Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Poetry or Prose?

With reference to the discussion on Scavella’s blog and to this discussion at Word Doctors, it’s not always easy to determine what marks the difference between poetry and prose. Have a look at the following three pieces, each set out as prose and as poetry, and guess whether the ‘prose version’ or the ‘poetry version’ is the real one. Feel free to leave answers in the comments box.

(If you recognise the pieces, and know the correct answer on account of that, don’t give the game away.) After a few days, I'll give you the answers and say who wrote what.

1.

A)

This – according to the voice on the radio, the host of a classical music program no less – this is the birthday of Vivaldi. He would be 325 years old today, quite bent over, I would imagine, and not able to see much through his watery eyes. Surely he would be deaf by now, the clothes flaking off him, hair pitiably sparse.
But we would throw a party for him anyway, a surprise party where everyone would hide behind the furniture to listen for the tap of his cane on the pavement and the sound of his dry, persistent cough.

*

B)

This –
according to the voice on the radio,
the host of a classical music program no less –
this is the birthday of Vivaldi.

He would be 325 years old today,
quite bent over, I would imagine,
and not able to see much through his watery eyes.

Surely he would be deaf by now,
the clothes flaking off him,
hair pitiably sparse.

But we would throw a party for him anyway,
a surprise party where everyone
would hide behind the furniture to listen

for the tap of his cane on the pavement
and the sound of his dry, persistent cough.

***

2.

A)

How rare these things are! To share the day with you – to people the earth. Whether to have a god or a goddess for companion in your walks, or to walk alone with hinds and villains and carles. Would not a friend enhance the beauty of the landscape as much as a deer or hare? Everything would acknowledge and serve such a relation; the corn in the field, and the cranberries in the meadow. The flowers would bloom and the birds sing, with a new impulse. There would be more fair days to us in the year.
The object of love expands and grows before us to eternity, until it includes all that is lovely, and we become all that can love.

*

B)

How rare these things are!
To share the day with you –
to people the earth.
Whether to have a god or a goddess
for companion in your walks,
or to walk alone
with hinds and villains and carles.
Would not a friend enhance
the beauty of the landscape
as much as a deer or hare?
Everything would acknowledge
and serve such a relation;
the corn in the field,
and the cranberries in the meadow.
The flowers would bloom
and the birds sing,
with a new impulse.
There would be more fair days
to us in the year.
The object of love expands
and grows before us to eternity,
until it includes all that is lovely,
and we become all that can love.

***

3.

A)

Years after my mother chose emptiness, at night I’d hear her at the piano planting chords, waiting for them to grow into something. She never advanced from childhood lessons. She’d crackle flat a dry page of Bartok or Anna Magdalena and make the house’s spine grow cold.
That was all her hesitant handfuls conjured – misery, a lonely beginner always beginning again, a weather of notes I wished would pass. They trickled onto my sheets in the dark, each drop telling how sad a woman could feel even to have lost what made her sad.

B)

Years after my mother chose emptiness
at night I’d hear her at the piano
planting chords, waiting for them
to grow into something.

She never advanced from childhood
lessons. She’d crackle flat a dry page
of Bartok or Anna Magdalena
and make the house’s spine grow cold.

That was all her hesitant handfuls
conjured – misery, a lonely beginner
always beginning again, a weather
of notes I wished would pass.

They trickled onto my sheets
in the dark, each drop telling
how sad a woman could feel
even to have lost what made her sad.

The answers are in the comments box. Here are the citations:

Number 1 is Surprise by Billy Collins from his collection, Nine Horses (Picador, 2002)

Number 2 is an excerpt from Henry David Thoreau’s Letters to a Spiritual Seeker (Norton 2006)

Number 3 is Piano Solo by Henry Shukman, from his collection, Doctor No’s Garden (Cape, 2002)

19 comments:

C. E. Chaffin said...

1. B

2. A

3. B

Eloise said...

A prose
B and C poetry. Although I'm less sure about B.

Eloise

Sorlil said...

crikey this is hard but I'll go with chaffin - honestly it's what I thought before I looked at the comments!

Frank Wilson said...

1. B

2. A

3. B

Scavella said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Scavella said...

What I meant to say (middle of the night here, sorry) was the originals were B A B.

Anonymous said...

B A B

And your Blog is amazing! I imagine you locked in a semi-dark room all summer doing the Blog and the translations and nothing else. At least that's what I hope otherwise your industriousness puts me to shame.

Cheers.

Rob

Rob Mackenzie said...

Rob, I do a translation each day early in the morning (I usually begin well before 7am) and do the blog in snatches whenever I have a moment. But no semi-dark rooms!

I'll give the answer to my quiz and maybe post a thought or two on it sometime tomorrow.

C. E. Chaffin said...

Which means we could tell which were poems. There's hope yet.

Rob Mackenzie said...

The answer is B A B.

I'll say more tomorrow. Too tired to make any sense now. But it's interesting to me that so many of you got it right - I deliberately chose poetry written by writers who often adopt a fairly prosy style, and the prose piece seemed to have certain poetic qualities.

1. was Billy Collins
2. was Henry David Thoreau
3. was Henry Shukman

Rob Mackenzie said...

I couldn’t have guessed the outcome of this challenge, whether people would all get it right or wrong.

I felt the easiest one was number 2 – Thoreau does employ poetic devices, but the prose didn’t fit comfortably into lines, no matter what pattern I employed. I also felt that the slightly antiquated style would make people suspicious of the free verse.

Number 3 is quite prosy in certain ways, but there’s something about it that feels like a poem. I’m not sure what. Maybe it’s just that we expect this meditative progression of thought to come from poetry, and the final line cements that impression. The linebreaks, and the integrity of each line and stanza also point to an unmistakable poetry. I like it a lot. It was shortlisted for the UK 2001 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem.

Number 1, I thought, was the hardest. I’m not convinced I would have been able to guess whether it was a poem or prose, had I not known the piece. Of course, I accept it as a poem because Billy Collins lays it out as one, but what makes it a poem? Clearly something marks it out as poetic, because most of you got it right. I don’t think it’s one of Collins’ better poems. So why were you sure it was a poem?

eothen said...

i came to this just today, but i guessed BAB as well. and i swear i didn't look at the comments until i'd guessed the answers.

i thought (1) felt like poetry cos of the way the lines worked - the rhythms felt to me like contemporary prosey poetry even while i was reading the prose arrangement. though i did think that the single-word first line was a bit of a cheap trick.

as you said, (2) just didn't fit into lines.

as for (3), i felt that some of the diction and images were quite poetic. planting chords, the hesitant handfuls, the weather of notes. i really like it. thanks for posting this!

cheers,
Rui from PFFA

Rui said...

ooh, and a question: what's the title of the henry shukman poem?

cheers,
Rui

Rob Mackenzie said...

Hi eothen /rui

I've added the titles at the end of the blog entry, along with links to the collections they came from. I had meant to do that anyway, so thanks for reminding me.

Harry said...

I think in the Billy Collins, the rhetorical shape of it is very typical of a certain kind of contemporary poetry. Perhaps particularly, though not exclusively, typical of Billy Collins.

It's the twist from the mundane into the final image, which is just a bit unexpected, mildly surreal and open-ended. It hints at a kind of transcendence while not actually achieving much. I think it's a pretty underwhelming effect and doesn't gain much from being broken into lines, but it does have a shape we recognise as 'poem'.

I don't think it says much about a real distinction between prose and poetry, because we're recognising a typical rhetorical gesture. Or if it does say something important about poetry vs prose, it's something pretty unobvious.

Rob Mackenzie said...

Harry, I think you've probably hit the mark there. Thanks.

Rob Mackenzie said...

And here’s R.S. Thomas’s take on the matter, via Patrick Kurp

Mark Yoxon said...

Here are my inane ramblings on the subject. :)

http://motink.blogspot.com/

Rob Mackenzie said...

Thanks Mark. Not inane at all.