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.