I’ll make up an example to show what prose-as-poetry looks like, then I’m going to talk about why it isn’t poetry, and what is poetry, and finally, I’m going to venture some guesses as to how we came to this, where something that may LOOK like a duck but that sure doesn’t walk or quack like a duck is, nonetheless, being called a duck.
I mean, seriously.
For example, here is a perfectly decent piece of prose changed into “poetry” by a few judicious line breaks.
We walked quietly through that familiar place
Before, we had been two nature spirits
in a gilded glade of redwoods
diving deeply with dolphins
flying swiftly with a whiteness of swans
all feathers and grace and glory.
But now—now the silence was no longer our friend.
Words teetering on the edge of audibility
spilled around us, tainting the air,
crowding out glances,
hindering our hearts.
Hands lifted toward each other, then fell before connecting.
Only the silence remained.
See? Instant poetry. Just add line breaks.
Yes, I wrote it myself, but no, it isn’t poetry. I wrote it as a piece of prose, then just put in the line breaks and removed some punctuation.
But What is Poetry?
Alas, that’s a lot harder to define, and is a topic that has kept the scholars busy for millenia. Still, in my youthful arrogance, I will make an attempt.
Poetry, even modern poetry, still must follow certain rules. It might no longer have one of the more formal structures, such as the sonnet (though it can), but it still must have some kind of internal rhythm. That is perhaps the biggest requirements. It doesn’t have to be one of the more formal rhythms, such as iambic pentameter, but it does need to be there. In addition, although it doesn’t necessarily need rhymes at the end of lines, it still needs sounds that go well with each other, be that internal rhymes, alliteration, or the like.
Other things that help: Ambiguity and depth, not in the sense of, “I’ve used some weird constructions that nobody will understand, hahaha,” but instead in the sense of there being layers of meaning in the poem.
Like a good piece of prose, a good poem should reward one upon repeated readings. One should always be able to go away with, if not a new understanding of what the poem is about, at least an enhanced appreciation of the poem. And that is true for prose as well. But the difference is that, with poetry, much of the meaning is in layers contained within the words. Prose, good prose, is crystal clear, not ambiguous; not teasing, but instead clear and direct, though with, preferably, a gorgeous use of language. (Some might argue that a grogeous use of language is entirely not what prose is about, but that’s just one way to define prose.)
But as I said, a lot of recent poetry is prose, not poetry. And yet people think it is poetry.
Modern American Culture’s Biggest Fault or, Why a Duck?
So how has this come about? I think I know where the confusion started: Free verse. Free verse poets broke the mold of the formal poetic forms of sonnet, sestina, and so on. But they didn’t break any other aspect of poetry. Their verse is still every bit as arguably poetry as the more formal types.
However, people reading poetry in free verse, people who did not, perhaps, take long enough to discover the internal rhymes and rhythms, decided instead that, if it looks all broken up, it must be poetry.
In today’s society, at least in America, one of the biggest challenges we face is that of surface versus content, exterior versus interior, appearance versus reality. America has become a very “lookist” society, where what a thing or person looks like on the outside is considered to be all that that thing is. The sum total of its worth is in what it seems to be.
This is a bad thing, in my mind. So much damage has been done because of it. Studies have shown how men and women of all ages suffer a loss in self-esteem after looking through “beauty” or other popular magazines. We look through those magazines or at advertisements, and we see airbrushed and Photoshopped figures whose looks can never be obtained in real life because those looks owe far too much to computers. It doesn’t help that those models also are far too thin for their heights, so we start to think that a quite-normal weight is “fat.” After even one go-through of a magazine, we then start to think we are lacking in the looks department.
There are two problems there: The presentation of an unattainable image as being “ideal,” and the fact that these images have any effect on a person’s self-esteem.
I like to think it is a phase we are going through and that we as a society and as human beings are already evolving beyond it. All we need to do is look inside ourselves and discover what is in our hearts. Be our own authorities. Decide for ourselves what is right and what is wrong, what is healthy and what isn’t. Learn to look beyond the surface and into the depths, so that we see what is really there, so we can tell the difference between a duck and a swan, or prose and poetry, even if one is dressed up like the other.
This kind of discernment will stand us in good stead everywhere. No longer confused by a person’s words, we can feel in our hearts what the truth is, and when someone is of good intentions, and when they aren’t. We will no longer look at conflicting information and ask, bewildered, where the truth is, but can instead know it in our hearts.