or phrase. However, I quite often will employ this same technique to my prose. I am currently posting a story that I have written that is anything but poetry and I still use the ambiguity of words and situations to mislead my audience so when the mystery is finally revealed they can say, "why didn't I see that coming? It was right in front of us the whole time." (If I've done my job properly they will.) Also, in my poetry, sometimes I set out to illuminate a higher truth, (don't let anyone know this fact), but sometimes I am just telling a story that happens to rhyme. The words mean just what i want them to mean and nothing else.
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Date: 12/12/2011 8:35:00 AM
(rewrite) yes some prose is poetic I said the same thing .....as to Liz Wesley yes her meaning may certainly be gleaned at first glance.....but a deeper meaning is always to be found and you dont have t ohave a brain transplant hahaha good to chat Syd
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Date: 12/12/2011 8:33:00 AM
ooops the soup software has eaten half of my reply i wil l re write it ....
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Date: 12/12/2011 8:32:00 AM
, I agree, but they likely have another meaning as well, and it doesnt need a brain transplant hahaha.....good to chat....Syd
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Date: 12/12/2011 5:56:00 AM
Sydney, I'm still not sold 100%. I think it's this line that I would love to sit across from you and discuss for HOURS, "Poetry is written language where the meaning of each word is deliberately unclear and ambiguous" Each word? Nah, I say. I reread some of my favourite poets, classic as well as the voices here, on the Soup. Some seem crystal clear in their intent. Take Elizabeth Wesley here. Here poems DO have layers, a certain mystery, but they do not leave one feeling like they have to do a brain workout to read. Emotionally they collapse the reader. I am left in a puddle. BECAUSE I UNDERSTAND HER. Not because she's played the riddle me this, batman, game. That being said, look at Chris Aechtner's stuff. Riddles galore and rich, too! PS- as a writer of stories, a prose writer, I TOO often use ambiguity in my non-genre work. And I've read other books by wonderful authors who do this as well. Prose can be poetic.
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Date: 12/11/2011 9:12:00 PM
Wow! So I just finished reading and commenting on Cyndi's blog about how it's better for me to decide what something isn't than what it is. And then I come here and you're taking exactly that approach.. how cool is THAT!? I like your analysis and really dig the musical metaphorism, nicely done, Syd! Beauty week to ya, namaste~N
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Date: 12/11/2011 4:55:00 PM
Ah Thanks Sidney that was well worth a read :) xx
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Date: 12/11/2011 1:08:00 PM
Great blog and I'm so happy that I tickled this out of you. :-) Im not sure if I agree yet, about ambiguous nature of poetry. I need to chew on that a while, but I do like your position and can understand your points. Will get back to you, chum, when laundry is done and my tot is asleep... thinking...thinking... hmmmm
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Date: 12/11/2011 1:07:00 PM
Thanks for this informative blog, Sidney. I've often wondered bout the difference between prose and poetry. I've had no "formal" instruction or training in poetry, other than what I learned in high school (many, many, many years ago). That's why I like this site so much. So many diverse styles and ideas. I'm learning alot. Kim
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Date: 12/11/2011 11:51:00 AM
Sidney, a very interesting blog, I did the same with a piano..David
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