From Prose to Poetry

A phrase from workshop continues to ring in my ears:
“Prose is not the opposite of Poetry.”
And how thankful I am for that. Moving abruptly from a year and a half of writing prose into poetry has been difficult, but remembering that I am not starting from scratch has been helpful. So…

What have I learned in writing prose that I can translate into poetry? From my short experience, I saw that prose was based in streams of images, based more deliberately in certain environments (settings, cultures, timeframes) than poetry. However, inevitably, it seemed that prose was exploring these realities, which seems to be how poetry is functioning as well. Prose remains realistic (literary fiction) and, simply put, it presents a story that leaves room for interpretation.

Now, there’s poetry, and how similar it is. Poetry thrives on streams of images that interpret and recreate realities in order to probe social aspects of our lives. David Foster Wallace says, as optimal advice to his fiction workshop students, “the reader cannot read your mind,” and he repeats it again and again in an interview with Bryan A. Garner, transcribed in a highly recommended book, Quack This Way.

Moving from prose to poetry, or residing in poetry, we must not forget that we are writing sentences, changed primarily by line breaks.

3 Replies to “From Prose to Poetry”

  1. Hi Oliver,
    I think another important difference between poetry and prose is that prose has narrative intentions, whereas poetry (unless it’s a narrative poem) wants to communicate a huge narrative by representing what’s at the heart of it (some images that stand in for the whole meaning). I think prose more deliberately shows its setting, but poetry deals with the same context–the same reality, just in a different way.

    Sometimes I try to think of prose vs. poetry as a conversation vs. a conversation in a dream. Or at least, poetry has a dream quality about it that prose may not. But then again, there’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, which both blur the lines between prose and poetry (and countless other experimental works of fiction). Maybe it does just come down to the (expectation of the) line break, and the fact that poetry is some a sort of distillation. Maybe the difference just doesn’t matter, and as long as we’re communicating through vivid images?

  2. Hi Oliver and Evan,

    I want to comment on both your ideas on poetry versus prose. I think of myself primarily as a prose writer, and still tend to keep myself in that mindset even when writing poetry. However, when I write poetry, I tend to keep my intentions less explicitly clear to the reader, in the form of line breaks and concrete language and imagery. Typically when we read prose, I think we have an expectation that the writer will lay everything out on the table for us. I think that poetry allows us more flexibility with what we hope the reader gains, like what Evan says by a conversation vs. a dream. In a conversation, we expect the person we are talking to give us their main point by the end; without it, what’s the point of listening at all if we don’t get to the end, the conclusion? In a dream however, the end might not be the most important part. Rather, it’s the steps we took along the way, and even that is up for interpretation.

    1. I understand your point, but I think is there a place for conversation as well, and that type of directness. The miscommunication of the dream and the less explicitly clear intentions do make the language more pleasant, but how much more effective is making poetry into conversation? I think it is better to be clear, so people can interpret the poem and relate to it.

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