Indulge me for a moment. I just need to persist this thought to my blog. I wrote this on May 15, 2001 and e-mailed it to a bunch of people who never responded. I hate it when good thoughts go unrecognized. So I’ll take it from the top once again:
Most people couldn’t give a crap about the difference between prose and poetry. But since this is a perennial topic of discussion in literary circles, I thought I’d take a crack at it.
On one level, I agree that in practice there is often little difference between prose and poetry as distinct literary genres. In practice, modern poetry is often simply prose chopped up and defaced with arbitrary carriage returns, tabs, punctuation, misspellings, and obscurities. Poetry often suffers from highfalutin abstractions, precious diction, adjectival overload, lack of point or narrative, and whining, self-pitying attitudes. And poets wonder why very few people buy or care about their work.
On another level, though, we can distinguish between prosaic and poetic
expression, which, taken together and interwoven well, can enliven even the most mundane writing. Prosaic expression points to objects in the world (even if that world exists only in the writer's head, as many scientific hypotheses, for example, do). Poetic expression points back at itself, focusing on language as an object worthy of contemplation in its own right (write!).
Language as an object worthy of contemplation--what do I mean by that? I mean the features of language that make it noteworthy, catchy, and memorable: meter, cadence, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, tintinnabulation, imagery, word choice, etc. Language as a symbol system or an equation that we continually manipulate: grammar, syntax, etc. Language as a human artifact that is capable of conveying beauty and meaning through its very structure and sound.
The very best writing is both prose and poetry--you want to read, then
re-read it, focusing on the objects that the writer is trying to depict, but also the object through which the writer depicts them. Through brevity, the best poetry encourages us to re-read. The best e-mails do too.
It's all art and artifice. I've spent my career trying to breathe life into technical topics of thudding complexity. Committing this crap to someone's memory requires stealth poetry.