Poetry and Prose
Poetry and Prose
the two basic types of organization of literary language, differing primarily in their rhythmic structure. The rhythm of poetic language is created by the distinct division of lines of poetry into commensurable segments, which, in principle, do not coincide with syntactic divisions. Prose is divided into paragraphs, periods, sentences, and cola, which are also encountered in ordinary speech but which occur in a definite order in literary language. The rhythm of prose is a complex and elusive phenomenon, the study of which is only beginning.
At first, the term “poetry” was applied to all verbal art, in which verse and closely related rhythmic and intonational forms prevailed until modern times. All nonartistic verbal works were referred to as prose, including philosophical, scientific, publicis-tic, informational, and oratorical works. This usage prevailed in Russia during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Widespread until the early 20th century, it is sometimes still encountered.
Poetry. Verbal art as such (that is, distinct from folklore) originates as poetry, in verse form. The main genres of classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, and even the Renaissance and the neoclassical period (the epic poem, the tragedy, the comedy, and various categories of lyrics) were almost exclusively in verse. Until the creation of fiction in the modern sense, verse was the unique, invariable instrument for transforming the word into art. The special meaning and specific quality of an utterance are revealed, affirmed, and established in verse, with its unusual organization of speech, which indicates that a particular utterance is not merely a communication of information or a theoretical judgment but a unique verbal “act.” Investigating the reasons for the origin of poetry by studying the famous two-line inscription that tells of the Greeks who fell in battle at Thermopylae, Hegel remarked that the couplet does not merely announce an action that is external to it but “tries to appear as an action (poiein)” (Hegel, Soch., vol. 14, Moscow, 1958, p. 170). The couplet does not simply inform us of a fact but creates a literary, poetic fact, or more broadly, a poetic world in which, for example, the dead may speak: “Go, stranger, and tell Lacedaemonia that we lie here in obedience to her laws.” Even though the use of verse does not guarantee that a work is “poetic,” the verse form immediately indicates the “removal” of the poetic world from the limits of everyday certainty, from the limits of “prose” (a term derived from a root meaning “straightforward,” “direct”).
In the early stages of the development of literature, verse was necessary because verbal art was intended to be spoken, pronounced, and performed. Even Hegel believed that all literary works should be pronounced, sung, or declaimed. This assertion is not applicable to the modern novel, which also has a full-fledged existence as a book to be read “to oneself.” The living voices of the author and the protagonists are heard in prose, but by the reader’s “inner ear.” On the one hand, verse can be fully understood only when it is read aloud. On the other hand, only a verse form can comprehensively organize the vocal material of speech, lending it rhythmic roundness and a sense of completeness, which the aesthetics of past periods considered to be inseparably linked with perfection and beauty.
K. Marx wrote: “The ancient world … was loftier than the modern one in everything where finished image, form, and predetermined organization are sought” (K. Marx and F. En-gels, Ob iskusstve, vol. 1, 1967, p. 165). In the literature of past periods, verse was the “predetermined organization” that made the word lofty and beautiful.
Literary prose did not actually begin to develop until the Renaissance. It was not recognized and accepted as a legitimate form of literature until the 18th and early 19th centuries. In the age of the ascendancy of prose, the factors that gave rise to poetry seem to have lost importance: even without verse, verbal art is capable of creating a genuinely artistic world, and the “aesthetic of completeness” is essentially alien to modern literature. Prose has shown a capacity for endowing words with beauty equal to that associated with poetry.
Poetry has not died in the age of prose. At times (for example, in the early 20th century in Russia) it has regained prominence. Nonetheless, poetry is undergoing profound changes. Its quality of completeness has become much weaker. The strictest strophic forms, including the sonnet, rondeau, ghazal, and tanka, have declined in use. Freer rhythmic forms have developed (the dol’nik and taktovik [Russian meters] and accentual verse), and conversational intonations have become common.
Contemporary poetry has revealed new capacities for content and new possibilities in verse form. Poetic language always had the potential to convey tremendously complex artistic meaning, but this potential was fully revealed only in the 20th-century in poetry by A. Blok, R. M. Rilke, P. Valéry, and R. Frost. The inexhaustible possibilities for meaning inherent in poetry and essentially lacking in prose stem from a number of qualities of verse: the movement of words, the interaction and juxtaposition of words in the context of rhythm and rhyme, the clear exposition of the vocal aspect of speech, and the relationship between rhythmic and syntactic structure. When converted to prose, many beautiful lines of poetry are almost meaningless, because their meaning is created chiefly by the interaction of the verse form with words. This interaction creates extremely complex, subtle shades and shifts of artistic meaning that cannot be captured in any other literary form.
Poetry is capable of re-creating, to the highest degree possible, the living poetic voice and personal intonation of the author, which are made real in the very structure of the verse—in its rhythmic movement, its “twists and turns,” and the profile of phrase stresses, word divisions, and pauses. For entirely logical reasons, most modern poetry is lyric poetry. In the distant past verse was the only form for all the main genres of literature, but even then, lyric poetry was the best medium for conveying the special possibilities for meaning inherent in verse.
Verse plays a dual role in modern lyric poetry. In conformity with its traditional role, it elevates some statement about the author’s life experience into the realm of art—that is, it transforms an empirical fact into a poetic one. At the same time, verse form makes it possible to re-create in lyric intonations the immediate truth of personal experience, the real and unique voice of the poet.
Prose. Until modern times, prose developed on the periphery of verbal art, giving form to the mixed, semiartistic phenomena of literature, including historical chronicles, philosophical dialogues, memoirs, sermons, and religious works, as well as to the “low” genres, such as farces, mimes, and other types of satire.
Prose, which began to develop during the Renaissance, differs fundamentally from all previous literary phenomena that were more or less excluded from poetry. Modern prose, whose origins can be traced to the Italian Renaissance short story and the works of Cervantes, Defoe, and the Abbé Prévost, is consciously limited and separated from verse as an intrinsically valuable, independent form of verbal art. It is essential to point out that modern prose is a written (or more precisely, a printed) phenomenon, unlike earlier forms of prose, which were in a class with poetry because they originated in oral communication and because they supposedly had to be recited.
The study of the character of literary prose, which originated in the 19th century and became fully developed in the 20th, covers a great deal that is problematic, including prose rhythm, which is undoubtedly characterized by a higher degree of organization than the rhythm of ordinary speech. In recent decades, research has shown that prose rhythm lacks fixed quantitative characteristics but has definite qualitative features. Although it speeds up or slows down, depending on the movement of the narrative, the rhythm of prose follows a definite tempo.
Scholars have discovered several fundamental principles that distinguish the prose word from the poetic. Compared to the poetic word, the prose word is fundamentally descriptive. It draws less attention to itself than does the poetic word. In poetry, especially lyric poetry, it is impossible to separate the content from the words. More precisely, the word in prose places a plot directly before the reader—that is, it presents the entire sequence of the various actions and movements from which the characters and artistic world of a novel or novella are created.
Prose, like poetry, transforms real objects and creates its own artistic world, but it does this primarily by means of a special juxtaposition of objects and actions. Prose acts as a transparent narrative fabric. In prose, the word strives not for multiple meanings but for individualized specificity of intended meaning.
It is equally important that in prose the word itself becomes an object of depiction: in principle, it is “alien,” it does not coincide with the author’s personal word. In poetry, which is primarily monologic, the author’s word coincides with that of a personage who represents the author. By contrast, prose is completely dialogic—that is, it absorbs heterogeneous, incompatible “voices.” (This topic is discussed by M. M. Bakhtin in his book, Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo [1972, pp. 309–50].) In literary prose the complex interaction between the voices of the author, the narrator, and the characters often endows the word with a “multidirectedness” and polysemy—qualities that differ from the multiple significance of the poetic word.
The cardinal points in the scholarly theory of prose are the rhythm of prose, its specific descriptive character, and the liberation of artistic energy as a result of the clash of different speech levels (voices).
There are a number of literary forms that are intermediate between poetry and prose, including the “prose poem,” which is similar to lyric poetry in stylistic, thematic, and compositional features but not in meter. Prose poems were favored by C. Baudelaire and I. S. Turgenev. Other intermediate forms include free verse and rhythmic prose, which are similar to verse precisely because of their metrical features.
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V. V. KOZHINOV