Friday, December 17, 2010

Distinguishing between Poetry and Prose

Difficulties of distinguishing between poetry and prose : It is difficult to put into exact words the difference between poetry and prose. The dividing line is often shadowy because much so-called prose has poetic qualities and much so-called poetry, prosaic qualities. A good deal of what we commonly regard as prose is, in essence, poetry, and a good deal more of what we commonly regard as poetry is, in essence, prose.

We are likely to classify any writing that has rhyme and rhythm as poetry, and any other writing as prose. The two examples given below seem to refute his theory. The one in rhyme and metre has not a spark of poetic fire ; in the one without rhyme and metre the poetic fire is unquestionable. A recent critic pointed out that David’s lament over Jonathan :
The love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women,
is instinct with the breath of poetry, whereas Pope’s metrical para­phrase of it.
The love was wondrous, soothing all my care,
Passing the fond affection of the fair,
is not much more than artificial affectation. The same critic suggests that the hopeless pathos of Isaiah’s
The sun shall be no more thy light by day ; neither for bright­ness shall the moon give light unto these,
is shattered forever in Pope’s rhymed version.
No more the rising Sun shall gild the morn
Nor ev’ning Cynthia fill her silver born.
The same observation must strike you at once when you compare Addison’s hymn,
The specious firemament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame,
Their great Original proclaim
with its Biblical equivalent,
The heavens declare the glory of God ; and the
firemament sheweth His handywork.
It is clearly evident that many of the beautiful passages in the King James version of the Bible, though they are not in metrical form, are more eloquently poetical than all the rhymed couplets in existence. These verses from the twelfth chapter of Ecclesiastes you have only to read aloud to feel the power of their rhythm :
Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy Youth, while the evil days come not, the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them ;
While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not
darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain :
In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves……and those that look out of the
windows be darkened,
And the doors shall be shut in the streets...and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of music shall he brought low ;
And when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grass-hopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail : because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets :
On ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken
……or the wheel broken at the cistern
Then shall be dust return to the earth as it was ; and the spirit shall return upto God who gave it.
There is hardly an element of all that we usually regard as poetry which is not found in this passage. Here are pictures, symbols, images, phrases haunted with the accumulated connotations of man’s centuries of experience with life and death. Nor is the Bible alone in possessing this poetic quality. It is found in a good deal of the hest English prose, from the glowing pulsations of the finest para­graphs of Ruskin and Carlyle to the elusive list in the dialogue of the Irish plays of Yeats and Synge. Such passages illustrate the difficulty distinguishing between poetry and prose. There are, however, three general characteristics of poetry, one specific, the others neces­sarily vague.
Regularity of metrical pattern : The most tangible characteristic of poetry is rhythm secured by regularity of metrical pattern. Much prose has every element of poetry except this of metrical pattern. But all poetry, even free verse, has some pattern of recurrent rhythm or rhyme, or both.
The poet’s use of words : The second characteristic of poetry is that the poet uses words with imaginative insight to suggest more than they may be defined to mean. In general the main function of words in prose is to make statements, to convey ideas and facts clearly; in poetry the main function of words is to arouse moving suggestions. This use of suggestive words stirs our feelings and imaginations. We have all experienced the baffled sensation of lacking appropriate words with which to express our feelings or thoughts: and most of us have found these feelings and thoughts expressed definitively in a passage from one of the great poets. The essence of a thousand love stories, for instance, is suggested—not stated— in a single stanza by Robert Burns
Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met—or never parted,
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.
The staggering conception of eternal damnation has been summed up in a few words in Dante’s Inferno. Over the gates of Hell, Dante says, are these words’ :
All hope abandon, ye who enter here.
The thundering significance of these few words has caught and held the imagination of generations. Such passages as these are remarkable for what they suggest rather than for what they directly state.
Poetic language in prose : Many prose writers also use words which arouse our feelings and our imagination by the power of suggestion. For instance, Hawthrone’s choice of figurative language to suggest his meaning is often instinctively poetic. When he says that Phoebe was as ‘pleasant about the house as a gleam of sunshine falling on the floor through a shadow of twinkling leaves’ ; when he describes the garden as a ‘green-play-place of flickering light and shade, and the humming bird as ‘a thumb’s bigness of burnished plumage’, he is using words much as a poet does, to suggest moods and pi . But as his words have no metrical pattern, they are not poetry Moreover, poetical prose, however beautiful, does not usually 1’ er in the memory as does poetry. It is the poet rather than the prose writer who uses words primarily for purposes of suggestion instead of primarily for purposes of direct statement. To the poet, words in themselves are beautiful.

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