Image from: http://sttpl.blogspot.com/p/comprehension.html
Where does prose end and poetry begin? And vice versa? Or does it matter? A couple of years ago, I wrote a whole book of prose poetry/flash fiction called Meditation on Woman, seeking to straddle the prose-poetry continuum to create something new. Since then, I have returned to a more familiar (I won’t say traditional) form of poetry, with line breaks and stanzas, but I continue to be fascinated with the subtle blend of the two.
The Oxford Dictionaries offers these definitions of prose:
- Written or spoken language in its ordinary form, without metrical structure
- Plain or dull writing, discourse, or expression
These don’t do justice to the prose of great writers, as I think of the two extremes of Henry James and Ernest Hemingway, to name but two. There’s nothing ordinary, plain, or dull about either of them.
As for poetry, the same dictionaries offer these definitions:
- Literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a genre of literature
- A quality of beauty and intensity of emotion regarded as characteristic of poems
- Something regarded as comparable to poetry in its beauty
Much more elevated, although I can think of “poets” (I use the word loosely) who are anything but intense, emotional, or beautiful. The best example might be the 19th century Scottish “poet,” William Topaz McGonagall, who wrote doggerel (it rhymed, it was “poetry”) and was considered by some to be the worst poet in Scottish history. He lived in the town I grew up in, Dundee, which is on the River Tay, and one of his more famous “poems” begins
The Tay, the Tay, the silvery Tay
Flows from Perth to Dundee every day.
Based on these examples, one could easily swap the original definitions. Yet, good poetry has a density about it that is not so readily found in prose and the concept of a prose poem is that it does not have meter, but it does have that density of thought and expression. Similarly, flash fiction, which is more on the prose side of the equation, exhibits an economy of expression that reflects poetic sensibility.
Looking at the image from English Language to the Rescue: Comprehension (above), it might be easy to agree, but not, perhaps, accurate. Perhaps it is more accurate to suggest that whether the work is written in prose, in poetry, or in some interstice between the two, both call for the “best words in the best order.”