Photo courtesy of Ron Knight
Most of us were taught in primary school that poetry rhymes. We were encouraged to read poems as incantations, as if by simply uttering the words we were releasing something of magical power, way beyond the possibilities of everyday speech. However, since Eliot, Pound, and the American beat poets, poems no longer have to rhyme, and can be arranged on the page in both poetry and prose form. Alice Oswald’s exceptional poem ‘Dart’, much of it arranged as prose, is the perfect example.
So what is poetry? The Oxford dictionary states that a poem is a ‘literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm’.
Note that the definition does not mention how a poem should be set out on the page. Yet the general reader would not normally consider a piece of writing to be a poem if it is arranged on the page like a novel or travelogue.
But look at the following paragraph from J A Baker’s remarkable 1967 book ‘The Peregrine’. In it Baker records in diary form a decade of close observation of peregrines on the Essex marshes.
‘Pouring away behind the moving bird, the land flows out from the eye in deltas of piercing colour. The angled eye strikes through the surface dross as the obliqued axe cuts to the heart of a tree. A vivid sense of place grows like another limb. Direction has colour and meaning. South is a bright, blocked place, opaque and stifling; West is a thickening of the earth into trees, a drawing together, the great beef side of England, the heavenly haunch; North is open, bleak, a way to nothing; East is a quickening in the sky, a beckoning of light, a storming suddenness of sea.’
The language is intense, and rich in imaginative metaphor. It is clear that Baker has taken immense care with every word, ensuring the piece expresses precisely what he was observing. Yet, with the page-wide line length, close leading, and the sheer density and complexity of the imagery, it is hard to absorb the full meaning at a single reading, which is all most readers would grant a piece of prose. Whereas, we all have our own favourite poems, poring over them time and again in our search for untapped layers of meaning.
Now see the same prose piece arranged as a poem:
Pouring away behind the moving bird,
The land flows out from the eye in deltas of piercing colour.
The angled eye strikes through the surface dross
As the obliqued axe cuts to the heart of a tree.
A vivid sense of place grows like another limb.
Direction has colour and meaning.
South is a bright, blocked place, opaque and stifling;
West is a thickening of the earth into trees,
A drawing together, the great beef side of England,
The heavenly haunch;
North is open, bleak, a way to nothing;
East is a quickening in the sky, a beckoning of light,
A storming suddenness of sea.
No one could deny the poetic power of Baker’s writing. But is it poetry or prose? And does it matter? In a way I think it does, because readers in general hold poetry in greater esteem than prose. Arranging it as a poem most certainly aids comprehension, the short line length offering air and breathing space, granting the reader more time to weigh each individual word and image, and to more fully share Baker’s experience.
‘The Peregrine’ could, of course, be termed a prose poem (‘a piece of imaginative poetic writing in prose’). Yet few novels or works of prose are granted this status except by critics, and then usually in retrospect. ‘Les Illuminations’ by Rimbaud, is arranged as prose but is deemed to be a poem, as are some of Amy Lowell’s Imagist poems. But are they simply classed as poems because they are by poets and included in anthologies?
What am I suggesting? Simply that we should take more time when we read prose, bringing it the same close attention we grant poetry. If we do not, we could be missing out, especially in the work of writers of the calibre of John Banville, W G Sebald and Lawrence Durrell.
I could quote many passages from Baker’s book to build my case. Do read it, it’s a masterpiece.