But of course, Virginia Woolf totally lacked the fine poetic sensibilities of, say, T. S. Eliot, he said impressively. She was, I suppose, a fair prose stylist. It was 2018, a university town, a lecture on modernist poetry given by somebody Important. I was writing a thesis on Woolf and neck-deep in all the sexist secondary literature about her. But this was something different—something so bizarre I wrote it down. Professor F says Woolf = without fine poetic sensibilities. I knew he was wrong.
Hot debate has continued for centuries about where precisely the line lies between poetry and prose. Poetry is formal, in both senses, say many. The boundaries are fixed. A sonnet must be 14 lines, Shakespearean or Petrarchan. A haiku must be about nature. Under no circumstances can a prose-penning novelist be a poet at heart.
That being said, almost everybody, including poets themselves, struggles to define what distinguishes poetry from prose. Paul Valéry famously said that poetry is to prose what dancing is to walking. Robert Frost said poetry was what got left behind in translation. Perhaps the simplest way to define the difference is by the distinct way we give our attention to prose and poetry. We learn from a young age to read poems—which we first recognise by their physical shape on the page—with an attention to sound and diction we rarely apply to reading, say, a newspaper article. But later, we learn we can’t always identify poetry from its physical shape on the page: Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons” is just as much a poem as a Shakespeare sonnet. Often, elements of prose bleed into poetry, and vice versa—and I think that’s interesting. I’m not sure they need to be exclusively categorised, and I’m not sure that poetry should be read more attentively than prose as a rule.
Perhaps for that reason, I have always preferred to think of poetry and prose as existing on a spectrum. Somewhere on the spectrum sits prose that is almost poetry. Its language demands particular attention and carries unusual weight. Its gesture is more than just getting from A to B; rhythm and sound are key to it; something about the language does not sound like everyday speech. When I think about this category of prose, I think first of the early twentieth-century writers who were actively blurring form: that “fair prose stylist”, Virginia Woolf, in The Waves, say; or James Joyce in Ulysses. But it’s not just the modernists: consider Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a book so steeped in poetry you’re inclined to read every page twice, or the work of Lydia Davis, which makes such surprising things profound and ineffable, it often feels more like poetry than prose. And at the end of an academic essay, no less, Anne Carson writes prose so close to poetry I want to lie down in it:
There are many stillnesses we didn’t get around to in this essay—snow; fog; moonlight; chastity; the gerundive; Odysseus tied to the mast while sailing past the Sirens (the Sirens who, according to Franz Kafka, were anyway silent); the stillness of unsent letters; the stillness inside an egg; the stillness of all the omnibuses in London driving around empty on 18 December 1936 while a king was abdicating on radio […] (“Stillness”, Critical Enquiry 48.1, Autumn 2021. https://doi.org/10.1086/715987)
On the other hand, literature teems with poetry that borrows from prose. I’m not thinking just of poems that eschew line breaks, or the more famous prose poems in Western literature—Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Illuminations”, for instance, or John Ashbery’s “Sacred and Profane Dances”. I’m also thinking of the prose-tinted poems of some of my favourite poets working today: of Franny Choi’s “How to Let Go of the World” or Nina Mingya Powles’ “Falling City” or Claudia Rankine’s book-length “Citizen”.
In poems like these, the flexible possibilities of the prose sentence are co-opted for poetic effect. When Choi writes “One evening, I turned a corner and panicked at a sudden flash in my rearview, teeth chattering into my highest throat. Every nerve prepared for the acrid drip of cop talk until I realized: it was no cruiser”, we read narrative, logic, story—a usually prose feature that makes the poetry of the next line much more potent: “It was the sky. The sky, shocked with dying.” Similarly, when Powles organises “Falling City” into numbered paragraphs, she uses the conventions of prose to heighten her poetry. We expect a logical succession of ideas (‘1 happened, then 2 happened’ or ‘1, therefore 2’), but we get a poetic one (‘1 has something to say to 2, do you see it?’). The poem’s power lies in accumulation and juxtaposition: the unexpected placement of funeral chrysanthemums beside Robin Hyde eating chocolate cake.
Or, prose-friendly poems may employ prosaic diction, bringing verse, with its stubborn high art associations, back in touch with ordinary life. In “Citizen”, Rankine uses everyday language to capture everyday Black experience. Consider sections like the following, which offer pure, anguished poetry, using unexpected tools:
When a woman you work with calls you by the name of another woman you work with, it is too much of a cliché not to laugh out loud with the friend beside you who says, oh no she didn’t. Still, in the end, so what, who cares? She had a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right.
I read the presence of blunt, straightforward diction in this poem as a masterful metaphorical move: the intrusion of prose into a poetic setting is like the jolt of someone saying something racist; the use of prose is a refusal to prettify what isn’t pretty. Readers are supposed to be shocked, even resistant: it is part of the point.
In all, I struggle to think of either prose freckled with poetry or poetry tinged with prose that I don’t find, in some way, interesting. I like these hybrid works for the way they force readers to pay attention to language itself, not just what is being described. Writing that innovates should be read, regardless of how uncomfortable readers find it initially, because it forces a renewed engagement with language—which is one of the gifts of reading.
Maybe even more, I like the upset prose-poetry-blurring causes among those determined to put a box around writers. I like to witness the occasional modernist academic failing to see the poet in Woolf because it means that the academy doesn’t own art; that literature is still as Protean and non-exclusive as it ever was; that language is still free.
Maddie 文麗 Ballard is a writer based in Tāmaki Makaurau. By day, she works as the deputy editor of dish magazine, but she is always trying to get more poetry into her life. Her work can be found at The Pantograph Punch, Starling, The Oxford Review of Books and on her blog, fieldnotesoninbetweening.substack.com.