W. H. Auden defined poetry as “the clear expression of mixed feelings” – but must this description apply to poetry alone?
By Diana Kobetic, Associate Arts and Culture Editor
“There are no gestures, words, or sighs that do not contain the sum of all the crimes that human beings have committed and commit.” — Elena Ferrante
“If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it.” — Emily Dickinson
How do we distinguish poetry from prose? A cursory Google search presents these as an easily digestible binary, contrasting chunky blocks of text against dainty, broken-up line fragments. However, looking at the centuries-old literary canons that have spawned from both forms, charts detailing “straightforward” prose as distinct from the “decorative” character of poetry seem to be making a laughably arbitrary judgment that is not only vulnerable to a myriad of exceptions, but does so to such an extent that the rule itself seems to crumble. After all, when looking at the famously entangled prose of writers such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Samuel Beckett, it seems impossible to justify many of these oft-cited distinctions as anything more than aesthetic tendencies.
However, even these aesthetic assumptions are equally inconstant. The rise in popularity of prose poetry provides a particularly interesting example of what is sometimes understood as a melding of the two forms. In Japan, prose poetry originated in a seventeenth-century merger between certain elements of prose and others from the haiku tradition, while French nineteenth-century poets enabled its initial rise to popularity in the western literary world. By imbuing traditional prose formatting with conventionally “poetic” features, the form supposedly fuses its two parents. However, many of these “poetic” elements are of course already frequently seen in prose texts: repetition, metaphor, and imagery are among the first few literary constructions taught in elementary school English classes, and are therefore less than helpful in providing a consistent definition of what exactly distinguishes these types of writing.
Consider, for example, the following short text:
Redness cracking. Fissures forming. You are falling towards us, rich and syrup-soft. Flesh roiling. Bones shifting. Tongues over bellies and fingers in wet places. Salt stains the mattress; seeps into places where hands cannot reach. Tissues twisting and saline dripping into something new. Sink into the thick of us. The peach pit slick of us.
Read alone, these words seem as though they could easily have been pulled from a recent poetry publication. However, this is one of the hundreds of short chapters in Jessica Andrews’ 2019 Portico Prize-winning novel Saltwater. Though Andrews’ work has been deservedly praised, the ever-growing popularity of this style of writing, which further nudges apart the already-frayed lines delineating what we are meant to consider the boundaries of each rapidly expanding category, only exacerbates this issue with the literary lexicon.
This problem can also be approached backwards: if a specific text is considered as both prose and poetry in alternating thought experiments, does this label affect how or whether it is considered “good”? If not, does this label matter? With Andrews’ novel in mind, the most obvious answers seem to have more to do with literary marketing than the experience of writing or reading a piece of literature. At 298 pages, Andrews’ average-sized debut novel would have been considered a mammoth tome if presented as a collection of poetry. Even more significantly, with the comparative unpopularity of poetry in mind, what debut author would choose to sequester their work to a bookstore section that’s spent the past several decades waiting out predictions of its supposedly inevitable doom?
According to W. B. Yeats, “all that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt.” But could the (partially) undefined in some capacity also be subject to the merely personal’s predicted fate? Clearly, literature that exists in a space between these forms is alive and well. But has our language for discussing it undergone an equally rapid and effective expansion?
Of course, one could argue that the instability and inherent limitations of these distinctions do not mean that they are without value. These terms remain a useful tool for introducing such concepts to those unfamiliar with them, and function as convenient reference points for readers and writers lost in a sea of more complex terms. Still, the persistent need to remember the non-absolute nature of these distinctions is crucial. After all, these terms function as effective guideposts, but it is only when we leave this heavily trodden path that we can get into the real fun of literary investigation. Above all else, this terminology is fundamentally intended to ease our understanding of literature, not to complicate it: to force literary works to fit pre-established terms or categories is to miss the point entirely. It is the responsibility of the language we use to discuss these texts to evolve to parallel their similar maturation, and to do so in a way that assists us rather than hindering us with anachronistic terminological debates. The perpetually evolutionary nature of language strikes again: no definition is stable, and everything is up for literary grabs.
Lisel Mueller’s “Why We Tell Stories” ends with the following lines, and through them perhaps distills what is truly essential about literary production, once we put aside these questions of form.
Because the story of our life
becomes our life
Because each of us tells
the same story
but tells it differently
and none of us tells it
the same way twice
Because grandmothers looking like spiders
want to enchant the children
and grandfathers need to convince us
what happened happened because of them
and though we listen only
haphazardly, with one ear,
we will begin our story
with the word and
Crucially, Mueller refers only to “stories”, not bothering to distinguish between prosaic or poetic methods of presentation. Perhaps these are themselves a part of how we each tell “the same story / … differently”, and the questioning of these forms in itself creates an opportunity for new (re)presentations of that paradoxically final and.
Yeats spoke of the importance of attention to technique and form in writing, rather than simply assuming that emotion and personal experience are sufficient to produce good work. However, perhaps our attention has strayed in the opposite direction, risking the loss of the work itself in pursuit of a continual reinvestigation of the terms used to describe the “ice and salt” rather than the stories that they are intended to transmit. In doing so, we are perhaps in danger of losing this tradition at all, no longer beginning with and to share stories of our own. Psychology warns us of the human tendency to categorize as a method for establishing understanding, but perhaps the question we’ve been ignoring is whether our categories have begun to overwhelm the wealth of knowledge that they contain.