Louis Esterhuizen. Oor poësie, prosa en prosaverse


Verlede naweek, tydens Montagu se Breyten Breytenbach Boekefees moes ek praat oor die problematiek van tyd in die poësie en hoe ek dit in my bundel Wat die water onthou (2010: Protea Boekhuis) gereflekteer het. Tydens my navorsing vir dié geleentheid lees ek toe ‘n besonder interessante artikel, “Is it poetry or prose?“, deur Caleb Murdock op Poemtree.com raak; ‘n artikel wat nie veel te make gehad het met my praatjie nie, maar wel heelwat te sê gehad het oor poësie, prosa en die sogenaamde ‘prosavers’.

Caleb se openingsparagrawe lees soos volg:

Prose and poetry are two sides of the same coin.  Both of them communicate ideas, and both of them can be written beautifully.  But the essential purpose of prose is to communicate ideas, and the essential purpose of poetry is to move us with the beauty of its crafted language, and in this distinction the two diverge.  Prose is communication; poetry is art.  When a reader is moved by prose, he is moved primarily by its meaning.  Of course, the distinction between poetry and prose can be blurred.  Prose can be written with extra attention to its beauty, in which case it is called “poetic prose”; and poetry can be written with extra attention to its meaning, in which case it is called “prosaic poetry”.  But the essential distinction remains.

What are the ways that poetry can be crafted?  The poet has a limited number of tools, and they are pretty specific:  metaphor, simile, parallelism, line breaks, enjambment, alliteration, consonance, assonance, form (stanzas, sonnets, etc.), rhythm, meter, internal rhyme, and end rhyme (I may have left out a few).  But what of poetry that has almost none of these elements – is it poetry?  I think the answer to that is more than just semantic.  In the past century, the one century in all of English-language history in which free verse was the dominant form, poetry lost much of its audience.  When an art form devolves to the point where it no longer contains the elements that define it, we have to question whether the result is art or something else.

Hierna volg ‘n beknopte, dog indringende kyk na die ontwikkeling van die vrye vers en hoe dit uiteindelik aanleiding gegee het tot meer amorfe versvorme soos die prosavers, onder andere. Gaan lees gerus die volledige artikel vir dié oorsig en ook Murdoch se kommentaar.

By wyse van lusmaker plaas ek graag die volgende aanhalings:

“The best poems, in my view, contain a high number of poetic elements, and rhythm is the most important of them.  More than any other quality, rhythm distinguishes poetry from prose.”

“I think the reason that such prosaic poetry has become so prevalent is that anyone can write it.  It is a method by which people without poetic talent, or without a true love of the sound of poetry, can express their private feelings in a public manner […] But the prosaic style misses the point of poetry altogether, which is to create beauty with words.  Such poetry can only be read for its meaning, not its beauty.”

“I believe that this prosaic style, which lacks almost all poetic elements, is the natural evolutionary end-result of free verse.  When you remove the most important elements from poetry (form and meter), all the remaining elements become expendable […] As long as poets take the word ‘free’ to mean ‘without’ (as in, without rhythm, without rhyme, without alliteration, etc.), then free verse will be doomed to disintegrate into prose.”

“Practitioners of the prosaic style have convinced themselves that the sound of metered language is unpleasant.  They view it as an anachronism, a throwback to artificial formality.  But Frost, Francis, Auden and Roethke showed us that metered poetry can be informal and accessible. Meter is what gives a poem its structure and momentum; it carries the reader forward to the poem’s conclusion (imagine song lyrics without the melody and you will see what I mean).  Without meter, long poems lose their coherence – unless they are written in the loose cadence of prose.  And this brings us to another reason why modern free verse has degenerated into prose:  free verse cannot be sustained over long passages without losing its integrity, whereas prose can be.  In other words, if a poet writes his poems in prose, he can write longer poems.”

“I find more grand and phony sentiments in prosaic poetry than in metered poetry, and I think I know why:  The language itself is so mundane that the poet has to find some other way to move his audience, so he resorts to sentimentality (or drama or other similar techniques).”

As leestoegif volg ‘n toepaslike gedig deur Archibald MacLeish; ‘n gedig wat ook deur Caleb Murdoch aangehaal word in sy artikel “Is it Poetry or Prose?” en waarna hy verwys as waarskynlik “the most beautiful free verse poem ever written”.


Ars Poetica

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit.

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown.

A poem should be wordless
as the flight of birds.


A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees.

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.


A poem should be equal to:
Not true:

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.

© Archibald MacLeish



Bookmark and Share

9 Kommentare op “Louis Esterhuizen. Oor poësie, prosa en prosaverse”

  1. I wonder how it’s possible for any of us to examine those ideas within ourselves that are culturally codified though no less specious and arbitrary for being so well accepted. However, if we must insist on continuing to draw this false dichotomy between poetry and prose, can we at least stop using the English language to do so? I make this point because one of the chief beauties of the English language is the plethora of words within that can be utilized to great effect in communicating one’s ideas.

    Or rather, I’d like to say those words for that reason, but the authors of most English language dictionaries, and especially those available for free online, happen to have no special care about the medium of poetry and more than that conveying precise meaning in language, and do their best only to confuse the matter. That is, the term we should be using instead of “Poetry” is “Verse”, as in, writing that is defined by being set in a stanza or a series of stanzas rather than “Poetry” which means:

    “The art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative or elevated thoughts.” (As in Merriam-Webster.)


    “Writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound and rhythm.” (As in dictionary.com.)

    Now, I’m not going to assume that Mr. Murdock is a reasonable person, but as he is a person, I am going to assume he is at least capable of reason. Following that, a simple question: Is there any particular within either definition that would exclude a composition in prose from being poetry? Is prose writing not often rhythmical? Is it not written or spoken? Is prose not often used to excite pleasure by beautiful or imaginative or elevated thoughts?

    Perhaps to go into this question, we’d have to go into what precisely are “beautiful thoughts”, or “imaginative thoughts” or “elevated thoughts” and if all kinds of pleasure excited are equivalent? And more than that, that definition is entirely too broad, since all writing involves an act of imagination and thus that would make any and all rhythmical compositions “Poetry.”

    Perhaps that’s the case. If so, we might as well end our discussion right now. Case solved. All writing is poetry so long as it involves rhythm.

    However, I, as I’m sure many of you, disagree. Musn’t there be some quality more specific to the essence of what makes a poem? Sound is important. Cadence is important. The intrinsic rhythms of our words are important. But I would point to a phrase in the dictionary.com definition as being critically important: “Writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience.”

    And, perhaps not coincidentally, these words read almost like a concentrated formula extracted from the words of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainer Maria Rilke’s protagonist from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge:

    [For the Sake of a Single Poem]

    … Ah, poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a lone one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough)—they are experiences.

    For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained, to parents whom you had to hurt when they brought in a joy and you didn’t pick it up (it was a joy meant for somebody else—); to childhood illnesses that began so strangely with so many profound and difficult transformations, to days in quiet, restrained rooms and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along high overhead and went flying with all the stars, and it is still not enough to be able to think of all that.

    You must have memories of many nights of love, each one different from all the others, memories of women screaming in labor, and of light, pale, sleeping girls who have just given birth and are closing again. But you must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the scattered noises. And it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves—only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.

    —Rainer Maria Rilke, from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge in The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell (Vintage International, 1989)

    Then, if that is the case, if poems are what arise “only when [memories] have transformed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves,” that is, if poems are not merely expressions of the self, “not merely emotions,” but what comes when the world is transformed and expressed through the self, what precludes that expression from coming in the form of prose?

    More than that, if we are to be good students of English, how could we read the prose of John Keats, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Henry James, James Agee, William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Pynchon or William Gass, not to mention Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., among others, and not determine these are writers of poetry? That they are writers whose are concerned not with merely conveying ideas but conveying ideas precisely through the beauty of crafted language. And these writers are so skilled in crafting language, in giving their words the human quality of the voice, that they can convey profound meaning through the beauty of what at first might seem but simple sentences.

    “You see what a many words it requires to give any identity to a thing I could have told you in a half a minute.” (John Keats in a letter to his brother George, September 1819)

    Or in sentences that go long as to themselves become paragraphs:

    “We see, as in the universes of the material kosmos, after meteorological, vegetable, and animal cycles, man at last arises, born through them, to prove them, concentrate them, to turn upon them with wonder and love—to command them, adorn them, and carry them upward into superior realms—so, out of the series of the preceding social and political universes, now arise these States. We see that while many were supposing things established and completed, really the grandest things always remain; and discover that the work of the New World is not ended, but only fairly begun.” (Walt Whitman in Democratic Vistas)

    Or in writings that are wholly narrative in nature, and in their every word and compunction elucidate not only the world transformed within time and into time and idea and more than that, something beautiful, but does this whilst never loosening themselves outside the perspectives of the characters that speak them:

    “It was a wondrous sight. The wood was green as mosses of the Icy Glen; the trees stood high and haughty, feeling their living sap; the industrious earth beneath was as a weaver’s loom, with a gorgeous carpet on it, whereof the ground-vine tendrils formed the warp and woof, and the living flowers the figures. All the trees, with all their laden branches; all the shrubs, and ferns, and grasses; the message-carrying air; all these unceasingly were active. Through the lacings of the leaves, the great sun seemed a flying shuttle weaving the unwearied verdure. Oh, busy weaver! unseen weaver!—pause!—one word!—whither flows the fabric? what palace may it deck? wherefore all these ceaseless toilings? Speak, weaver!—stay thy hand!—but one single word with thee! Nay—the shuttle flies—the figures float from forth the loom; the fresher-rushing carpet for ever slides away. The weaver-god, he weaves; and by that weaving is he deafened, that he hears no mortal voice; and by that humming, we, too, who look on the loom are deafened; and only when we escape it shall we hear the thousand voices that speak through it. For even so it is in all material factories. The spoken words that are inaudible among the flying spindles; those same words are plainly heard without the walls, bursting from the opened casements. Thereby have villainies been detected.” (Herman Melville in Moby Dick.)

    “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly — Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is — and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.” (Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn)

    Just read these words. Just read them and listen. Though not just with your eyes. Read them aloud and listen for all these words were written with the human voice in mind. If these men haven’t said it, James Agee has in his preface to “Let us Now Praise Famous Men:

    “The text was written with reading aloud in mind. That cannot be recommended; but it is suggested that the reader attend with his ear to what he takes off the page: for variations of tone, pace, shape, and dynamics are here particularly unavailable to the eye alone, and with their loss, a good deal of meaning escapes.” (James Agee from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.)

    And then you can read just one short passage from said book and know it to be true:

    “. . . the sky:

    The sky was withdrawn from us with all her strength. Against some scarcely conceivable imprisoning wall this woman held herself away from us and watched us: wide, high, light with her stars as milk above our heavy dark; and like the bristling and glass breakage on the mouth of stone spring water: broached on grand heaven their metal fires” (James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men)

    If this passage is not what is meant and included within the category of “Poetry,” then whatever is meant by this word only refers to a meaningless distinction. There are words, written words, that can do things within us, within our very bodies and I don’t know how to say what exactly it is that is done, only that it is necessary for my existence as a person and important, intrinsically important, to the part of my animal that I consider at all to be human. And these words which I’ve quoted incite those things to happen within me, somewhere deep there in the black within me, as this activity to alertness can surely only happen there in the black of any person, and within any person, wherever it is we find intact the active mystery of each individual human soul, that vanishes as soon as it is exposed to light.

    P. S. If you do a simple search of Merriam Webster’s online dictionary, you will find what follows as the secondary definition of prose:

    “A literary medium distinguished from poetry especially by its greater irregularity and variety of rhythm and its closer correspondence to the patterns of everyday speech.”

    That seems all well and good, until you start going over any numbers of writing we would all consider to be of prose in nature that while all having two left feet, that is by being partially and especially distinguished by their great irregularity of rhythm, have almost no correspondence with “the patterns of everyday speech.” Most of us would agree, far less so than even the poetry of someone like Ezra Pound, despite the fact that he laces his English with ancient languages. That is the writings of mathematicians, physicists, chemists, biologists, doctors, economists, and all manner of social scientists and philosophers. Surely not all of them. Nietzche wrote beautifully. Camus. Poincare. We could go on. But pick up a current paper in particle physics and, if you have no background and without reading a synopsis, and tell me what you understand or what exactly has any correspondence to the way people speak? You won’t have to look hard to find any number of papers that are likely to difficult to parse? Then, musn’t this definition be bubkis? And might we not further contend, if it’s quite clear to us that the essential nature of a prose composition might have almost nothing to do with the patterns of everyday speech, and we can find all manner of prose with a greater regularity of rhythm, even in its variety, then what we would commonly call poetry, then, at least according to this definition, we cannot distinguish poetry from prose at all?

    P. P. S. I also find the linked article at least a little amusing insofar as Mr. Murdock talks about poetry’s declining audience as poetry made its transition to free verse. Its true that it’s unlikely any poem is to make the public impact of Ginsberg’s Howl, which resulted in arrests for obscenity and a subsequent trial, and also happened to written in free verse, but we shouldn’t forget that William Carlos Williams’ initial print runs were 300. Rainer Maria Rilke’s print run’s were exceedingly small. They were not the only ones. And if anything, far many more people read and know these poets today than at their initial arrival. Perhaps poetry’s problem with an audience is do mainly to the inherent difficulty of poetry and not to the fact that poetry was a more popular art form when everyone was illiterate?

  2. Louis Esterhuizen :

    Thank you for this insightful (and extensive!) comment, Ben. It somehow reminds me of a quote that I read somewhere many years ago: “You will never find poetry anywhere unless you bring some of it yourself …”

  3. Johann :

    Ben, poets, philosophers & critics have tried to pin down the difference between poetry & prose. In stead of elucidation your comments leave one with greater confusion. Much of what you say is interesting (albeit trodden ground), but much is open to questioning. Many poets are loathe to call their writing verse, the latter being a term reserved for light poetry, not serious writing. One would hardly talk of Milton’s or Eliot’s verse.
    You do however engage with the difficult issues head on & that’s commendable.

  4. Hilda Smits :

    Ben, I found what you wrote most interesting. I also do not like Mr Murdock’s article, specifically the way he labels everything and puts it all into neat little boxes. The way he tries to tidy up the great ocean of poetry as if he is merely cleaning house. Such beauty in the things that you quoted. Surely that is what writing is all about. Thank you for this.

  5. Maria :


    Hier volg Lee Fahnestock se definisie soos aangebied in die inleiding van haar vertaling van Ponge se “The Nature of Things”:

    “marked by the wit and beauty of the poet’s precise observations, which all but conceal the poetic transformations at work just below the surface. For, drawing on the creative ambiguity of language, he was able to say several things on several levels at once, while unobtrusively demonstrating the particular nature of words and things. Over and over, an object and singular trait rise together, gathering complexity as they follow a short narrative cycle — a defnition-description in metaphor — to fuse with the poem on the page, where all the elements close on the same dying note. (p. 9)”

    Die volgende (volgens my, veelseggende) voorbeeld word aangebied:


    Midway between cage and cachot, or cell, the French has cageot, a simple little open-slatted crate devoted to the transport of fruit that is sure to sicken at the slightest hint of suffocation. Devised in such a way that after use it can easily be broken down, it never serves twice. Thus its life-span is shorter even than that of the perishables it encloses.
    So, at the corners of every street leading to the market, it gleams with the unassuming lustre of slivered pine. Still brand new and somewhat aghast at the awkward situation, dumped irretrievably on the public thoroughfare, this object is most appealing, on the whole — yet one whose fate doesn’t warrant our overlong attention.

  6. Johann, I agree this is well trodden ground, but all I’m arguing is that there is nothing makes a piece of writing that is prose mutually exclusive from being poetry. And continuing this type of thought just seems a type of laziness. “Prose” is writing that is written in the form of paragraphs whereas “Verse” is writing that is written in the form of stanzas, and both at times are poetry. It’s that simple.

    As for the term “Verse” being reserved for light poetry, isn’t this term also used to speak about the chapters of the bible and the stanzas within?

  7. Maria, I don’t understand why this definition couldn’t as well apply to a poem written in stanzas as well as in paragraphs?

  8. Maria :

    Mr Rubin, I agree (mostly). The point I placed the quote was precisely to show the (complex) correlation. Personally, though, I feel a poem makes more of a blunter/blunting statement. A prose poem follows somewhat softer path towards it – it “[gathers] complexity as [it follows] a short narrative cycle” and then presents the knockdown. A poem may go this way, but more often it just DESCRIBES a situation and then the description ends on a mind-blowing “dying note” – the reader is left a little more in the lurch (to lurch is “to move with irregular sudden movements”).

    A poem according to me is more like the cage Ponge is telling the story of in his prose poem. A poem is more of “a simple little open-slatted” thing “devoted to the transport of fruit that is sure to sicken at the slightest hint of suffocation” – a poem does not want to be suffocated – it thrives on its open-slattedness. “It can easily be broken down, it never serves twice. Thus its life-span is shorter even than that of the perishables it encloses.”

    A poem has a more “unassuming lustre”, it consists of something “slivered”, it is kind of more “brand new and somewhat aghast at the awkward situation” it is “dumped [in] irretrievably”.

    But as Ponge puts it correctly, “[t]his object”, the poem, “most appealing, on the whole” is “yet one whose fate doesn’t warrant our overlong attention” and so we are back to square one: “the one is the other, just different and deferred” as Derrida would put it, the same but not identical.

    A delicious difference! (Latin delicia (plural deliciae) “a delight, allurement, charm,” from delicere “to allure, entice,” from de- “away” (see de-) + lacere “lure, deceive” (related to laqueus “noose, snare – Source: http://etymonline.com/?term=delicious).

    A difference generating a discussion … on meaning … on a kind of middle, a middle which is more of an action of spacing, a secret, a seperation, an orgiastic mystery (Derrida in The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret, 2008).

    Ultimately, both a prose poem and a poem can bring one to a standstill – so you have a point …

  9. Yes, being brought to a standstill, but not just you. It’s Eliot’s “still point of the turning world.” It’s the still heart of the beating earth.

    That’s what I was attempting to get at: It’s about the feeling that you get, the feeling that gets into you, when you read something so vital and alive and beautiful it obliterates, in that moment, every other consideration, and really it doesn’t matter how or why it comes, suffice that it comes.