Writers Journey: Poetry and Prose

I touched on prose and poetry earlier and would do so again now.  The difference is important to determine if only superficially for now.

Poetry is a heart-felt expression of a vision that unites people by its utterance.  Poetry speaks to the spirit like a photograph capturing an intangible moment with words that are not often sensible and yet dive down beneath rationality into something within everyone that beats a little deeper.  It is not that prose cannot do this within its structure as well, and I would argue that prose itself may contain moments of poetry within it, as so well-shown by J.R.R. Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings or lines by James Joyce, such as “Soft morn, City.”  It is more that the vehicle of prose is a different animal, looking to share an experience which is longer than a vision and therefore cannot be a photograph of the ineffable when it must be a long chain unfolding into tangible experience.

A good story will bring something new into the world.  So will a good poem.  Both are capable of bringing the reader a new awareness.  At its best, prose pushes past materiality and consumerism into a realm that pulls the reader up out of a sea of merely surviving and into possibilities.  Sometimes witnessing these truths, these possibilities, hurts as a reader, particularly when times are very tough.  It is a good storyteller that will mediate the message to the reader in a way that wakes us up like a man in a Russian classic, so that we exclaim, “Gentleman, I’ve had a good dream.”  We keep that dream, rather than refuse it, because even if it hurt a little, it empowered us.

A well-written story seems to slide deeper into the psyche of the reader than any movie or television series could do because it engages the full imagination and leaves the vision, the very choice of images, up to the reader.  Film has other virtues, but the vicarious experience of the silver screen pales in comparison to the best works of fiction in which the reader joins in a dance with the author and the best authors do not tell the reader what to think; they ask the questions for the reader to answer and there are as many answers as readers.  Imagine if none of the answers are wrong; then you have a truly gifted author at the helm.

As Jane Austen so wisely noted, we must not fall into the trap of assuming that we are writing or reading ‘only a novel.’  As she defended it: Only a novel?  “Only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”

Most critics and professors of literature will agree that the novel is, if nothing else, an insight into the psychology of human life at any given era.  It is the catalog of who we are, how we feel, what we do, year after year, and therefore is every bit as important as history itself.  We may document fact in history, but we document who we are in fiction.


Meditation for your journal:  What is your favorite period of history and have you read the literature of that period?