Poetry & Prose, continued

by | Nov 12, 2007 | Approaches to Writing, Literature

And, reading Wilderness, I was reminded of something I had run across years ago, in a discussion, as I recall, of Elizabethan poetry, that claimed as how, in love poetry, the particular object of the poet’s love, though composed of a particular set of eyes and brows and rosebud lips, becomes a universal sign and symbol pointing to all objects of love everywhere. The identity of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady is only of interest to the biographer and to the reader of biographies.

So poetry begins with the particular but finds within it a symbol of the universal.

Whereas prose, of course, begins with the particular but finds within it a symbol of the universal.

Is that clear? It’s not at all clear to me, or, rather, it’s perfectly clear until I try to pin it down in black and white. Butterflies, even black and white ones, hate it when you pin them down. But when I read either poetry or prose, it’s generally pretty clear which world I’m in, and not because the poetry rhymes or has a regular meter or has a ragged right margin. Much of what looks like poetry on the page is really just prose pranked out in fancy clothes. Ballads, and narrative poetry: set pieces like “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” or “The Night Before Christmas.” Or “Richard Cory:”


Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.


And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.


And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.


So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.


You could write this out as a paragraph and it would set on the page just fine. So why do we accept it as a poem? I’ve just ploughed through a huge number of analyses (one of which, amusingly enough, calls it “one of the least examined” of Robinson’s poems), all of which beg the question of whether it is, in fact, a poem, and none of which strikes me as overly convincing although all of them, particular the one who calls it “one of the least examined,” is eager to show us how everybody else has gotten it wrong.

So maybe the difference is that no matter how precisely the poet uses language, everybody is going to interpret the poem according to his own lights, whereas no matter how precisely the novelist uses languages, everybody is going to interpret the novel according to his own lights. (As the author of what I thought was a very carefully-written novel, trust me on that one.)

One of these analyses claims that, “A dramatist would have been under the necessity of justifying the suicide by some train of events in which Richard Cory’s character would have inevitably betrayed him. A novelist would have dissected the psychological effects of these events upon Richard Cory. The poet, with a more profound grasp of life than either, shows us only what life itself would show us.” This is almost convincing, although, as a novelist, I take umbrage at ‘with a more profound grasp of life than either.’ Almost convincing.

By the way, I hope you haven’t been patting yourself on the back too hard, and congratulating yourself, because you’ve noticed that once again I’ve failed to settle a question that I seemed to be out to settle. Fact is, I’m much more interested in questions than in answers, especially when it comes to art, and especially when it comes to literature.


Linus van Pelt, of Peanuts, once pestered his crabby sister Lucy so persistently for a story that she finally told him one:

“A man was born. He lived and he died. The end.”

Did she give her little brother, who, being Linus, was filled with gratitude for the food for thought in those nine or those eleven words, depending on how you want to count them, a story or a poem?