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Is It Poetry or Prose?

by Caleb Murdock

[In writing this article, I paraphrased some of the points that Judson Jerome made in his books The Poet's Handbook and On Being a Poet.  I even used some of the same examples that he did.  So why did I write the article?  I think I had a need to make these ideas my own by restating them in my own words.  That's not to say that everything in this article is derivative, but enough of it is that I feel the need to make this statement.  My article on scansion methods is entirely original.]

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Prose and poetry are two sides of the same coin.  Both of them communicate ideas, and both of them can be written beautifully.  But the essential purpose of prose is to communicate ideas, and the essential purpose of poetry is to move us with the beauty of its crafted language, and in this distinction the two diverge.  Prose is communication; poetry is art.  When a reader is moved by prose, he is moved primarily by its meaning.  Of course, the distinction between poetry and prose can be blurred.  Prose can be written with extra attention to its beauty, in which case it is called "poetic prose"; and poetry can be written with less attention to its sound, in which case it is called "prosaic poetry".  But the essential distinction remains.

Having just stated what I've stated, I need to emphasize that it is an over-simplification.  Since writing that paragraph, I've come to realize that meaning is as important in poetry as the crafting of the language.  A poem with lovely language that says nothing original or important is a failure (if it was written for an audience).  Indeed, the greatest poetry is that which advances our understanding of the world or ourselves, but which does so in a way that appeals to our artistic sense.  The art of a poem should further its meaning.  A great poem will give you a double-whammy:  Cogent meaning combined with musical language which advances the meaning with its sounds.  So let me qualify my paragraph above by saying that in poetry, both meaning and sound are important; in prose, meaning takes precedence.

But again, poetry which is written only for one's self has no standards.  I don't want to discourage casual or budding poets with talk of "failure".

What are the ways that poetry can be crafted?  The poet has a limited number of tools, and they are pretty specific:  metaphor, simile, parallelism, line breaks, enjambment, alliteration, consonance, assonance, form (stanzas, sonnets, etc.), rhythm, meter, internal rhyme, and end rhyme (I may have left out a few).  But what of poetry that has almost none of these elements – is it poetry?  I think the answer to that is more than just semantic.  In the past century, the one century in all of English-language history in which free verse was the dominant form, poetry lost much of its audience.  When an art form devolves to the point where it no longer contains the elements that define it, we have to question whether the result is art or something else.  But first, a little history:

Free verse has always been with us to some degree, but it wasn't until the mid-nineteenth century that it really came into its own.  Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman were the first major poets to write in free verse extensively.  In the 1880's, it really took off, most likely as a reaction to the confining requirements of Victorian tastes (I find it highly interesting that the free-spirited Whitman and the culturally narrow Queen Victoria lived during the same era, though in different countries).  In the early part of the 20th century, free verse developed into a bona fide movement, with an underlying philosophy, and with spokesmen such as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.  But those free-verse poets, for the most part, retained many of the elements of metered poetry in their verse.  Their poetry was generally carefully crafted for its sound elements, even if it didn't have rhyme or meter.  Here is a famous free verse poem by Archibald MacLeish:

Ars Poetica

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit.

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown.

A poem should be wordless
as the flight of birds.


A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees.

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.


A poem should be equal to:
Not true:

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.

That may be the most beautiful free verse poem ever written.  But what is interesting is how close it comes to metered poetry.  The first section can be broken into lines of ten syllables (with the exception of the final two words).  These new lines contain five feet each, and they make excellent iambic pentameter with anapests and trochees as variants:

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit.  Dumb, as old medallions
To the thumb; silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown.
A poem should be wordless as the flight
Of birds.

The syllabic count of the remainder of the poem isn't as perfect, but it does break down into excellent iambic pentameter with normal variants (if "memory" is pronounced as two syllables, as "mem-ry", and "history" is pronounced as three syllables, as "hist-o-ry"):

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs; leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees.
Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves
Memory by memory the mind—a poem should
Be motionless in time as the moon climbs.

A poem should be equal to:  Not true:
For all the history of grief, an empty
Doorway and a maple leaf.  For love,
The leaning grasses and two lights above
The sea—a poem should not mean but be.

I am not suggesting that every free verse poem should be re-writable into metered form; nor am I saying that this spectacular poem would be better written in iambic pentameter.  My point is simply that free verse can be written with many poetic elements.  It needn't be prosaic – and the early free-versers tended to write that way.  In "Ars Poetica", MacLeish used most of the poetic elements:  rhythm; alliteration; assonance; rhyme (in this case, both internal rhyme and end rhyme, although not in any pattern); line breaks chosen for maximum effect; and a strong use of metaphor.  The poem even has form:  it is written in three sections of four couplets each.

The best poems, in my view, contain a high number of poetic elements, and rhythm is the most important of them.  More than any other quality, rhythm distinguishes poetry from prose.  As Judson Jerome pointed out in The Poet's Handbook, prose has a loose, undefined rhythm in which every 2nd through 10th syllable receives an emphasis.  Here is an example (the numbers represent the number of syllables from the previous emphasized syllable):

                                    6th                                         8th
JAN and i went to the SUPermarket today to buy GRAPES,
                    3rd                                 6th           2nd
but there WEREN'T any so we got PEARS inSTEAD.

Poetry, on the other hand, receives an emphasis every 1st through 4th syllable.  Here is an example:

              2nd     2nd         2nd          2nd
        2nd           2nd      2nd                  4th         2nd
for SKIES of COUPle COLour as a BRINDed COW
        2nd        1st      1st       2nd                  4th               2nd
for ROSE-MOLES ALL in STIPple upon TROUT that SWIM
   1st       1st              2nd                    3rd
FRESH-FIREcoal CHESTnut-falls; FINCHes wings

(Note:  You may disagree with my reading of those lines, but you get my point.  Click here to see the actual poem.)

Starting in the mid-20th century, the meter of free verse was loosened until it effectively turned into prose.  Not just rhythm, but almost every other poetic element was sacrificed, except line breaks.  Here is a particularly egregious example by Sander Zulauf:

Economy, August 31st

In 1842, Henry David Thoreau sold
The boat he made with his own hands
To Nathaniel Hawthorne for seven dollars.
He had paddled the Musketaquid with his brother, John,
For two weeks on New England rivers.
In telling this fact to my literature students
I try putting it in terms of current dollars
Assuming this would mean more.
This would mean less.
Thoreau needed the money.
He had taken a trip in the boat with his brother.
The trip became immortalized
In his only other published book,
A week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
Hawthorne, being the genius that he was,
Bought something immortal for seven dollars.
Thoreau might have needed more than the money.
He might have needed to forget
His brother died.

It sounds like a news article, doesn't it?  Yet this poem was used to exemplify the writing process in Michael Bugeja's book The Art and Craft of Poetry (a book I do not recommend).  The only thing which distinguishes this poem from prose is the line breaks, but line breaks are not enough to make this poetry.  I would rewrite this poem in paragraphs of prose to make my point, but I really don't think that's necessary.

Here is another prosaic poem, by A.R. Ammons:


I said I will find what is lowly
and put the roots of my identity
down there:
each day I'll wake up
and find the lowly nearby,
a handy focus and reminder,
a ready measure of my significance,
the voice by which I would be heard,
the wills, the kinds of selfishness
I could
freely adopt as my own:

but though I have looked everywhere,
I can find nothing
to give myself to:
everything is

magnificent with existence, is in
surfeit of glory:
nothing is diminished,
nothing has been diminished for me:

I said what is more lowly than the grass:
ah, underneath,
a ground-crust of dry-burnt moss:
I looked at it closely
and said this can be my habitat: but
nestling in I
below the brown exterior
green mechanisms beyond the intellect
awaiting resurrection in rain: so I got up

and ran saying there is nothing lowly in the universe:
I found a beggar:
he had stumps for legs: nobody was paying
him any attention: everybody went on by:
I nestled in and found his life:
there, love shook his body like a devastation:
I said
though I have looked everywhere
I can find nothing lowly
in the universe:

I whirled through transfigurations up and down,
transfigurations of size and shape and place:

at one sudden point came still,
stood in wonder:
moss, beggar, weed, tick, pine, self, magnificent
with being!

A.R. Ammons is a famous and well-respected poet [note: he has died since this article was written], but what does this poem have that makes it a poem?  Well, it has lots of line breaks.  Sometimes the line breaks fall after phrases, and sometimes they create enjambments.  There is not much alliteration.  The language is grandiose, but that's not exclusive to poetry.  The punctuation is unusual.  Except for the line breaks, the poem reads pretty much like prose.  It has the loose rhythm and infrequent emphases of prose.  Here is the first strophe rewritten as a prose paragraph:

I said I will find what is lowly and put the roots of my identity down there:  each day I'll wake up and find the lowly nearby, a handy focus and reminder, a ready measure of my significance, the voice by which I would be heard, the wills, the kinds of selfishness I could freely adopt as my own:  but though I have looked everywhere, I can find nothing to give myself to:  everything is (etc.)

These lines sound the most poetic to me when written in long, closed, Whitmanesque lines:

I said I will find what is lowly and put the roots of my identity down there:
Each day I'll wake up and find the lowly nearby, a handy focus and reminder,
A ready measure of my significance, the voice by which I would be heard,
The wills, the kinds of selfishness I could freely adopt as my own:
But though I have looked everywhere, I can find nothing to give myself to:
Everything is (etc.)

But even in this form, they read more like prose than poetry, lacking as they do the thumping rhythm of Whitman's verse.  The first line is the most rhythmic, but the rhythm dissipates in the subsequent lines.

I think the reason that such prosaic poetry has become so prevalent is that anyone can write it.  It is a method by which people without poetic talent, or without a true love of the sound of poetry, can express their private feelings in a public manner.  Short stories and novels are too long for their purposes, and writing letters apparently isn't public enough.  But the prosaic style misses the point of poetry altogether, which is to create beauty with words.  Such poetry can only be read for its meaning, not its beauty.  (I wrote this paragraph before blogging became popular.  Hopefully, many of those people who would have written this kind of forgettable poetry will turn to blogging instead.)

I believe that this prosaic style, which lacks almost all poetic elements, is the natural evolutionary end-result of free verse.  When you remove the most important elements from poetry (form and meter), all the remaining elements become expendable.  Judson Jerome observed that the early free verse poets still had the echoes of meter ringing in their ears, whereas by mid-century a generation of poets had grown up on free verse and couldn't hear those echoes.  It was a natural step, then, for that tone-deaf generation to remove the last vestiges of meter from poetry.  As long as poets take the word "free" to mean "without" (as in, without rhythm, without rhyme, without alliteration, etc.), then free verse will be doomed to disintegrate into prose.

Practitioners of the prosaic style have convinced themselves that the sound of metered language is unpleasant.  They view it as an anachronism, a throwback to artificial formality.  But Frost, Francis, Auden and Roethke showed us that metered poetry can be informal and accessible.  Meter is what gives a poem its structure and momentum; it carries the reader forward to the poem's conclusion (imagine song lyrics without the melody and you will see what I mean).  Without meter, long poems lose their coherence – unless they are written in the loose cadence of prose.  And this brings us to another reason why modern free verse has degenerated into prose:  free verse cannot be sustained over long passages without losing its integrity, whereas prose can be.  In other words, if a poet writes his poems in prose, he can write longer poems.

Let me give another example of the prosaic style, by Hal Sirowitz:

I Finally Managed to Speak to Her

She was sitting across from me
on the bus.  I said, "The trees
look so much greener in this part
of the country.  In New York City
everything looks so drab."  She said,
"It looks the same to me.  Show me
a tree that's different."  "That one,"
I said.  "Which one?" she said.
"It's too late," I said; "we already
passed it."  "When you find another one,"
she said, "let me know."  And then
she went back to reading her book.

This poem contains only one poetic element:  line breaks.  They appear to be inserted not for any poetic reason, but to make the lines appear even.  Here is that same poem written in standard prose paragraphs (with a new paragraph for each speaker, as is required in prose) :

       She was sitting across from me on the bus.  I said, "The trees look so much greener in this part of the country.  In New York City everything looks so drab."

       She said, "It looks the same to me.  Show me a tree that's different."

       "That one," I said.

       "Which one?" she said.

       "It's too late," I said; "we already passed it."

       "When you find another one," she said, "let me know."  And then she went back to reading her book.

Frankly, I don't see the point of writing such a poem.  Not only is it entirely prosaic in every respect, with dull and uninteresting language, it says pretty much nothing.  It doesn't convey a mood effectively or evoke an emotion from the reader (a tree that has passed out of sight isn't enough to create a sense of loss).  It could have been an interlude in a novel except that it is not good enough to be in a good novel.  In other words, it is not even good prose.  At least Sander Zulauf tried to draw some emotion from the reader by mentioning the death of Thoreau's brother.

I consider poets such as A.R. Ammons, Diane Wakoski, Sander Zulauf and Hal Sirowitz to be literary misfits more than anything else.  The prosaic vignettes they write do not fit any category, so they are called "poems" by default.  Sadly, in the second half of the 20th century, the prosaic poets gained the reins of power, and their mediocre poetry became the new standard.  Most editors, also having grown up on free verse, went along with the trend.  Zulauf is the editor of a poetry magazine, and Michael Bugeja, who thinks so highly of Zulauf's work, is a creative writing teacher.  Sirowitz's poem, quoted above, was posted in buses and subways by the Poetry Society of America as part of its "Poetry in Motion" project, thereby further desensitizing the public.  Having the prosaic poets in charge of poetry is akin to having an oil mogul in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency – such people cannot protect the thing they are destroying.

The prosaic poets may be setting the current standards, but no one seriously believes that their pabulum is art.  There is a tacit understanding, even among free-verse poets, that well-written metered poetry takes more skill to write (in the same way that a Jackon Pollock painting takes less skill to paint than almost any painting by any of the old masters).  The poets who are universally recognized as the 20th century's greatest – Yeats, Frost, Auden, Millay – all wrote in meter.  And even when that list is expanded to include Hardy, Robinson, Williams, Pound, Elliot, Stevens, Roethke, Francis, Thomas, Cummings, Brooks and Wilbur (and others I may have forgotten), it is still top-heavy with poets who wrote in meter.

Posterity will take care of the mediocre.  History will leave them behind, with only the most skillful practitioners being remembered.  But we don't have to wait for a century to pass to find good contemporary poetry.  Metered poetry is making a comeback under the banner of "New Formalism".  It is gaining popularity and market share.  Many of those poets can be found on this site in the "Living Poets" section.

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Some additional thoughts

I am doing the unusual thing of following up this article with some random notes and thoughts.  This is the first critical article that I have written in many years, so I hope it doesn't sound amateurish.  I am no Dana Gioia, and my knowledge of poetry politics is somewhat limited.  Perhaps if I were a better writer, I wouldn't feel compelled to add these notes.

Some may say that Millay was more popular than she was great, but I disagree.  The best of her sonnets are equal to the best of Shakespeare's.  Her sonnet "Love Is Not All" is one of the greatest poems in our language.

I did not quote more of what I consider to be excellent poetry because this anthology is full of it.  Anyone who has read the best of Robert Frost's poems knows what excellent poetry is.

I think I made it clear enough that my argument is with the prosaic style and not with free verse.  The best free verse has an almost organic quality.  Our language has so many factors that enter into its sound (light and heavy stresses, long and short vowels, the varying times it takes to pronounce different vowels and consonants, etc.) that metered poetry may not be able to accommodate all the combinations.  Free verse is a good choice for short, lyrical, intense or moody poems, and also for heavily rhythmic poetry, such as Whitman's.  But for longer works, the structure of meter is really needed.

I often wonder how the prosaic poets write their poems.  Since line breaks do not have much importance in prosaic free verse, I imagine that they write out their poems in paragraph form and insert the line breaks later.  Or perhaps they keep writing until they get to the edge of the paper, and then start a new line.  For me, writing poetry is a very different matter.  A line or group of lines comes out on a wave of inspiration.  Then, either while I am writing them or immediately after, I count the syllables and let that determine the meter of the poem.  Sometimes, though not often, I will have a change of heart and rewrite all the lines in a different meter.

The line as a unit is not particularly important in the prosaic style, and I find that curious because the line break is the only technique that the prosaic poets use.  But the prosaic poets' dilemma is that line breaks and enjambments lose their power in the context of free verse.  As Judson Jerome pointed out, meaning and form work against each other to create tension in metered poetry.  When the form is removed, the meaning has nothing to work against, and the tension is lost.

Jerome used the word "against", but really they work with each other.  The point he was making is that the form of the poem creates certain imperatives in the language, and the meaning creates certain imperatives, and the way the two interact is what creates the tension.  However, Jerome was right in one respect:  If only the imperatives of the meaning are honored, then you end up with prose.  It helps to think of poetic form as a girdle into which you pour the meaning; the girdle adds beauty, and the meaning must be arranged in such a way that it fits into the girdle.  Clothes, in fact, provide a perfect analogy:  If "clothes make the man" or complement the figure of a woman, and if you view the person in the clothes as representing the meaning of the poem, then you can see that the right "clothes" (i.e., poetic form) will enhance the meaning, creating a package that is very harmonious.  (At this point, I think I've taken my analogy into silly territory.) 

I am not particularly familiar with A.R. Ammons's work, having read only ten or so of his poems.  Perhaps he wrote a lot of beautiful poems that I don't know about, but I doubt it.  If he could write good poetry, he wouldn't have wasted his time writing "Still".  Aside from the fact that it has no technical merit as a poem, it is full of grand and phony sentiments, such as phony humility and phony awe.  "I said I will find what is lowly and put the roots of my identity down there" (an improbable quest for a middle-class professor); "everything is magnificent with existence" (a pompous and meaningless statement); "I found a beggar ... I nestled in and found his life:  there, love shook his body like a devastation" (I find these lines to be nauseatingly condescending and self-congratulatory); "I whirled through transfigurations up and down" (more meaningless pretensions).

Humility and awe are fine subjects for a poem, but a good poet develops those emotions within the context of realistic events that people can relate to.  I personally can't imagine the events in Ammons' poem occurring in real life.  I knew a beggar once, and he was a proud, hardened individual who viewed begging as his job.  Beggars are no more likely to be swayed by maudlin sentimentality than any other person.  On the other hand, if the beggar is an alcoholic, then that changes things, as alcoholics are often deluded and self-pitying; but there is no mention of that in Ammons' poem.  I am sure that Ammons walks ten feet around beggars, just as the rest of us do.

I find more grand and phony sentiments in prosaic poetry than in metered poetry, and I think I know why:  The language itself is so mundane that the poet has to find some other way to move his audience, so he resorts to sentimentality (or drama or other similar techniques).  If he is a privileged middle-class guy without a lot to say, sentimentality becomes a substitute for substance.  Other middle-class guys will eat it up and be filled with envy, and a reputation will be born—and more forests will be wasted on books of bad poetry.

[A.R. Ammons died in February, 2001, more than a year after this article was first published.]