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The Difference Between Poetry and Prose

Prose is all about accumulation (a morality of work), while poetry as it is practiced today is about the isolation of feelings (an aesthetics of omission). Among other things, prose is principally an ethical project, while poetry is amoral, a tampering with truths which the world of prose (and its naturalistic approach to mimesis) takes for granted. Poetry creates its own truth, which at times is the same truth as the world’s, and sometimes not. Whatever the case, its mimesis is always a rearrangement, at a molecular level, of that axis between the “seen” and the “felt” (that coal chute which connects the childish eye to the Socratic heart), which, were it not for poetry, with its misguided elenchus, would remain obscured. In both classical and modern languages it is poetry that evolves first and is only much later followed by prose, as though in a language’s childhood, as in our own, poetry were the more efficient communicator of ideas. Whether this has to do with the nature of ideation or some characteristic intrinsic to the material evolution of tongues has never been adequately decided. Probably this evolution, from poetry to prose, depends on synergy—between the passion for thought and enthusiasm for new means. Technology also played a roll. With the spread of the printing press after 1440, texts no longer had to be memorized. Poetry’s inbuilt mnemonics (rhyme, meter, refrain, line breaks) were no longer essential for processing and holding on to knowledge. Little hard drives were suddenly everywhere available. But even a century later, in Elizabethan England, English prose had not yet come close to achieving the flexibility of poetry. One need only compare Shakespeare’s blank verse soliloquies to the abashed prose of one of the Elizabethans’ greatest disputants, Richard Hooker, or to the Martin Marprelate tracts. These are differences not only in talent but ones inherent to the medium. Even the King James Bible, “the noblest monument of English prose,” cannot compare to the blank verse of Shakespeare. New England, on the east coast of the New World, was settled before Old England would discover and colonize that vast intrinsic continent of prose, out of which the great syntactic nation states would evolve: Samuel Johnson, Thomas De Quincey, Charles Dickens. This evolution would also signal poetry’s waning, as cultural energy discovered more viable substances for conduction. There would be no more Chaucers or Miltons, poets not only of elaborate prosodic, lexical and rhetorical resources but serious public relevance as well. Wordsworth’s Prelude is perhaps the last of the available epics, a form which begins, as far as our reckoning permits, with Homer. Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, has already tipped into prose. Emanuel Swedenborg, Blake’s model and goad (and a scientist by training), circumvented the limitations of 18th century Swedish prose by composing his Arcana Cœlestia in Neo-Latin. Poetry’s last major flourishing during the first half of the 19th century was a kind of Silver Age to what came before; it gave us a way to model our increasingly important private lives, as opposed to our public ones. This is its gift. Another Swedish writer, Tomas Tranströmer, last year’s Nobel, laureate, and the first poet to win the prize in sixteen years, when asked about his writing method, said that he doesn’t have one; he hinted at how close to evanescence our contemporary practice actually is: “…it’s hard to know what we really mean by writing for there’s a kind of inner writing that goes on all the time and it doesn’t need to finish up on paper…” *


* From a 1973 discussion with Gunnar Harding, translated by the Scottish poet Robin Fulton, Tranströmer’s most gifted English language translator.


Originally Published: April 19th, 2012

Martin Earl lives in Coimbra, in central Portugal. From 1986 until 2001 he lectured in English, translation, and American culture at the University of Coimbra. For the last ten years he has worked as a translator and a journalist. Earl has blogged on Harriet, and his translation of Antonio Medeiros’s...