When I say the word “poetry,” the first thing that comes to mind is going to be slightly different for each person. Some may think of a Shakespeare or Browning sonnet; others may remember a haiku or senru; and still others “free verse.” There are any number of poetic forms, and lack thereof, in the world. Prose, on the other hand, immediately summons images of either a narrative story or bland, seemingly endless text such as you might find in a technical manual. While this is a perfectly serviceable brief definition, as with any other label, it too often misses the point entirely.
Poetry inspires emotion, using an economy of words and syllables prose generally can’t match. If prose is the long way around the mountain, poetry is the tram that takes us directly to the top. Oscar Wilde said, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” and this is rarely more apparent than in poetry. If you don’t believe me, simply recite your favorite off-color limerick.
Prose, on the other hand, tends to linger on details which may or may not matter to the overall story. In poetry, especially the more “disciplined” forms, you have only so many words, syllables, or lines to get to the point; in prose, the cut-off is limited only by the writer’s vocabulary. This can often result in what is known as “purple” prose, the bane of the modern author.
I know someone’s going to read this and ask, “But what about epic poems such as L’Morte D’Arthur, Beowulf, Roland and Oliver, or the Chronicle of El Cid?” All of these, while poems in the strictest technical sense, are actually the prose that predated prose as we think of it. It must be remembered that part of the storyteller’s art, especially in the days before “portable” writing such as paper was available, was the ability to accurately memorize lengthy epic tales. By breaking these works into manageable stanzas and blocks, it facilitated the bard’s ability to recall the tales and relate them correctly for their various audiences.
When I submitted my first story to Noble Romance Publishing, my editor, Bryl R. Tyne, and I fenced a little about certain editing choices. I have an unfortunate tendency to be “wordy” in my early drafts, resulting in precisely the kind of purple prose I try to steer clear of. He wrote in one email, by way of explanation for one particular correction I’d dug my heels in about, “I’m trying to keep the poetry while cutting the prose.”
Ultimately, the feelings any given work inspire determine whether you’re reading bloodless, lifeless prose or stirring poetry. One could equate this to looking at a bland corporate logo versus a Hieronymus Bosch painting; although the basic idea is the same, the final outcome is radically different.
So first, a simple haiku of my own creation in 5/7/5 rhythm, entitled “Winter.”
A frigid north wind
Bears a white chill, thoughts of loss
And a blade of ice.
Remember, haiku is originally Japanese, and because of the vagaries of Japanese language, it’s possible to pack a lot more shadings of meaning and imagery into 5/7/5 than English permits. Like most haiku, this is written to be fluid and subject to interpretation; the imagery conjured in the reader’s mind rules here.
Now, an example of prose. This excerpt is from “Ancient Magic,” one of my more recent offerings:
Varath watched intently as she parted the delicate shadows of the sacred grove as if the moonlight had willed itself a pleasing form for his benefit. She drew closer, her feet making no sound on the ground beneath her as she came. Stark black and white resolved into myriad subtle nuances of silver, turquoise, amethyst, and onyx, crowned with a cascade of falling-star hair, which rippled and flowed around her shoulders with every step.
She was a woman in the same sense that a raging thunderstorm was rain.
Although there is no particular meter I’m aware of in this extract, the imagery is still there. And isn’t that ultimately the key to poetry, whatever form it takes?
You be the judge.
Until next time,