Monday, June 4, 2012

The Unacknowledged Legislators of Humanity

Dr. Johnson asks, "NOW: to poetry: what, to you, would be some ways of demarcation between prose and poetry? I remember sitting in a bar in a run-down industrial area of LA, very late one night, and I was 22 or so, and a guy who described himself as a "bum" but was clearly a genius, laid out a very good case for Shakespeare's plays being "poetry," for Pynchon's novels as "poetry," for Nietzsche as "poetry," und so weiter. This very expansive model or poetry has always stuck with me. What seem your thoughts?"

Well, folks like Shelley discuss this a lot.  I tend to think of stuff marked "poetry" as poetry, especially stuff not in paragraphs.  Following Korzybski one can define poetry1 as stuff written with purposeful line breaks, stuff not written mostly in paragraphs.  (Admittedly, people like W. C. Williams Incorporated paragraphs of "prose" into their poetry, but those "paragraphs" make up a minority of a "poem" like Patterson.)

Poetry2 would follow Pound's definition of literature as language charged with meaning, great literature as language charged with meaning to the maximum extent.  Shelley, etc., liked to think of Plato as "poetry" in this sense.  Shakespeare switched between poetry1 and prose, but one could model it all as poetry2.  One could certainly model Pynchon and Nietzsche as poetry2 (even though Pynchon embeds some poetry1 amongst his "prose").

Operationally, I tend to read poetry1 out loud with no music playing; I tend to read prose silently, often with music playing.  I will sometimes read Finnegans Wake out loud, but I don't mind if I have music playing.  I tend to think the rhythms of music distract me from the conscious rhythms of poetry1.  "Prose" uses what Pound calls melopoeia, but to a lesser extant then poetry1, for the most part.


  1. Terrific answer. Thanks. I haven't seen a better answer in concise terms, frankly.

    Q: What are some of your ideas about reading poetry in translation? When I read Dante or Rumi, it's always a different English translation, and they always give a slightly different vibe from the previous translation. How much do you think is missed by reading a writer in translation? Thanks, I'll hang up and listen to the response on the air...I should add I'm a first time listener, long-time caller.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. It may take me a few days to write a response. I have to get my grading done.