12.4.08

Did they say this at college, or did I just miss it?

I just realized, after a good deal of college where everybody assumed I had had good poetry theory teachers in high school, the difference between prose and poetry. It's so simple, and other people in books have told me before, but I didn't have the sense to understand. Check it out:

prose=storytelling. Storytelling is talking about something that happened, in any number of ways.
poetry=language sex. Language sex is when you take a language, say English, and wrap it around yourself like a putty lover and you yourself are made from putty and you two become one and you decide to take a look at the world with your ears made of English and your eyes made of English and your tongue not coated in but actually English, and you create something markedly removed from prose, where the average writer is just talking about how something looks or sounds--you're not describing a damn thing. You're telling us what it is if all its
double-helices were letters and line breaks and grammar.

At least great poets do that, most of the time. I think Murakami said it best when he said...and this isn't a quote because I don't own the book...that poetry needs to create a metaphysical tunnel from itself to the reader's mind. Something for the language to pour through and muck up the rest of your mind with its linguistic beauty. If he succeeds, the poem should lose a good deal in translation. I've always wondered what reading Shakespeare in a non-European language must be like. Probably like reading a good story, but almost certainly not like reading Shakespeare.

Of course we're in the age now where everyone's doing everything, so the definition above is defunct, at least in practice. But I think even up to 50 years ago that's what people were aiming for, and I think they should still be aiming for that, at least in terms of everyday short poems.

Anyways, Beckett and Eliot wrote some cool things about poetry that I've read in the last few days and I think you should read it:

Beckett said, in his essay "Dante...Bruno. Vico..Joyce."
Poetry is essentially the antithesis of Metaphysics: Metaphysics purge the mind of the senses and cultivate the disembodiment of the spiritual; Poetry is all passion and feeling and animates the inanimate; Metaphysics are most perfect when most concerned with universals; Poetry, when most concerned with particulars. Poets are the sense, philosophers the intelligence of humanity. Considering the Scholastics' axiom: "niente 'e nell'intelletto che prima non sia nel senso" it follows that poetry is a prime condition of philosophy and civilization. The primitive animistic movement was a manifestation of the "forma poetica dello spirito."
The s.o.b. didn't bother to translate the Italian becaus he thought everybody forever should be privy to such education if they were to considered truely worthy of reading his shite, but I remember enough of the language to make due: "nothing is in the intellect which didn't first come from the senses" and "the poetic form of the spirit."

And Eliot, in his essay "Milton I", in comparing Shakespeare and Milton, said
At no point is visual imagination conspicuous in Milton's poetry. It would be as well to have a few illustrations of what I mean by visual imagination. [He does a passage from Macbeth that I don't care to write, and then this one:]
Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to the rooky wood.
not only offer[s] something to the eye, but, so to speak, to the common sense. I mean they convey the feelings of a being at a particular place at a particular time. ... With Shakespeare...the combinations of words offer perpetual novelty; they enlarge the meaning of the individual words joined... In comparison, Milton's images do not give this sense of particularity, nor are the separate words developed in significance. His language is, if one may use the term without disparagement, artificial and conventional.
O'er the smooth enamel'd green...
...paths of this drear wood
The nodding horror of whose shady brows
Threats the forlorn and wandering passenger.


He goes onto suggest that Milton writes English like a dead language. I'm not sure. Never read the guy. But I'd like to. And Eliot's a fucking smart guy.

4 comments:

Tia said...

I don't think you're giving prose enough credit in your definition. It's more than just storytelling, and, specifically, fiction is definitely not talking about something that already happened, because it's not something that happened - it's made up.

I'll agree that good poetry is language sex, but I'd like to amend your definition by saying that good fiction is language foreplay. (Stay with me here.) You take two bodies and wrap them in words, and they spin around the room with the words touching everything and anything. You feel that hint of what's to come but the wait is part of fun and it forces you to re-imagine everything in your life without caring one damn bit about anything in your life, because you're there now and you're as ecstatic and beautiful as the feeling from all those fucking words you're drowning in.

How's that?

Jason said...

You're right about the prose bit. I didn't give it time in my definition because I suppose prose can be anything it wants to be. It's just words, and you can apply them however you like, from novels to flash fiction to technical manuals. So now that I think of it, my definition was wrong--prose is just words, unrestrained by definitive rules.

But poetry feels to me like it should be bound, at least a little bit. To do a painting, you need paint, after all. (Well, not since the advent of MS Paint, I suppose. Actually, maybe that's the problem: we're in an age where definitions are beginning to blur. Moore's really into the idea of culture turning to steam in the next few years, and how everything right now is becoming crossed and confused, because we're expanding so fast as a worldwide civilization; and Terrence McKenna's Zero Point theory is about to come around, too. So maybe my frustration is a sign of the times, and nothing has any meaning anymore because everything has recently become everything.)

Tia said...

But prose is bound, whether it be fiction or nonfiction. It's bound by grammatical properties, which poetry is not, and stylistic properties, which they both share.

When I was a young lass, I hated poetry because I thought you could do anything in it - to me, there were no restrictions. Random line breaks, unfinished or run-on sentences, words used only for their sound and not their meaning. Now, I realize that I was reading bad poetry, and these gross things I hated could be used for a reason.

The same goes for prose. It's harder, here, though, because prose is closer to the everyman than poetry - so much so that nearly anyone can publish a book. I read an article earlier this year that, to me, sums up the plight of the modern novelist:

(I'm paraphrasing here.) A writing professor attended a dinner party and sat next to a surgeon. They started with small talk, which of course, entails that horrible question, "What do you do?" She explained that she was a writer and taught writing at a university. The surgeon replied, "Oh, I love writing! If only I had the time!" as if that's all it takes. The woman held her tongue but wanted to say, "I've always wanted to be a surgeon. If only I had the time!" In the essay, she went on to explain that because prose is an essential part of nearly every field, everyone feels close to it, believing that, yes, if they had they had the time, they could be a good writer.

My point with this digression is that prose, like poetry, is an art, and they both have boundaries and direction. It's obvious in poetry because your section at the book store isn't littered with doctors, lawyers, and salesmen randomly jotting down their story (or another that interested them) without bothering to learn how to pen the splendor that is a good book. The subtleties and beauty that you see in poetry are in prose, they're just used differently. Where poetry creates a feeling for you, prose forces you to experience that emotion, and, in both good prose and poetry, the result is the same: orgasmic delight.

Tia said...

In reply to your parenthetical clause, I'm not the best with philosophical ponderings; but, from what I can gather, you're saying that any one thing means everything and therefore means nothing (or at least it's starting to look that way). I can understand where this come from, especially in the arts, but I wouldn't worry too much. Recent and ancient history shows that a dominate culture gets its comeupins.

Cultural "victories" aren't like Civilization, where you compare percentages of colors. Culture, when spreading, can be accepted, rejected, or integrated. Definitions become blurry because they're evolving, and, while all will never be well, things will change and people will adapt.

For example, the American idea of a story or poem is drastically different from the rest of the world, and it takes a lot for your selfish story (as most American stories are) to get published anywhere that isn't the U.S. Hopefully, the idea of the masses and the person will come together and create advent of writing. Until then, I'll write my silly stories about one or two people and their stupid feelings.