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Why is a poem different from prose?
As I've been writing and trying to discover what it is that makes a poem, I've continually been pulled back to one basic truth from which all others must spring: whatever constitutes a poem and poetry, it is not, and must be something other than, prose. Now, at least one reader has observed that I'm belaboring the obvious with the previous statement. Maybe. But I have to wonder, if it's so obvious, why so much writing that tries to pass itself off as poetry reveals itself, on closer inspection, to be blocks of prose arbitrarily sliced up into uneven lines. Appearance on the page is not the essence of a poem. So I'll assume that the distinctions are not necessarily clear to everyone.

Prose is the realm of narratives, arguments, points of view, explanations, discussions and diatribes of all sizes and shapes. There is, perhaps, no finer medium for such exercises than English prose, playing host as it does to such a plethora of linguistic traditions. An examination of the elements of that prose reveals numerous concepts and structures, all of which exist to convey content and subject in the clearest means possible: phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters, along with myriad types of punctuation to clarify sense, groupings, and meanings. Prose allows us to create hierarchies of meaning, importance, and linear arrangement to indicate not only which elements are more important than others, but which things came first, what happened later and where various elements stand in relation to others in both external time and space, and internal metaphysical space. Prose is meaningless apart from its subject and content. It is reasonable to say that in prose, structure and form are slaves to content and subject.

Poetry, then, whatever else it might be, by virtue of the fact that it enjoys a separate and distinct classification from prose, becomes the repository of "all those other things" that language might accomplish. If you look at the commonly acknowledged elements of poetry—lines, line breaks and various approaches to enjambment, meter, metrical feet, rhyme, various rhyme schemes, alliteration, consonance, sonnets, sestinas, cinquains, pantoums, blank verse, free verse, and God knows how many other forms ancient and not so ancient—it is clear that none of these is concerned with content and subject per se. In poetry, language itself is the star, and subject, such as it is, exists in a much different relationship to that language than in prose. It isn't too much of a stretch to say that in poetry, subject and meaning are the play toys of language. Eliot phrased it well: Meaning, he said, is the piece of meat a burglar tosses a dog. It occupies the mind while the poem goes about its true business.

By this do I mean that poems need not make sense? Not exactly, but it does mean that defining sense in a strict, linear, logical cause-and-effect fashion based on what works in prose is not only unnecessary, it is beside the point and an unwanted restriction. What makes a poem spark is when language takes short cuts, detours, burrows through wormholes of logic and meaning and creates links that not only force us to rethink the logic behind them but also the language itself that conveys whatever content is present. Whereas prose is obligated to clarify and explain, poetry is diminished if that's all it aspires to. Unexpected juxtapositions, linguistically linking two images that otherwise would appear to have nothing to do with each other can, solely through the power of the structures of the language itself, create a relationship between them that prose would be hard-pressed to justify.

Check out this poem by one of the masters of the 20th century, W.H. Auden. "The Fall of Rome. A few things to note: 1) the deceptively simple language. 2) the rich imagery. There are no abstractions. 3) the sudden shift in perspective, effortlessly taking the subject from a representation of a decaying, corrupt system, and pulling back to incorporate the natural world beyond. 4) the revelation of the poem’s true theme in the final stanza, that the natural world proceeds apace, taking no notice of the affairs of men. Of course, nowhere is this articulated. Auden relies on his imagery and language to imply the theme.

The single structural element that most distinguishes poetry from prose is the line. Nothing like it exists in prose. Something I do when I'm first writing a poem is to remove the line breaks and look at it as simply a paragraph of prose. If the sound and sense are unchanged by this process then I know that, whatever my themes and my subject, my language is still the language of prose. A line needs to justify itself and to exist in a way that makes it separate from the content that would be conveyed were the words to simply be part of a paragraph. Lines need to be more than prose broken arbitrarily, they need to stand on their own, and they pay no heed to grammar or syntax; they are their own justification. If lines work, sentences and paragraphs are irrelevant. This is not an invitation to abandon grammar and syntax, but, again, the structure of poetry is not the structure of prose and the language of immediacy that it invites often takes paths that prose is unable to duplicate.

As for subject and content: if you write, obviously, there is content, as, if you breathe, there is implied the existence of air. Subject is a different matter. While there is nothing inherently wrong with a poem that is "about" a particular thing, event, state or condition, it is not the subject itself that will create the poem's value; it is the language. And, while I might want to write a poem about Grandma's old rocking chair, if, by the end of the poem, all that has been discussed is a rocking chair and it's position in the living room and the times Grandma sat in it and what she did while sitting in it, I've perhaps written a poem, but not a very ambitious poem. I would expect such a subject to serve as a jumping off point to a further exploration into other places, other times, given that poetry is unencumbered by logic and unobligated to linear sense. Perhaps a simple musing on the passing of time, of age vs. youth, of permanence vs. impermanence, of the way the past is handed off to the future... who knows, the possibilities are endless. But, as they can be explored in a poem, they should be explored, in some way.

This poem, "The Air Field by Robert Siegel is a great example of this. In three concise stanzas, the poet leads us from a pleasant childhood memory, to a reconsideration of his initial premise, to the realization that his memories were a lie, that he’d in fact grown up with terror next-door. The ease with which he moves through these different contexts could only have been replicated in prose with some weighty essay. The poet manages it in a few deft strokes. Another point: it is often stated that political poetry usually focuses on the political point being made, at the expense of the poem. Siegel shows how a political perspective can form the core of the poem without overwhelming the poetics of he piece.

Should the language wish, it might even depart completely from any notion of "sense", relying on the internal linguistic structures alone to allow meaning to arise from the content. John Ashbury pioneered this approach starting in the 60s and the result was some of the most astonishingly beautiful poetry written in the 70s (The Double Dream of Spring, and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, to name two of his most significant books). "It's all blather," noted one critic, "but the blather is beautiful, and profound." This poem is from The Double Dream of Spring and is an example of how he used words for their musicality and their visual effect. "The Task. He also gave birth to the whole "LANGUAGE" movement, (which he neither claims, nor which acknowledges him, other than as a general precedent); like Ashbury, the movement produced many poems with complicated intellectual underpinnings, but, unlike Ashbury, the results are, for the most part, unreadable.

But these examples lie at the one extreme along the sliding scale that constitutes the relationship between structure and content. At the other extreme we would find "objective" journalism

[ waits for laughter to subside ]

wherein the goal is a style of writing that is utterly transparent, allowing the who, what, where, why, when and how of the content and subject to flow through undistorted in any way. In between one finds elegant prose that borrows heavily from poetic ideas, narrative poems that borrow heavily from prose structures, and any number of other examples.

Perhaps the simplest explanation is to think of prose as the way we explain, analyze and understand experience. Poetry's task is to capture the immediacy of that experience.
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