Poetry or Prose?

By Cindy Maguire

“Poetry looks like a wrinkled old woman hunched over in a chair tapping her cane as she contemplates the end of a journey, perhaps she glistens with tears at the journey well done. Prose has a tendency to be long winded meandering joyfully to the waterfall,” says award-winning Cree poet, Bernice Halfe, author of Burning in this Midnight Dream.

If you write poetry, Halfe’s words will resonate. A poem requires a deep dive into its subject; a willingness to forsake all distractions and mine for the exact word, the precise phrase, that when read aloud will explode with meaning. You have minimal space to work with. A poem’s form, compact and tightly woven, means that each word carries weight. Word choice counts in prose too, but the length of stories and novels is more forgiving.

The poetic journey can be intense, so Halfe’s hunched over, wrinkled old woman glistening with tears, is an apt metaphor. I imagine her feeling tired, but wiser, for her poetic efforts.

Marge Piercy is an American author who writes both poems and novels. She describes the intensity of writing poetry as akin to being in a “white-hot” place, where all “the dreariness and detritus of ordinary living falls away…”

Her mind wraps itself around a poem, turning it round and about and upside down, as if engaged in a word dance. There is a sensual quality to Piercy’s images, that captures the intimacy between poet and poem. Sometimes this is the kind of writing you need to do.

Life of Prose and Poetry: An Inspiring Combination is the title of a Piercy essay that examines and acknowledges that an answer to the question “poetry or Prose?” can be  both.

For Piercy, poems originate as phrases, images, ideas, that become an insistent rhythm that must be attended to. She writes:

“Poems hatch from memory, fantasy, the need to communicate with the living, the dead, the unborn. Poems come directly out of daily life, from the garden, from the cats, the newspaper, the lives of friends, quarrels, a good or bad time in bed…They go back into daily life: people read them at weddings and funerals, give them to lovers…put them over their computers, use them them to teach…to vent joy or grief.”

“Prose is prosier,” she says. It lives to tell a story; to discover how things turn out.

Personally, I write prose to deepen my understanding of the possibilities in life. Within the parameters of fiction, I can explore different scenarios, test-run solutions to problems, or give voice to a situation which seems beyond understanding.

The urge to write poetry is more immediate, like a gut reaction to an experience. It can feel like a bubbling up of words that need to spill onto the page, raw and ragged.

Canadian poet Catherine Graham, when asked about the experience of writing her debut novel, Quarry, said,

 “As a poet, writing prose was a very different experience for me. With poetry, I work with fragments, images and often incomplete thoughts to give the reader space to develop their own interpretation. Prose, on the other hand, demanded expansion… The image of a coiled spring comes to mind when I think of the difference between the two-compact for poetry, stretched for prose.”

Margaret Atwood, in a CBC radio interview in 1968, after the publication of The Animals in that Country, was asked if she thought she could say what she wanted to say better, in poetry. She answered:  “No, no, that’s thinking of poetry as a translation from prose as though one were thinking in prose and then translating it into poetry as a form of expression.”

Atwood explains that poetry for her is “a form of thought, not form of expression.” It’s not possible to separate what she’s saying from the actual form. “You don’t ask a painter, what does the painting say… I don’t think of poetry as a rational activity but as an aural one,” Atwood says.

In an interview, the author Joyce Carol Oates said: “For me every poem has a texture of sound which is at least as important to me as the argument.”

She admits to being annoyed when students ask, “What is the poet trying to say?” Doesn’t this imply that the poet is some kind of verbal cripple who can’t quite “say” what he “means” and has to resort to a lot of round-the-mulberry-bush, she argues.

Oates asks Atwood if she has ever felt that the discipline of prose evokes a somewhat different personality, or consciousness than the discipline of poetry?

“Not just a somewhat different personality, an almost totally different one…Poetry is the most joyful form and prose fiction– the personality I feel there is curious, often bemused, a sometime disheartened observer of society.”

Toronto poet and short story writer, Souvankham Thammavongsa, was asked her thoughts on the differences between prose and poetry:

“I don’t think I am making a distinction between the poetry and prose, but I know I am thinking differently when I think of each…I think the prose has the shape of a different voice. In the poetry I am very precise, careful, closed, quiet but the prose is open and funny and doesn’t concern itself with line breaks or the shape of a word or how the words are arranged…The prose is working off of and picking up some of the things I did with poetry.”

Poetry or Prose?

Why not both?

Try this writing exercise from Toronto-based poet Hoa Nguyen:

For this you need to take stock of a glove compartment, desk drawer, or general “junk drawer.” Conduct a notational catalogue of the contents, describing each item in detail. Take note of shapes, colours, textures, and emotional/other associations. No detail is too small!

Create a short story or a poem (or both) using this material.