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[Back to Essays]

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An unpublished essay by Dean Blehert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 difference.

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 memorable.

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 of parables.

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 of experience.

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 vice versa.

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 are introduced.

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   

Last Updated: January 1, 2003