Friday, July 07, 2006

Poetry Is Not Prose

How many times do we have to say that? Poetry is not prose, and doesn't have to obey the same rules as prose. Prose grammar and punctuation are not necessarily pertinent to poetry. Yet there are constant picky grammarians who never seem to get it. Perhaps it's a litmus test, for whosoever insists on prose grammar in poetry is also likely to be writing poetry that is very prosaic, and except for enjambment, might as well be prose. Examples abound.

On punctuation, I'll say it again: the rules of prose grammar do not necessarily apply to poetry. Poetry, again, is not prose. One can hear the grammarians already raising their hands to object, but that's the simple truth in a nutshell. They're not the same, and they are not to be treated indentically. One of the problems with so much bad poetry being written nowadays that reads and sounds exactly like prose, except for being broken into odd lines on the page, is that too many poets have actually being listening to these grammatical purists and their bad advice. That, and of course the problem that many people don't realize that free verse also doesn't mean the same thing as prose. But I digress.

Many poets use punctuation of various kinds to indicate breath marks, pauses, breaks in the flow of reading, short lines, long linesa—all of these indicate how the piece is to be read. Some poems deliberately use "non-standard" punctuation to notate the way the piece should be read out loud, in much the same way musical performance is notated. Obviously, line-breaks and stanza-breaks also affect this, too. The bottom line is: punctuation is another poetic tool, but it doesn't have to be used in the same way that we're expected to use it in prose.

Poetry is music with language: it's meant to have rhythm, cadence, melody, and harmony, including harmonc resonance, in ways that prose does not always use. (Let's ignore, for the momentary sake of argument, the venerable prose-poem, one of my favorite literary forms, and which breaks many of these rules.) Dry prose is not supposed to sing. It is wonderufl when it does. But poetry takes it to another level: poetry is heightened, exalted, brought to life. It's more than prose. A poem can pack layers of meaning into a few simple images and words that might take a paragraph of prose to describe. Basho can be just as resonant and evocative as Proust; their methods are different, but their goals, and their achievements, and not so very dissimilar. Poetry is condensed, compressed, layered, compact language. Prose doesn't have to be.

Poetry is not prose. Quit trying to make it into prose.

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