Poetry or Prose?

Poetry or Prose?
Wednesday Workshop
22 September 2021
Patos de setiembre.

When I write, I do not distinguish between poetry or prose. More often than not I think in terms of the rhythm and musicality of the words I am using, if the words sound right, when read out loud, they probably are. Here is a prose poem, Cage of Flame. It is written in prose, but it’s meaning is dependent on imagery, metaphors, associative fields, and musicality. Read it as you would any piece of prose, in sentences, following the guidance of the grammar. Read it two or three times quietly to yourself then, when you have grasped the poem’s rhythms, try reading it out loud. If you want to know how I would read this poem, check my recorded readings on my blog, Spotify or SoundCloud.

Cage of Flame

Now you are a river flowing silver beneath the moon. High tide in the salt marsh: your body fills with shadow and light. I dip my hands in dappled water. Twin gulls, they float down stream, then perch on an ice-floe of half-remembered dreams. Eagle with a broken wing, why am I trapped in this cage of flame? When I turn my feathers to the sun, my back is striped with the black and white of a convict’s bars. Awake, I lie anchored by what pale visions fluttering on the horizon? White moths wing their snow storm through the night. A feathered shadow ghosts fingers towards my face. Butterflies stutter against a shuttered window. A candle flickers in the darkness and maps in runes the ruins of my heart. Eye of the peacock, can you touch what I see when my eyelids close for the night? Last night, the black rock of the midnight sun rolled up the sky. The planet quivered beneath my body as I felt each footfall of a transient god.

Clearly the above is prose because it has no line breaks. But what happens when we break that prose into shorter lines and turn it into a poem?

Cage of Flame

Now you are a river flowing
silver beneath the moon.
High tide in the salt marsh:
your body fills with shadow and light.
I dip my hands in dappled water.

Eagle with a broken wing,
why am I trapped in this cage of flame?
When I turn my feathers to the sun,
my back is striped with the black
and white of a convict’s bars.

Awake,
I lie anchored by what pale visions
fluttering on the horizon?
White moths wing their snow
storm through the night.
A feathered shadow ghosts
fingers towards my face.
Butterflies stutter against
a shuttered window.
A candle flickers in the darkness
and maps in runes the ruins of my heart.

Eye of the peacock,
can you touch what I see
when my eyelids close for the night?
The black rock of the midnight sun
rolled up the sky.

Last night, the planet quivered
beneath my body and I felt
each footfall of a transient god.

            It seems to be the same text, but is it? And what happens if we change those line breaks? It will change the external structure of prose > to poem > to new poem, but it will not alter the internal structures that survive all format changes. Does the rhythm stay the same in both cases? It certainly does when I read it, but how about you? Poetry or prose? And what’s the difference anyway if the words roll off your tongue and metaphors, mystery, and magic rule?

Comment:
Clearly poetry and prose are not interchangeable, for they both fulfill different functions. The classical difference is often said to lie between history, what actually happened, and poetry, the formal arrangements of words in song. This seemingly simple definition becomes blurred, of course, when history, written in prose, is confused with epic, the retelling of history in poetic form. Prose fiction is a much later development and it is Miguel de Cervantes who gives us, in Don Quixote, his own Renaissance solution: “La épica también puede escribire en prosa” / the epic can also be written in prose. The mingling of poetry and prose underlines the use of rhetorical tropes in writing. Later, Baudelaire will offer us us his Petits poèmes en prose thus gifting the world with prose poems. Much of what I write is prose poetry or poetry in prose. Rhythm, metaphor, allusions, alliteration, similes, intertextuality all combine to decorate my writing. And yes, I am very clear about what I am trying to do.

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