Thursday, June 10, 2010

Prose vs Poetry

by Ashley Lister

I write fiction. I teach creative writing. And, every time I begin a course, I inform my students about the most important element of writing fiction: poetry.

Coleridge provided a distinction between prose and poetry:

I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose,—words in their best order; poetry,—the best words in their best order.

Whilst I wouldn’t want to argue with someone as respected as Coleridge, I have to point out that prose and fiction (when they’re well done) can be as effective and evocative as well-written poetry.

Alliteration, sibilance, onomatopoeia, rhyme, rhythm, cadence, oxymoron and a host of other complicated labels: it’s no coincidence that each of these terms is considered a poetic device. But that doesn’t mean they’re exclusive to poetry. It only means, when these devices are used in prose, they can make the resultant fiction resonate with the reader.

And, so, I impress on my students the importance of choosing the best words before placing them in the best order, whether it’s prose or poetry. Invariably, we’ll start with the haiku.

Seafront horizon
yellow, gold, orange sunset
fading to scarlet.

I like the haiku because of its disciplined form and simple structure.
As a learning tool it incorporates a quantity of impressive technical terms: we’re counting syllables – distinct from the moras/morae sound units which are more appropriate for the phonemic pattern of the style’s original language; we’re appropriating a traditional Japanese form of writing for a Western vocabulary; we can discuss the kigo and kireji; and we can draw a distinction between the seriousness of the haiku and the whimsy of the senryu. Trust me – that’s a lot to cover for a beginner’s lesson.

Fallen autumn leaves
crisply crunching underfoot
as lovers stroll home.

However, I think the most important thing about the haiku is that it’s achievable. Anyone who’s interested in creative writing can write a haiku. And, if you’re trying to teach someone to write creatively: what better place to start than with an achievable, accessible poem, where every syllable requires consideration and reflection?


  1. Excellent post, Ash.

    I love many Japanese and Chinese forms of poetry both for the power in their brevity, and for their devotion to imagery and the externalization of self.

    In writing prose, I also find flashers to be a good exercise to incorporate poetic principles. By restricting word count, just like in haiku, we're forced to asses the value of each word we use and how we use it.


  2. Hello, Ash,

    Excellent post (as usual). I don't buy the Coleridge definition, either. To me, the distinction between prose and poetry has something to do with the balance between logic versus sensation, or perhaps denotation versus connotation. I believe that poetry engages different cognitive and emotional faculties than prose.

    Prose needs to "make sense". Poetry doesn't.

    Of course there's no hard and fast line. I know some authors whose prose is decidedly poetic. (And of course there are those sadly prosaic poets!)


  3. Hi Craig,

    I was discussing flashers with a group of learners on Tuesday, explaining how helpful they can be when compiling blurb or synopses.

    It's amazing how great a challenge some of those restrictions can be.



  4. Hi Lisabet,

    The wonderful thing about poetry is that it often defies description.

    The idea that Shakespeare's sonnets and e.e. cummings's opus can both be quantified as collections of poetry shows how disparate poetry can be.

    Personally, I believe that if it has an emotional resonance with the reader - it must be poetry.



  5. Hi Ash!

    I'm writing this at my writing table in the back of the Starbucks surrounded by silky young things in tiny shorts and clingy flowing dresses, and it makes me think of "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock" where he says "I shall walk along the beach and hear the mermaids singing each to each but I do not think they will sing to me." Goddamn, I know how he feels.

    I like haiku also. Basho was always my favorite because even in English translation he could be so funny.

    Wish I could sit in on one of your writing classes.


  6. Ash - I eagerly awaited your comments on this topic since you lead/ are part of a poetry reading group. I don't know how to make a distinction between some poems and prose, but I can always tell when someone with an extensive background in poetry writes prose.

  7. Garce,

    It's amazing the way Eliott's words can linger, isn't it? I suppose that's the impact of poetry. When it's done right it stays with us.

    There's a seat in the writing class waiting for you when you make it to the UK. Hell! I'll even schedule you as a guest speaker.



  8. Kathleen,

    I know what you mean about being able to tell a background of poetry. There are some writers who produce work and you know every word has been weighed, considered and chosen specifically for that purpose.

    It's always a pleasure to read those writers.




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