From Iceland — Poetry and Prose

Poetry and Prose

Published December 22, 2009

Poetry and Prose

The difference between poetry and prose?
Poetry sings, prose talks. Poetry dances, prose walks. Poetry’s fewer words with more (“deeper”) meaning. Poetry’s about form while prose is about content. Poetry’s the memory and prose the remembrance. Poetry’s constructed in lines, whereas prose is constructed in paragraphs.
    Don’t know, but I know it when I see it!
    The amount of clichés about the difference between poetry and prose is quite sufficient. Abundant, even. In all honesty, there’s boatloads and shitloads of opinions on the matter. There’s so much of it that when you start acquainting yourself with the ideas you’d wish you’d never heard of either one.
    The clichés are mostly as true as they’re untrue. Poetry sings, but it also talks—the Persian word for “poetic body of work” is “kalam”, which literally means “talk” in Arabic. Poetry dances, but it also walks. There’s a million walking poems, from Wordsworth to T.S. Eliot to John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. Sarah Cullen’s Maps is a series of visual poems created by a pendulum device—a box with a swinging pen inside that wrote the poems while the poet took walks in Florence.
    A lot of conceptual poetry is more words with less apparent meaning—some conceptual poems are computer engines that produce infinite amounts of texts with no apparent meaning. Most war poetry or love poetry is more about content than form and many so-called proseworks, such as Joyce’s Ulysses or Stein’s The Making of Americans, have a lot more to do with form than content.
    Hal Sirowitz’ poetry books Mother Said and Father Said are the remembrance, whereas Proust’s prose masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu, is memory. The most instantly recognisable feature of poetry, for any layman at least, is the line-breaking. Poetry tends to be cut into short lines. The French poet Jacques Roubaud has called it le vers libre international—international free verse, a plague on all your houses—in effect nothing more than lineated prose and not poetry at all. Of course you don’t have to read a lot of poetry, or be acquainted with any radical avant-garde, to realise that much poetry is not divided into short lines. Take Ginsberg or Whitman, Rimbaud or Octavio Paz. Sometimes they get classified as “prose poems”, but a lot of the time such a definition proves seriously lacking.
    The American poet James Sherry once pointed out that a piece of paper has a definite economic value. Paper is a commodity that can be sold for profit in the marketplace. The production cost is lower than the selling price. Sherry also noted that when you print a poem on it, this value is lost. Sherry’s colleague and friend, Charles Bernstein, calculated that a print-run of 2000 copies of a poetry book from Sun & Moon Press, that sells out in two years, actually loses money.
    This does not go for prose. When you print prose on a piece of paper, it actually increases in economic value. Isn’t that amazing?
    Which leads me to the only usable explanation of the difference between poetry and prose that I’ve come across so far (after about a decade of looking):
If the text that you’ve written sells for less than it cost you to produce it, chances are you’re not a novelist but a poet.  

Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl’s third novel, Gæska (Kindness), has just been published by Mál & menning.

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