On ‘Poetic’ Prose

The difference between verse and prose is self-evident, but it is a sheer waste of time to look for a definition of the difference between poetry and prose.

—W. H. Auden

When Prose Is Poetic

Prose is seldom poetic. When prose is poetic, this isn’t of itself a good thing. More often it is bad. Indeed, a healthy maxim might be: Good prose is never poetic. But this would miss the point—which is that when prose is called ‘poetic’, it’s usually not so. Misunderstanding and belittlement, both of prose and of the ‘poetic’, issue from this abuse.

To call poetry ‘prosaic’—as eg Jeremy Noel-Tod of Swithering—is derogation; to call prose ‘poetic’—as innumerable puffquotes and hacks—is encomium.

Does this suggest a tacit hierarchy, in which writing poetry’s a ‘higher’ art than writing prose?

No. What it suggests is laziness. To say prose is ‘poetic’ is to repeat a cliché of praise.

To say prose is ‘poetic’ is to say the square is round.

I concede that many have said the square is round, that many have said this of shapes which both look quite curvy, and have corners. But! Prose is an art its own. Beautiful prose is rare as beautiful poetry. Only the genius gets near. To call such prose ‘poetic’ because it’s beautiful is careless diminishment, is evidence of absence of thought.

Why might we call prose ‘poetic’? For content, style, or both? Content can’t make anything ‘poetic’, because poetry is magnanimous. Poetry may treat of love; it may treat of iceberg lettuce; it may treat of global warming. To define it by content is to make a mistake.

So style. Poetry tends to have aural or acoustic texture, which consists of assonance and alliteration (perhaps analysable as rhyme, perhaps not), and rhythm (perhaps analysable as metre, perhaps not). These together we could term poetry’s ‘music’. Poetry also tends to think in metaphors, but needn’t necessarily. Poetry tends to appear in lines that do not tend to reach the right margin; this is not, though, sine qua non. Writing in broken lines, that rhymes, and has metre, is poetry.

(I don’t know where poetry may be said to end and prose begin. The best policy in doubtful cases is to take what the writer thought she was writing, if that’s determinable, as what she was writing. Song lyrics, incidentally, are not poetry.)

Is it these qualities which make prose ‘poetic’? No. It is these qualities, as well as misguided ideas of which matter belongs in the domain of poetry and which in prose, that cause people to call prose ‘poetic’.

When Prose Is Prosaical

Why ‘prosaical’? Only because the newer sense of ‘prosaic’ is now so alien to the original one, it’s possible to call prose ‘prosaic’ without tautology.

Prose manifests its own beauties; we do not need poetry, or a concept of the ‘poetic’ in prose, to make sense of them. Of course there is commonality: it is that both media exploit the potential of language to sound music; that is, all writers, all speakers—consciously or not—orchestrate harmonies of vowels and consonants in rhythms which stress or play on those harmonies. But this is obvious to the point of banality. Everyone knows most proverbs, most clichés, most (shall we say?) successful phrases, turn on consonance. I won’t print a list. (Try www.westegg.com/cliche/random.cgi). But consider ‘swan off’. Whoever came up with that had a poet’s ear. Or do we all?

(Consider also ‘navel-gazing’. Who ever gazed at his navel? It doesn’t happen. The phrase has succeeded because it rhymes, not because it is a pungent or accurate description of life.)

Attention to aural texture is legitimately a feature of prose as well as of poetry. Such attention does not mark prose as especially poetic any more than does use of metaphor or anaphora. An anecdote: in conversation my old tutor Matthew Reynolds has claimed that, aesthetically speaking, he prefers disharmony to harmony. I believe him. Still, there’s irony in the way he liked to adduce Tennyson’s ‘Music that gentlier on the spirit lies, / Than tir’d eyelids upon tir’d eyes’ as epitomic poetry. Just listen to those vowels chime like a one-note bell choir.

From Giacomo Joyce (which Ellmann blurbily calls ‘a love poem’):

She raises her arms in an effort to hook at the nape of her neck a gown of black veiling. She cannot: no, she cannot. She moves backwards towards me mutely. I raise my arms to help her: her arms fall. I hold the websoft edges of her gown and drawing them out to hook them I see through the opening of the black veil her lithe body sheathed in an orange shift. It slips its ribbons of moorings at her shoulders and falls slowly: a lithe smooth naked body shimmering with silvery scales. It slips slowly over the slender buttocks of smooth polished silver and over their furrow, a tarnished silver shadow . . . . Fingers, cold and calm and moving . . . . A touch, a touch.

From Ulysses:

He sank two lumps of sugar deftly longwise through the whipped cream. Buck Mulligan slit a steaming scone in two and plastered butter over its smoking pith. He bit off a soft piece hungrily.

Thomas Hardy:

The outskirt of the garden in which Tess found herself had been left uncultivated for some years, and was now damp and rank with juicy grass which sent up mists of pollen at a touch; and with tall blooming weeds emitting offensive smells—weeds whose red and yellow and purple hues formed a polychrome as dazzling as that of cultivated flowers. She went stealthily as a cat through this profusion of growth, gathering cuckoo-spittle on her skirts, cracking snails that were underfoot, staining her hands with thistle-milk and slug-slime, and rubbing off upon her naked arms sticky blights which, though snow-white on the apple-tree trunks, made blood-red stains on her skin; thus she drew quite near to Clare, still unobserved of him.

Saul Bellow:

Abed, he touched Sono’s eyelids experimentally, as she lay smiling. Those strange, complex, soft, pale lids would keep the imprint of a touch for quite a while. To tell the truth, I never had it so good, he wrote. But I lacked the strength of character to bear such joy. That was hardly a joke. When a man's breast feels like a cage from which all the dark birds have flown—he is free, he is light. And he longs to have his vultures back again. He wants his customary struggles, his nameless, empty works, his anger, his afflictions and his sins. (Herzog)

The light held long after nine o’clock, and the ground was covered with clover, more than a mile of green between Cottage Grove and Stony Island. (‘In the Days of Mr. Roosevelt’)

Vladimir Nabokov:

Then Timofey’s torso was bared, and to it Belochkin [the pediatrician] pressed the icy nudity of his ear and the sandpapery side of his head. Like the flat sole of some monopode, the ear ambulated all over Timofey’s back and chest, gluing itself to this or that patch of skin and stomping on to the next.

One had to forget – because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by injection of phenol to the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one’s lips in the dusk of the past. And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one’s mind, an undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again, led away by a trained nurse, inoculated with filth, tetanus bacilli, broken glass, gassed in a sham shower bath with prussic acid, burned alive in a pit on a gasoline-soaked pile of beechwood. […]

Pnin slowly walked under the solemn pines. The sky was dying. He did not believe in an autocratic God. He did believe, dimly, in a democracy of ghosts. The souls of the dead, perhaps, formed committees, and these, in continuous session, attended to the destinies of the quick.

The mosquitos were getting bothersome. Time for tea. Time for a game of chess with Chateau. That strange spasm was over, one could breathe again. On the distant crest of the knoll, at the exact spot where Gramineev’s easel had stood a few hours before, two dark figures in profile were silhouetted against the ember-red sky. They stood there closely, facing each other. One could not make out from the road whether it was the Poroshin girl and her beau, or Nina Bolotov and young Poroshin, or merely an emblematic couple placed with easy art on the last page of Pnin’s fading day.

Henry Green:

Again, each Sunday afternoon we had a walk still dressed in our best and we could draw in the sweet county air, this island’s attar of roses, coming from the sea overland to where we meandered, the woods all about us, rooks up in the sky, cattle in the fields. Every lane so it now seems was sunken, tufts of grass and wild flowers overhung our walks and sometimes, coming over the hill, we had that view over all the country where it lay beneath in light haze like a king’s pleasure preserved for idle hours. (Pack my Bag)

Such, for arbitrary example, is prosaical prose. There is nothing that should limit the beauty of prose as form compared with poetry as form, though prose (in English) has as yet no Shakespeare—except insofar as Shakespeare wrote prose (‘what is this quintessence of dust?’). Musical artistry is not exclusively characteristic of poetry; it’s there in beautiful words of all provenance. What most usefully defines poetry is concern with the unit of the line. Prose broken into lines is likely to make bad poetry, defined so because the writer thinks herself a poet. (Though they’ve swiftly mutated away from the original sense ‘of prose’, pejorative use of the terms ‘prosaic’ and ‘prosy’ offends me. Critics are not ideally stringent when they reprove poetry for being ‘prosaic’—what features of the verse are so deplorably like prose?) To chance a generalisation: prose pays scant heed to the unit of the line; it is rather concerned with the units of sentence, paragraph and chapter.

Which brings us to Giacomo Joyce. As beautiful a stretch of prose as Joyce ever wrote, this heavily biographical short story uses devices that may occur in either prose or poetry, are probably more common in poetry, but ‘prosaises’ them so far, makes them work in and for the prose in ways that are so specific to the medium, that to call them ‘poetic’ only makes a nonsense of the word. Joyce here writes—though does not inaugurate (think of Swift’s ‘He had been Eight Years upon a Project for extracting Sun-Beams out of Cucumbers, which were to be put into Vials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the Air in raw inclement Summers’)—a ‘prosaical’ prose.

To rephrase: whereas the art of poetry tends to consist in how a poet organises her harmonies of sound over, around and across a structure derived from (i) the unit of the line and (ii) the metrical foot, Joyce’s artistry shapes these harmonies according to the units of sentence and paragraph. The units of line and metre are irrelevant, and though rhythm creeps in occasionally, it’s never systematic or schematic. (Prosaical rhythm is precludingly difficult to analyse.) Joyce’s prose in this sense differs fundamentally from poetry; his assonance, alliteration, rhythm, etc. (I hesitate to use the word ‘cadence’, as I don’t know what it means), are prosaical, not poetic.

Take the passage beginning, ‘She raises her arms’. Four of these sentences have prosaical caesurae. They gather themselves powerfully up to a break, introduced by a colon or comma, after which they fall off gracefully, making symmetrical patterns. Sound is miming sense in ‘I raise my arms to help her: her arms fall.’ Joyce tends to repeat words or phrases to pin his paragraphs together, so here we have ‘arms’, ‘black veil’, ‘gown’, ‘body’, ‘slips’, ‘silver’ and finally ‘move’ and ‘touch’, harmonies that move between sentences as ‘She cannot: no, she cannot’ moves within one. It’d be pedantic to catalogue all the correspondences of sound, but I should point up ‘websoft edges’, ‘lithe smooth’, the bs in ‘black’, ‘body’ and ‘buttocks’, the ls everywhere, and crucially, the array of s, z and sh sounds that falls around she. The short ih vowel occurs omnipresently from ‘sheathed in an orange shift. It slips its ribbons of moorings’ (seven or eight times) to ‘tarnished silver’ and ‘Fingers … moving’. The correspondences emphasise what they have not embraced: ‘naked’, ‘buttocks’, ‘furrow’ and ‘touch’ stand out thanks to their hard consonants and dark vowels. The build-up and flow of this prose is importantly dissimilar to poetry, which relies heavier on the counter-influence of metre and stanza working against harmonies of sound to create meaning independently of the poem’s content—and Giacomo is replete with writing of like density. Who knows why these esses, ls and ihs were for Joyce associated with erotic feeling? We could say they are elusively feminine, but of course the context has prejudiced us: though it accesses all, the prosaical style of Joyce is unknowable.

The figure that imagines the girl as silver-scaled and piscine could have worked as ravishingly in poetry.

More Giacomo:

Her classmate, retwisting her twisted body, purrs in boneless Viennese Italian: Che coltura! The long eyelids beat and lift: a burning needleprick stings and quivers in the velvet iris.

Grey twilight moulds softly the slim and shapely haunches, the meek supple tendonous neck, the fine-boned skull.

I rush out of the tobacco-shop and call her name. She turns and halts to hear my jumbled words of lessons, hours, lessons, hours: and slowly her pale cheeks are flushed with a kindling opal light.

The sellers offer on their altars the first fruits: green-flecked lemons, jewelled cherries, shameful peaches with torn leaves.

She walks before me along the corridor and as she walks a dark coil of her hair slowly uncoils and falls.

Calling prose ‘poetic’ explains nothing. The practice amounts to critical solecism, and evinces languor of mind. Prose has no need of poetry to justify or to account for its manifold beauties. To imply it’s beautiful or good because it is ‘poetic’ (likewise, but less sinfully, ‘lyrical’ or ‘elegiac’) is to deprecate a great artform by invocation of counterfeit dependency on one equally great.

(Film critics such as David Thomson and Geoff Andrew have described films or scenes of films as ‘poetic’, or directors as ‘poets’ of cinema, but their meaning is lost to me. To take a guess: they use the words in pontifical synonymy with ‘allegorical’ or, simpler, ‘pretty’, where these are lineaments of art in general, not only its manifestation in poetry.)

I do not know what ‘poetic’ prose would look or sound like. Probably it would use a rhyme scheme, a form of metre, a broken layout; a combination of the three. But why would this not be (prosaic) poetry? Truly a quandary.

Would it not be easier to suppose that prose cannot be ‘poetic’? That whenever prose is deemed ‘poetic’, it is really prosaical, or poetry? The idea of round squares is neither useful nor intelligible to mathematicians. ‘Poetic’ prose approaches such redundancy, and I think matches such inanity.

Adam Piette is a brilliant scholar of prosaical prose. He just doesn’t know it.

A poem:

Not quite heat- or rain-scrim, this heavy
blankness, thinning now, presides with mauve-
tinted wipe-around grey. Noon
, yet no distance
to any horizon. The Malverns gone in haze.
I would not, formerly,
have so described bereavement. Land
of Unlikeness
a similitude, certitude
moves to dissolution. Still, an answer:
misprised, misplaced love,
our routine, is not tragedy;
misadventure at worst. And my self-styled
lament must cover for us both.
Something here to know the time by, in all
conscience. In all conscience we
shall lie down together. Dear one, be told
you chose impenetrable absence; I become
commonplace fantasy’s
life-sentenced ghost. Allow
our one tolerable scena its two minds.
Abruptly the sun’s out, striking a new
cleave; skidding the ridge-grass, down steep hangers;
buddleia in dark bloom; a wayward covey
of cabbage-whites this instant
| balanced
and prinking, the light itself aromatic.

(It’s poem LXV from Geoffrey Hill’s Orchards of Syon.) Ignore the aural spectacle and watch the lines break. See how the unit of the line is made to cut across, to interfere with the unit of the sentence so as to engender more and different meaning than they could unbroken? This interplay, more than consonance or metre, is the volatile essence of poetry—and it can’t happen in prose without making poetry of the prose.

‘Poetic prose’ is a figment we’d do well to forget. To call prose ‘poetic’ is invidiously to declare you do not understand what poetry and prose are; it is explicitly to admit your blindness to the nature of literature’s first dichotomy after that of meaning and style. Elide it from your vocabulary, or risk disrespect.

PS. A brilliant and brief discussion (by Jeremy Noel-Tod) of what may be prosaic in poetry is here.

For its hectoring and callowness I endorse the essay no longer (it was written a year ago), but I republish here to save it from the bastardisation it underwent in The Owl, whose editors decided to scatter the quotations randomly through the text in pointless boxes.

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