When I last met with my doctoral supervisors we spent some time talking about a particular six page narrative poem. “It’s good, but it’s not a poem,” they said. “It’s a short story.” Later on we talked about another long poem: “You need to decide what drives this poem, the lyric or the narrative.”
What makes a poem a poem compared to a story?
I would like to suggest that, to reach its reader, a poem puts pressure on language whereas prose puts pressure on character and narrative. By poetic pressure I mean the combined might of rhythm, rhyme, meter, assonance, form and figurative language. Even with those pressures in mind though, the line between poetry and prose is icy and sometimes I slip from one to the other without realising.
I apologise in advance for comparing prose to a donkey.
The online dictionary tells me that ‘prose’ is the antonym for ‘poetry.’ If this is true then the increasingly popular ‘prose poem’ is a neatly packaged contradiction: neither the poetic horse or the prosaic donkey but an infertile hybrid mule. A prose poem is generally considered to be a short piece of prose that emphasises the qualities of poetry (as listed above) over narrative. This differs from the long narrative poem which tries to juggle both poetics and narrative with poetics being the larger ball.
Another way of applying pressure to language is the line break. I think we sometimes forget about the power of lines breaks to transform meaning and form. Even when a prose poem is force justified, for example my poem in my last post (to which my supervisors said “definitely a poem”), the line ends still play a part in echoing and supporting the central theme of the poem. When discussing the poem / prose dilemma at a workshop recently, a writer-friend said of a long narrative poem: “It is a poem. If you took out the line breaks and ran it all together as prose it wouldn’t make sense anymore.”
The Road by Cormac McCarthy is the best novel I have read in the last few years. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007 and was popular enough to be made into a Hollywood movie and featured on Oprah (the pinnacle of American publishing?). He is also the author of No Country for Old Men and All the Pretty Horses. The story follows a father and son trying to reach the coast in a burned and dangerous post-apocalyptic world. The Road is a poetic novel: it forgets punctuation, capitalisation and dialogue attribution in order for the form to mirror the atmosphere of anarchy and anonymity in the book. The “boy” and “man” become all boys, all men. It also places pressure on language through rhyme and assonance in order to create the world of the story. Here is a passage from The Road (p. 191):
Here is the passage again with line breaks. I suggest reading it out loud. Imagine it with a title:
Everything was covered in ash. The aisles littered.
Suit-cases stood open in the seats where they’d been lifted
down from the overhead racks
and rifled long ago. In the club car he found a stack of paper
plates and he blew the dust from them and put them inside
his parka and that was all. How did it get here, Papa?
Maybe a poem is like love and you know it when you see it? Maybe love is like a poem with its pressures and echoes? These are my thoughts and I would like to hear yours.