What is the difference between poetry and prose writing? I’ll try to write my way to an answer. For me, writing—all writing—has always been about rhythm: the mind replaying a persistent tune, heart caught up in the palpitations. And finding the words to make sense of it all. I’m not alone in this. Short story writer Amy Hempel talked about the potential of musicality in a sentence, of starting a story knowing.
Pic by Marawan Musilem
“the beat, the rhythm of the first line or first paragraph, but without knowing what the words are. I’ll be doing the equivalent of humming a tune over and over again and then this tune will be translated into a sentence. So I might be thinking, da-da-da-da-da-da-dadada, that’ll become, ‘Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,’ which is the first line of ‘In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.’ And I trust that. There’s something visceral about the musical quality of a sentence.”
We often emphasise the importance of rhythm and clusters of sound in poetry. A poem is pure play in that regard—a safe haven for sibilance and assonance, lips alight with alliteration. I don’t think we appreciate that as much in prose, no matter how inherently musical a sentence or entire story may be. Almost every primer outlining the differences between prose and poetry will claim that poetry is the realm of rhyme and rhythm, sound and feel. The language of prose is straightforward, apparently. Undecorated.
This isn’t too unfair: there’s a great deal that goes into prose writing that we don’t identify with poetry (as readers, at least). We explicate different things when reading the different forms. In prose, characters are built, mind and flesh, from the ground up. A narrative is woven. There’s an abundance of words. Prose feels something like carrying a creature to full term, embracing its inevitable chimerism, while poetry has more of an opportunity to leap forth from the temple of the head like Athena, fully formed. If the poet is prophet, preaching a gospel about some truth universal, then prose-writing is something like prophecy in reverse, the creation of destiny despite there being no new stories under the sun.
What is the difference between poetry and prose writing? There was a time I insisted that writing poetry was a ‘foray’. That I was not a poet but a ‘writer’, embroiled in character and narrative. I was not interested in autobiography. Almost every poem I’ve written has a central character and an overarching narrative line that connects it with other poems. I’m aware of this, even if my reader is not. The ‘I’ in my poems is never ‘I’, the author. My poems are narratives, and these ‘I’s—these characters—inhabit them, me the author slipping into the skin of the character and inhabiting it, embodying it, before shucking it off and moving on to a new poem. But there was always the rhythm. The musical quality of the sentence.
Hempel recalls her first meeting with Sharon Olds—master of the confessional poem—who looked out of the restaurant window at an ordinary brick building and read its surface, described it in scansion:
“how the strong beat was the window, and if you ignored the air conditioners, you’d have: wall WÍN(dow), wall WÍN(dow), wall WÍN(dow)…”
Pic by Andrew Kuznetsov (flickr)
Olds saw “iambic apartments”, felt that her poems had to be “graffiti across that row of windows—‘handwritten, grounded, less organized, more like an ordinary human being talking to another.’”
What is the difference between poetry and prose writing? Is organisation, or construction, the answer? But everything written is constructed: dialogue in prose is hardly like dialogue in real life. Characters represent our best and worst selves—they can be human, yet transcend our humanity, the boundaries of what we can be. And, of course, the rhythm—always construed and constructed by author or poet alike, our hearts close enough to Plath’s old brag: I am, I am, I am. I think we write prose to build lives not yet lived, meet people we’d otherwise never know. I think we write poetry to capture a certain quality of sunlight, or to show what a teacup looks like in the right pair of hands.
I wanted to tell you about the difference between poetry and prose writing, for me, at least. I confess, I can only tell you what should be there: the music. If prose is about the people, the characters, then poetry must be about the details of being a person. The microcosms, the moments, as fleeting as breath, of our minor and miraculous lives.