Thursday, November 4, 2010

Poetry v. Prose: Lovers or Fighters?

Yesterday I got a message that a travel essay I wrote is being considered for a lovely publication. I was really thrilled as my non-fiction pieces are rarely written. The truth is, I've not been nearly as interested in writing prose as I am in writing poetry. If a poem I write does not get published, I don't associate that with a failure or waste of time. Instead, I think the right publication hasn't come along yet -- that poem's own prince charming is out of town for the moment. But even that's not right. A poem that stays on my computer I can still love, has taught me something, can still be relevant to my writing life. However, an essay that stays on my computer waiting for her dance card to be filled feels entirely different.

When I write prose I've been focused on an end result. I pitched a story about the coming of the railroad to the northwest, and the story was bought and then later, anthologized. This month, I have a piece coming out about Myra Albert Wiggins and my relationship with her work. I've loved writing these pieces and I'm grateful to see them in print. So what is the difference, for me, between poetry and prose? I don't have set answers, but I do want to explore this a bit.

1. Poetry is the way I understand the world. I go to poetry, yes, I admit it, for a way to live my life. I go to poetry for sustenance. I require it as a touchstone for healthy living. It's my vitamins and my prayer book all in one.

2. I write poetry because I have to. At this point, after writing poetry for more than half my life, and publishing three books, I am addicted. I love that stanzas are Italian rooms and that the human heart has an iambic beat. I can't imagine my life without the profound struggle and ecstasy of poetry.

3. Prose is a stranger to me and a little aloof. Prose is what I was graded on at school and what I have to grade in my working life. Prose can often take too many words to say something best left half-said. Prose is so much easier to get tangled up inside of.

4. Prose is perhaps more the literary currency of our time. I say "perhaps" but I know that's just the poet in me hoping. The readership for prose, especially for the non-fiction articles I write, is easily double the audience for poetry. If I want people to read my words, shouldn't I write non-fiction a little more often?

5. Poetry and prose can be the best of friends. At the Centrum Writers Conference in Port Townsend, WA a few years ago, I heard a prose writer and a poet on a double bill. The poet was entirely prosaic in his conversational style, rambling lines, and dare I say, uninspired delivery. The prose writer, on the other hand, nearly sang her chapter -- and the sound, details, and syntax were wildly poetic. Although I knew the lesson that prose can be poetic before that evening, that experience allowed me to live it.

In this time of hybrid forms and all sorts of experimental work, I think it's pointless for me to worry this distinction at all.  I realize this blog is prose and that I've become used to this as an exchange of ideas and on a good day, perhaps some inspiration. In other words, I want to try and do away with the hierarchy of language that I carry within me. The idea that poetry is more connected to the muse may well be true for me, but why not let the muse toss off her old habits and try something new. Here's to poets writing prose and prose writers trying poetry. Perhaps we need a name for that to entice people or even a national holiday. I'd even start with a postage stamp that says "Celebrate Language." Why not?


  1. Susan- I love the analogy of the poem that stays in the computer as opposed to say an essay. Beautifully insightful post.

  2. Thank you, Michael. It helped clarify some things for me. I heard Nichole Krauss read last night. She had things to say about the novel vs. the poem which I will write more about soon. I am loving her novel, Great House, the first of her books I've picked up.