Abstract and Concrete
An unpublished essay by Dean Blehert
One function of rhyme, meter and poetical diction is to make it
easy to know when one is writing (or attempting) poetry. With the
rise of free verse (and long before, but less desperately), poets
began asking — as if it were the most natural question in the world
— "What IS the difference between poetry and prose?"
— as if they knew what prose is!
Oddly, we seldom hear the great prose writers worrying about that
The poetic answers usually favor poetry with greater depth, density,
richness in harmonics of sound and meaning, more immediacy, "non-linear"
comprehension of the moment and of divinity and timelessness —
oh, they make it sound so much more noble than prosy old prose!
How did Homer's poetry differ from prose? Did it at all, or was
it also the fictional prose of its day, the way of telling? In any
case, prose has its tricks, and any form of poetry I can think of
is a concentration of a selection of the tricks of prose (or of
how people who speak well speak), such that the tricks become obtrusive
and are called elements of form.
Prose has its rhythms; metric poetry regularizes them and makes
them obvious — and mnemonic. Prose has its assonances; rhyming
poetry makes them obvious — and mnemonic.
Poetry was once oral (as performance poetry is today) and was expected
to be remembered and recited, not read. Formal devices were, among
other things, aids to memory.
Free verse arose in tandem with a prose "freed" of old
hierarchies such as the use of grammatical complexity and punctuation
to show one thing in relation to another (as in any sentence by
Samuel Johnson, for example). In the new prose (e.g., Hemingway),
simple sentence follows simple sentence, with, at best, an "and
then" connection, as if the words plodded onward like numb,
tired soldiers, with no confidence in a destination or in any destination
capable of making a difference, thoughts and sensations broken,
unevaluated, except indirectly by repetition, evasion (unexpected
absences) and similar devices.
Much free verse does the same, but with more obvious breakages,
even breaking up lines of print on the page. And what could be more
mnemonic than adding a visual form to words on a page? After all,
a given sentence in a Hemingway story will fall at one place or
another on the page and be broken among lines differently from one
edition to the next, while most free verse, however arbitrarily,
even when type size changes, etches one identical skinny frenetic
profile in each edition. One might call it fussy prose.
For me, poetry is largely impatient prose: I'm not usually willing
to embed my wit and sermonizing impulses and realizations in stories
or essays. I want, simply, to say them, yet memorably, so I intensify
form to compensate for scantiness of matter.
That's MY excuse for poetry. More broadly, we crave a proper balance
between concrete and abstract: One who reads all day about trains
without ever seeing or touching or riding in one or even making
or seeing a model of one or at least a picture of one — such a
student begins to feel massy, queasy, exasperated, heavy-lidded,
heavy-headed from the overload of pure significance, abstraction
unbalanced by mass, physicality, concreteness. On the other hand,
one who only sees and touches trains without ever reading or being
told what they are for, how they operate, what the parts are called,
etc., becomes overwhelmed by inscrutable masses like endlessly looming
machinery in a nightmare.
One craves a balance. Prose and poetry (to a reader, not a printer
or a librarian, who deal with the physicality of books) are both
vehicles for thought, abstraction. But within themselves, they have
elements that act as viceroys for or approximations of familiar
physical objects and experiences: rhythms that ally with the heartbeat,
metaphors, similes and images that conjure up familiar objects,
stories that link to the patterns of our daily lives, characters
we've met in the flesh or that we ourselves are, now, in the room
where we read.
Thus, within the realms of abstraction, the introduction of more
or less absent objects creates enough of a balance to sustain hours
of intense reading that would leave most of us reeling if we spent
the same amount of time studying mathematics or philosophy texts
or architectural diagrams. Prose that provides such a balance gives
us a separate world in which we are seduced to create the people
and objects; in some cases, the world we create as we read becomes
more real and solid to us than the room in which we read, so that
when we are interrupted, the adjustment is radical.
(Of course, some mathematicians are similarly effected by mathematical
papers, books of philosophy, etc. But most of us are not.)
Poetry is usually identified as poetry by its intensification and/or
regularization of SOME of the formal elements that tend to stand
in for mass in both poetry and prose, allowing the poet to dispense
with OTHER formal elements that also stand in for mass. A poet may,
for example, shuck story for more abstract statement, using intensified
rhythmic and other formal elements to compensate and make the sentence
Mass without significance is not memorable. For example, a painful
experience like getting hit by a car is difficult to remember. The
victim remembers the car coming and perhaps an instant of impact,
but then, in proportion to the pain and unconsciousness of the incident,
memory is blank or vague and confused, sometimes mixed with hallucinated
elements. And that incident is so hungry for significance that it
swallows up ALL available significance. For example, any words spoken
around the victim will be recorded (on an unconscious level) as
part of the incident as literal, senseless parts of it, everything
in the incident equaling everything else in the incident: A particular
car hit the victim, but ALL cars become, thenceforth, dangerous.
A particular woman is part of the incident (a bystander who tries
to help him, perhaps), so all women, to some extent, become associated
with the pain of the incident. The incident is simply absorbing
significance as fast as it can to offset the void of significance,
the surplus of unconfrontable physicality — pain, the impact of
the car, the battered body.
Mass without significance is a vivid impingement, but escapes the
consciousness it overwhelms. It is pure experience, devoid of understanding,
a presence in one's life, but not easily accessible to memory.
The converse, significance without mass, is also not memorable,
lacking sensory cues, substance. Who can remember "substance"
as easily as "the moist whiteness of an apple slice"?
It is easier for most of us to remember a story with a moral than
an abstract discussion of a moral principle. Hence Christ's use
It has been said that poetry is memorable speech. So is prose. But
in prose (for example, a novel), often it is not the prose itself,
but a character or a story or a scene or an authorial tone of voice
that is memorable to readers, though they can't remember the words
in which these things are conveyed.
Poetry in our day tends to skimp on those memorable elements that
do not make the language itself memorable, while stressing those
elements that do make the language itself memorable.
And these elements have to do with mass and significance: Eliminate
story and cut to message (losing mass), and compensate with metrics
(making the sound more obviously physical — having a beat) or even
breaking lines into "skinny", obtrusively physical units
— after all, we seldom think of prose lines as "fat"
or of prose as being "rectangular," though it tends to
fill the rectangular shape within the page margins. But we do notice
(or we used to) when poems take up very little of the page.
When a writer tries to do all that prose does and all that poetry
does as well — or when a writer does neither, the result is an
overbalance of mass or significance. A prose writer who eliminates
story, character, simile, etc. (aiming at the radicalism of the
day) and doesn't compensate by adding "poetic" elements,
such as sonic richness (assonance, alliteration, etc.), subtle use
of repetition, variations on a theme — that writer will produce
a work that knocks the reader groggy or drowns him, either a leaden
mass or a soup of significance.
When a poet or novelist retains story, character, scenes, etc.,
and also pours on the devices usually associated with poetry; or
when a writer poeticizes a novel (for example, tells a story in
novelistic detail with novelistic richness of character, but does
so in formal verse) — in both cases, the reader is likely to find
the work laborious.
Nabokov's novels can incorporate many devices of poetry partly because
he uses them to short-circuit or undermine novelistic conventions
of plot and character. For example, plots will enter time-warps
via a bit of wordplay that links one scene to another, the verbal
texture of the work standing in for narrative. Chaucer's tales in
rhyme and meter do not feel encumbered by formal elements because
he uses them with such ease, and does so to sharpen the story-telling
process — for example, by letting the wit of a single well-honed
couplet serve for a long paragraph of prose.
But I've seen recent novels in verse (e.g., Golden Gate) that simply
made me want to read a good mystery novel. They weren't badly crafted
— hard not to admire the diligence required to write a novel in
a complex verse form — but it seemed to me I was admiring them
for being "almost real novels," like admiring a side-show
freak. I could say at best that they were so well done that they
ALMOST persuaded me that it had been worth doing.
All the formal elements of prose are also those of poetry, and vice
versa. Good prose and good poetry, to be memorable, require a balance
of physical and abstract. Typically, we call a verbal communication
poetry when it puts our attention (as readers, hearers) on the mass
or physicality of the language while skimping on the mass or physicality
of the contents of language (meanings, messages, story, character)
or where it focuses microscopically on the physicality of tiny units
of content — an instant in time or a single small object in space
(a leaf, for example), like a flash of lightning etching a detail
on our retinas.
This, too, is a skimping on content: Instead of the lifelong development
of a character, we get a vague persona's instant of joy or despair.
Instead of a story of many people moving through many rooms and
landscapes, banquets and love affairs, we get the scent of an orange
or song of a lark or sight of a severed hand in the gutter.
We think of this brevity as poetic rather than prosaic or novelistic.
Where the physical aspects of form (musicality, beat, rhyme, image,
etc.) are intensified without dropping the elements associated with
novels (such as length, scope, story, character, scenic detail);
yet, in the detailed telling, again and again physical elements
of language are used to shortcut the novelistic elements. For example,
an image is used instead of paragraphs of explanation to convey
a character's life-changing realization. Or the "poetic"
elements are used to increase the significance of story, character,
etc. (e.g., in Shakespeare or Melville).
Whether prose or poetry, as long as there's a balance of abstract
and physical, the reader may find it memorable. But WHAT is remembered
varies. Essentially, significance (which includes understanding)
makes the mass memorable and vice versa. We remember the language
or imagery of a good poem and what it means to us. We are more likely
to remember the story/characters/scenes of a good novel and what
they mean to us.
In summary, what a work of art means to us is as memorable as it
is balanced by physicality. The means of creating physicality (stand-ins
for mass, virtual mass, links to present or absent masses, even
— as in Nabokov's Pale Fire — a vertiginous sort of literal mirrored
mass where a book refers to someone reading a book or to us as characters
in the book we are reading, responding like characters to the author's
cues) differ, typically, between poetry and prose. Thus, both poem
and novel may use character, story, image, verbal density, etc.,
but we associate physicality of "content" (such as story
and character) with prose and physicality of "form" (such
as word sound, intense beat and look of lines on a page) with poetry.
This is not to say that all memorable language is equal to all memorable
language. We have many memories, many experiences, but do not value
all equally. We tend to value most highly those memories that enable
us to evaluate, in their light, the greatest amount of memory, those
experiences that cast the greatest light on the greatest volume
For example, to balance a huge amount of solidity (e.g., the Holocaust)
with significance is probably a greater achievement than to provide
significance enough to make a dandelion's drifting silk confrontable.
(Or is it?) To understand a moment or year or century of devastating
massiveness so that it is felt as "tragedy" is to balance
a large mass with a large significance. To balance a moment of hearing
a bird's call with a sense that one is alive is, perhaps, to balance
a lightness with a lightness.
Which is "better" or "more important"? Which
creates the biggest effect might be a better question to answer.
But it is the degree of balance between abstraction and physicality
that makes it have the memorableness we associate with art, whether
it is Shakespearian tragedy or Anna Karenina or a haiku by Basho.
It is the DISTRIBUTION of mass and significance among different
elements of the work that makes us think of it as prose or poetry.
Typically, we think of an undeniably prose work (e.g., War and Peace)
as an amorphous sea of significance (the language) out of which
arise islands and continents of mass (people, their stories, their
worlds). And typically, we think of poetry as a far more physical
language (a song, a beat, a form of words on a page, a vivid evocation
of solidities, a chiming, an onomatopoetic cataract or clatter or
purring or keening or whispering, etc.) from which can be distilled
a significance — understanding, mood, idea, message, etc.
"Poetry" and "prose" are theoretical ends of
a spectrum. The "prose" end is medium (language) equals
significance (message, not massage); the "poetry" end
is medium equals mass (massage, not message). Communications can
fall anywhere in this spectrum and yet maintain the required balance.
To the degree that medium lacks mass, subject can compensate and
Mid-spectrum works are hard to label as prose or poetry. Drama,
staged, has an obvious physical component — sets, actors, etc.
Hence, in it, language and content can dispense with many of the
physical elements of both poetry and prose, can out-prose prose
— but, when possessed of those "poetic" elements, may
live on the page like Shakespeare or Beckett.
And many works simply fall off the spectrum by making no attempt
to maintain a balance: The work that is pure sermonizing, with characters
who are transparent stand-ins for authorial opinion and where the
sermons themselves are relentlessly abstract; in clichéd
work where what was once a significant form has become the husk
or abandoned form (mass) of a lost significance; etc. All the failures
of art may be seen as an improper balance of mass and significance.
It is by the aptness of their joinings of mass and significance
that works of art provide surprises and resolutions, the sense of
the unexpected that, yet, once experienced, seems inevitable, the
blend of surprise and recognition we associate with art.
Out of Tolstoy's gray precision emerges (like a bright bird from
a network of wet black branches) Natasha. Universality shines in
an eye glance. The iambic drumming slips into being something as
feline as the speech of Shakespeare's Cleopatra. Always the aptness
of what mass balances what significance (and vice versa), what infinity
can be found in what grain of sand, what beast can be overwhelmed
by what beauty, what sour crab apples can be the fruit of what mellifluousness
— always these are the graces of the game of art.
I find mostly useless the high-flown cosmic distinctions made by,
e.g., Valery, to float poetry aloft, higher than prose. What prose
can do, I think poetry can do, and vice versa. They can both communicate
as well as their writers can communicate, say as much as their sayers
would say, convey as much understanding as can be conveyed.
Why write one rather than the other? Why play basketball rather
than soccer or baseball or American football? They are different
games. Why does telling a long story seem to me a laborious thing
to do, an encumbrance, rather than a means? Why does perfecting
the rhyme and meter of a villanelle seem to me a means rather than
an encumbrance? It is a choice of games, a choice of barriers and
freedoms and goals.
The baseball player doesn't have to dribble a ball as he runs the
bases. The basketball player doesn't have to wait for his inning
and his turn at bat to score. The baseball fan sits through long
periods of relative inaction (the catcher signals, the pitcher winds
up, the batter steps out of the box and spits...) full of drama
(can the spectator guess what kind of pitch will be delivered next?);
the basketball fan views an almost uninterrupted wash of motion
up an down the floor until someone pulls off some graceful stunt
(a dunk, a clever steal, etc.) that seizes the attention.
The baseball fan might find basketball a hectic, confusing freak
show (the players being taller than most of us). The basketball
fan may find baseball nearly as boring as he finds golf. Another
fan may enjoy all these games, seeing them as a varying selection
of freedoms (what the players may do) and barriers (what they may
not do) or limitations, all of our popular games maintaining an
acceptable balance of barriers (mass) and freedoms (significance
— the freedom from mass derived from understanding; the knowledge
that gives us control).
If every batter hit a homerun, baseball would be dull — no game
at all. The baseball commissioner would have to institute new barriers:
larger fields (distance as a barrier), deader baseballs, more outfielders,
less elastic bats, a larger strike zone, etc. In basketball, fans
got bored with towering centers waiting (like hawks hovering on
a thermal) for the ball and a sure score; so a "3-second rule"
forbade anyone standing in an area close to the basket for more
than 3 consecutive seconds.
Similarly, where the barriers are too overpowering, new freedoms
Or else the game dies. Frost described poetry without rhyme and
meter as being like playing tennis without a net. Poetry needn't
be so narrowly defined — free verse has its nets — but the principle
is correct: Poetry gains certain freedoms lacking in prose by incorporating
barriers lacking in prose. And prose does the same vis-a-vis poetry.
That's all there is to it. They are different games — or a spectrum
of many games.
Poetry is not better than prose. Prose is not better than poetry.
Some will be able to play (or simply prefer to play) one game rather
than another. Personally, I prefer to write poetry, often a very
prosy poetry; but I'd rather READ prose. And why shouldn't a baseball
player prefer to watch basketball, or vice versa? I admire in others
the skill I lack or lack patience for — story-telling — more
than those skills I possess. Also I grew up reading novels for pleasure;
poetry was imposed on me by pedants — the poetry I read, that is.
the poetry I write — ah, that is all my own.
Note: My ideas, above, about physicality versus significance were
inspired by L. Ron Hubbard's writing on the subject in his works
on the barriers to study. My use of the concepts of games, barriers
and freedoms is also inspired by his work.
Copyright c. 2003 by Dean Blehert. All Rights Reserved