June 9, 2013, by Stephen Mumford

Poetry or Prose

The distinction between poetry and prose has always puzzled me. I have to confess that I have never really ‘got’ poetry, though I want to remedy this. There are some obvious differences but I assume that they are thereby superficial. Poetry usually works within a form or structure. Sometimes this is regimented, as in the case of a sonnet, while at other times it is more free form. But poetry can be recognised instantly by its succession of short lines in contrast to prose that is mostly written in continuous paragraphs, some of them very long. I’m pretty sure the difference between poetry and prose is much deeper than that, however.

The fact that I struggle with poetry gives me a clue. As a philosopher, I like writing that is clear, precise and unambiguous and I must always strive for these ideals in my own work. When I write, I have an idea that I am aiming to impart to my reader and I do not want them to leave my text with an altogether different one. The poet typically does not have that aim. Each word will have been carefully chosen by the poet, perhaps where it is purposefully vague, resonant and no more than suggestive. The reader is encouraged to dwell on those words and mull them over for multiple meanings, using them as a device to conjure their own thoughts. Consequently, one is expected to spend much longer reading a poem, perhaps going back over it, line by line, and thinking of all the different things those words could signify. Poetry thus has a more pronounced subjective aspect. From the writer’s stance, the reader is enabled to develop their own.

This is a nice, neat theory of the distinction and perhaps it’s typical of an analytic philosopher to produce such a simple statement. The reality is almost certainly more complex and the boundary between poetry and prose far more vague. Some prose writers will similarly trade on ambiguities and leave the reader to contemplate a deeper meaning that is to be found. Consider Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for instance, which is about more than a mere boat trip. And poetry might be used to convey an explicit message. Writers within both forms can have many different ways of conveying their meaning and different kinds of meanings to be conveyed. Poetry could then be no more than what Wittgenstein called a family resemblance concept, with no single feature in common to every instance but the sort of related resemblances between members that we find in biological families.

By way of illustration of some of the features of poetry, and the degrees by which they can appear in a single exemplar, I finish by offering the ending to Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. How explicit or implicit is Arnold’s meaning here? How subjective or objective? Whatever those answers, I certainly find it touching, beautiful, and while it first raises my hopes, I do not blame Arnold at all for then immediately dashing them. There is a truth here.

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.


Posted in English StudiesLiteraturePoetry