As an art form, poetry predates prose in every advanced culture that I know of. In China, The Book of Songs is the first literary work. In Europe we have the Iliad. In India we have the Mahabharata. The reason for this is very simple. Poetry is developed in pre-literate cultures as part of the oral tradition, and the devices of poetry—a pre-determined rhythm, rhyme, parallelism of structure, tonal patterns, and repeated elements—help us to remember it and pass it down to the next generation. Poetry, thus, is measured language, and in fact it was frequently called “numbers” in the Elizabethan period. It was independently developed in different parts of the world, and the differing resources of completely different languages are used to compose it. It is not amiss to say that it is more akin to song than it is to prose.
Traditional Chinese poetry makes use of the various tones in set patterns, as well as a fixed number of monosyllabic words per line–and it rhymes. (The earliest known Chinese poems are in The Book of Songs.) We lack both the monosyllables and the tones in English and cannot even approximate the effect of the Chinese. The Iliad is written in lines of twelve to seventeen syllables in set patterns of long and short syllables of fixed length. We cannot reproduce the effect of this well in English because we do not have vowels of fixed length (long vowels of two beats, short vowels of one). The Mahabharata is written in couplets (pairs of lines) in the heroic measure, and we cannot reproduce its effects well either. But however different these are from each other, they are all measured language, and this organization distinguishes them from prose in any culture. It is a matter of form, not of emotional suggestion or feeling, and this cannot be over-stressed. (The idea that poetry is emotive comes from the current popularity of a sort of lyric poetry, but as early as the first century BCE, Virgil was writing about the processes of farming in his Georgics.)
Thus, we could jump into a time-machine and travel to anyplace in the world at any time and recognize what was poetry and what was prose—up until the last century, that is. (And this distinction between two different kinds of writing would have been recognized by the people of those cultures!) Now, the history of poetry has taken the same path as the history the other arts in the past century: craft has been abandoned for subjectivism, tradition has been abandoned for theory, and a new definition has been substituted for the old. This is very odd. For three thousand years, poetry has had a well-defined character sharply differentiated from prose, and now we discard the distinction. One decade someone is writing poetry and another person is writing prose, and the two things are very different. The next decade one person is writing poetry and the other is writing prose, and the two things are of the same basic type. This doesn’t seem to be very useful!
One of the defenses of prose libre has been that it is more “natural” than traditional poetry. Of course it is! Poetry isn’t “natural” at all, and the ways in which it is not “natural” are what have always defined it as “poetry” as distinguished from “prose”! Let’s take three examples:
I sometimes think that never blows so read the rose as where some buried Caesar bled, that every Hyacinth the Garden wears dropped in its lap from some once-lovely head.
I saw a man pursuing the horizon; round and round they sped. I was disturbed at this; I accosted the man. “It is futile,” I said, “You can never—” “You lie,” he cried, and ran on.
This was the shocking thing; that the slime of the pit seemed to utter cries and voices; that the amorphous dust gesticulated and sinned; that what was dead and had no shape, should usurp the office of life. And this again, that the insurgent horror was knit to him closer than a wife, closer than an eye; lay caged in his flesh where he heard it mutter and felt it struggle to be born.
The first example is by Edward Fitzgerald, and it is unquestionably poetry, even when presented as prose. It has a determined rhythm consisting of four units of ten syllables, every other syllable being stressed, and the last syllable in each unit but the third is a rhyme. What about the others . . . perhaps we have destroyed them, somehow, by writing them as prose. Let’s see:
I sometimes think that never blows so red
The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled,
That every Hyacinth the Garden wears
Dropped in its lap from some once-lovely head.
I SAW A MAN
I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never—“
“You lie,” he cried,
And ran on.
This was the shocking thing; that the slime of the pit
seemed to utter cries and voices;
that the amorphous dust
gesticulated and sinned;
that what was dead
. . . and had no shape,
should usurp the office of life.
And this again,
that the insurgent horror
was knit to him
closer than a wife,
closer than an eye;
lay caged in his flesh,
. . . where he heard it mutter
and felt it struggle to be born.
Have the last two examples suddenly acquired visible, objective characteristics that distinguish them from prose—beyond the fact that the lines are short and the margins ragged? Why are they to be regarded as poetry?
The first was written by Stephen Crane, the author of The Red Badge of Courage, and can be found in many anthologies of American poetry. The second is actually part of one paragraph of the novel, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson. It is a rather florid bit of prose that I have broken up on the page. But take note of the fact that there are no objective criteria that can tell us that the first of these is poetry and the second is prose! Each has its own interest. The first is a kind of existential conundrum, and the second is a fevered look into the depths of shame, guilt, and addiction. They may be regarded as a separate literary form, prose libre, perhaps. But why should we throw out a useful distinction, one that is part of the history of different cultures over a period of three thousand years, and which allows us to classify the literatures of the world? Why should they be regarded as poetry?
It isn’t the subject, for both poetry and prose can have any subject. It isn’t the imagery, for imagery is a property of prose as well. It isn’t the story-telling element or the suggestion of a philosophical point, for these are also features of prose. It isn’t the line-by-line organization, for they are fundamentally organized by the sense of what is being said, just as prose its, and not by the rhythmic structure. There is, in fact, no objective way to separate them from prose—except the uneven lines—and of course, the last one really is prose. Isn’t the other, too?
Let’s take another tack. The following stanza is the beginning of “Lord Byron’s Life” by Julia Moore (1847-1920), “The Sweet Singer of Michigan.”
“Lord Byron” was an Englishman,
A poet I believe,
His first works in old England
Was poorly received.
Perhaps it was “Lord Byron’s” fault
And perhaps it was not.
His life was full of misfortunes,
Ah, strange was his lot.
This is poetry . . . truly terrible poetry. We can tell that it is a poem because of the form: because of the rhyme (man, land, believe, received, etc.), and because it is apparently written in alternating lines of iambic tetrameter [dih DAH] [dih DAH] [ dih DAH] [ dih DAH] and iambic trimeter [dih DAH] [ dih DAH] [ dih DAH]. (In poetry we always have much more to go on than the mere fact that the margins are uneven.) We can tell that it is a bad poem because “England” must be mispronounced with three syllables (ENG-ge-LAND) to make it fit into the meter. The same thing is true of “poorly” (PO-er-LY). We note that “and perhaps it was not” must be mispronounced to fit the trimeter pattern [and PER] [-haps IT] [was NOT]. (Or read as a monosyllabic foot followed by an anapaest, and an iamb: [AND] [per-haps IT] [was NOT], but that is clearly too sophisticated for the “Sweet Singer.”) “Misfortunes” must be pronounced [MIS-for-TUNES] to make it fit into the line. And finally, “Ah, strange was his lot” must be read [AH, strange WAS his LOT] with the emphasis on “was” instead of “strange.” None of these distortions seems to offer compensations, and they could have easily been avoided. For example, “were scornfully” would work better than “was poorly” (and would be better grammar as well), and “maybe” could have been substituted for “perhaps” to better effect. In other words, she is simply incompetent—a poetaster.
We know this from the lack of craftsmanship before we even look at what she is laboring to say, which turns out to be banal, clichéd, and simply silly. She is telling us that Byron’s works were poorly received, but doesn’t seem to be sure that he was a poet . . . but she believes so? As for the reception of his works, we do know that he was tremendously popular, and we know why he was later virtually exiled! What follows is moralizing drivel that ends with the words, “then closed the sad career of the most celebrated “Englishman” of the nineteenth century.” I defy anyone to find three lines of poetry in that. It is prose.
Now, take an example of prose libre of your choice. Without using the raggedness of the margins as a criterion (what could be more trivial), can you tell that it is a poem and not prose, and what objective criteria would you use to do so? If it were run together in a paragraph with even margins would it be anything but a sort of fragmented, imagistic, and elusive prose? What is the unique craftsmanship of prose libre?
Note The notion of “found poetry,” which is exemplified by the quotation from Dr. Jekyl, has had its defenders—people who would rather theorize than actually respond to literature. The game is easily played, as the Dr. Jekyl example shows. In a class on prosody I took in the early sixties, we were told a cautionary tale. A well-known poet’s work had been reviewed in (I think) the Times Literary Supplement, and one of his most famous poems was reproduced. Shortly after this, a reader wrote in to say that the “poem” was actually part of a paragraph of a novel he had written many years before. That turned out to be true, and the poet was asked to explain. As I recall, he waffled for a time and then said that he was sure that he had never read the novel, but he thought that he must have seen a review of it that quoted the passage. He was so struck by it, he said, that he thinks he had copied it down in a notebook, and looking at it much later—seeing the lines broken up as they were on the notebook page—he thought it must be a poem he had written! Does this tell you anything?