We consider here a very old question – what is the difference b/w poetry and prose – what are their separate uses, the special province of the poem, of the paragraph, and how can we trouble these divisions. We could, if we wanted to, quote a hundred poets on this question and so avoid having to answer it ourselves. I’ll quote just one: Wordsworth:
The language of a large portion of every good poem, even of the most elevated character, must necessarily, except with reference to the metre, in no respect differ from that of good prose.
Meter, for Wordsworth, is the one defining character of the poetic line – and I don’t disagree with him, especially if we broaden the word “meter” to “music,” and that way capture other ways of attending to sound and rhythm.
But in preparing for this brief talk, I decided not to survey the poets, but to ask my son.
He’s 15 and a musician, and I was hoping he’d explain things by way of Shostakovich or Dvorak, because then we could all listen to that music. You know the difference between prose and poetry, I said? Sure, he said, poetry is figurative language and prose are very good at something.
After that I begged him to apply the terms to music. He answered reluctantly: “prose” would be the scales, the etudes, the practice. “Poetry,” everything else.
Prose are very good at something. Poetry is everything else.
A year and a half ago I started writing something I call Real Life: An Installation.
I write every day for 2 years, Labor Day to Labor day to Labor Day. I only read back and edit what I’ve written at 3-month intervals. Then I move on, writing, blindly in a sense, into the future.
The title Real Life came from my daughter, who was just four when I began. Often when she’d narrate events she’d begin with the phrase “In real life….” as a way to distinguish between things that happened and things she dreamed, imagined, saw in a movie or book. Now that she is 5 and more sophisticated, she distinguishes between “fiction” and “non-fiction,” but Real Life continues to be something rarefied, something particular.
I began to notice how adults use the phrase too.
Sickness, falling in love, playing games, performing, travel, sex, giving birth: none of these are Real Life – Real Life is what happens after or around those intensities. Real Life, for adults, often means—in fact—work. Economic life. Sometimes political life, but usually work.
And so, to be very simple one could say that in this project Real Life is prose: is very good at something, is work. While the concept of the installation (fragmentary, provisional, strange) allows me to include “everything else”: dream, fantasy, fairy tale, fragment: poetry.
But of course, such binaries are ultimately not so interesting. I want, in this piece, not to underline but to trouble the divisions between what we consider to be Real Life and what we consider to be other, what we think of as center, and what we think of as margin. And I want, therefore, not to assign prose and poetry opposing tasks, but to see how they differently address the sometimes competing, sometimes supporting urgencies of work and pleasure, the quotidian and the dreamed, the political and the erotic, finance and fantasy: these realms we attempt, or pretend, to keep apart.
And so often the “poetry,” the lineated material, that’s where you’ll find references to work, to the quotidian, to money. Imagined installations, dreams, fantasy letters to old rivals and lovers and to children, these are in prose.
A favorite moment in one of the text that has most inspired me, Willliams’ Paterson, addresses, I think, just this cruxes between whatever we call Real Life and whatever we might consider standing outside of it.
Look / for the nul // that’s past all / seeing // the death of all / that’s past // all being.” If the poem is that “null,” that realm beyond the visible (the location of fantasy, dream, desire or what Williams calls imagination) it nonetheless rhymes with the “all,” the visible world of things, the material world, the economic and the daily, as its twin.