What’s the difference between poetry and prose? That’s a question I sometimes ask my students. I’d say there are three answers – and rhyme is not one of them (consider how much of Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth is written in unrhymed iambic pentameters, known as blank verse).
The first answer is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s: on the evening of 12 July 1827, during a wide-ranging conversation that touched on the relative merits of Sir Walter Scott’s poetry and Edmund Burke’s prose, he said that good prose was made of “words in their best order,” true poetry of “the best words in the best order.” Precision of imagery is a big part of this. So, Rule 1: exceptional care in the choice of every word. This is why poets go back over their lines again and again, asking themselves if each word is the right one in the right place.
Secondly, there is rhythm. All poetry, even free verse, must have some kind of metrical order – whether it be a regular march such as the ti-tum-ti-tum-ti-tum-ti-tum-ti-tum of iambic pentameter or a more varied pattern. Repetition is a key element. Rule 2: follow the metrical feet, listen for the beat.
Thirdly, there is the thing that is obvious on the page: the white spaces at the end of each line. Whereas prose fills the page, with the movement of the thought aligning with the movement of the sentences, in poetry there are pauses at the end of each line, and thus a creative tension between the rhythmical and visual pattern on the one hand, and the unfolding of the sense and the sentences on the other.
That said, even prose has its pauses. The great psychologist William James wrote fascinatingly about this (I'm indebted to an editorial in the latest issue of the excellent magazine The Reader for reminding me of his brilliant insight): “When we take a rapid general view of the wonderful stream of our consciousness, what strikes us first is the different pace of its different portions,” he wrote in the key chapter on “The Stream of Thought” in his Principles of Psychology,
Our mental life, like a bird's life, seems to be made of an alternation of flights and perchings. The rhythm of language expresses this, where every thought is expressed in a sentence, and every sentence closed by a period. The resting-places are usually occupied by sensorial imaginations of some sort, whose peculiarity is that they can be held before the mind for an indefinite time, and contemplated without changing; the places of flight are filled with thoughts of relations, static or dynamic, that for the most part obtain between the matters contemplated in the periods of comparative rest.
If that is true of the full stops at the end of each sentence in a piece of thoughtful prose, it is doubly the case with the line-endings and their attendant white spaces of poetry. Could it be that the poetry resides in the resting-places and the indefinite pauses? And could this be the thing that makes poetry the form of writing which insists most forcefully that we engage in the art of SLOW READING. And what can be more therapeutic than a few moments of daily submission to slow in our high-speed modern world, with its bombardment of information and news (most of it depressing)?
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