I’m writing this partly as a response to a StAnza discussion between Marie-Elsa Bragg and Don Paterson on the borderlines/boundaries (if such exist) between prose and poetry. My title may suggest a continuum, but is that so?
I’ve written elsewhere about my own reasons for switching from being primarily a writer of poetry to mainly writing prose – short stories and flash fiction. Here I want to focus on the differences in the way I approach the forms.
For me, poetry starts with a line, a group of words which comes into my head, a group of sounds I hear. My ideal way of writing a poem is similar to that which Norman MacCaig professed to follow. He said (I paraphrase) that he would follow that first line down the page and see where it led. That, more or less, is how I do it.
It starts with word sounds, but because I’ve been writing so long, unconsciously I bring in rhythm and many other techniques, such as assonance, alliteration, rhyme or half-rhyme, repetition, the ‘Rule of Three’, and knowing where to break a line for breath or emphasis.
These techniques, allied to knowledge of specific forms and shapes for poetry, characterise poetry as a literary entity. I’m not saying they define it, for that would be to limit its range of possibilities, but that’s what most poems look like.
Prose poetry would remove the discipline of line breaks, but could incorporate some or all of the other poetic techniques.
There’s one particular form which blurs the borderlines between prose and poetry, and that’s the haibun, a Japanese form made famous in the West through translations of Basho’s great work Oku no Hosomichi – Narrow Roads of the Interior.
It’s lyrical prose, written in the present tense, and is usually the record of a real or imaginary journey. It’s punctuated or end-stopped by a haiku. My 2014 collection – The Book of Ways – is a gathering of 112 haibun, published by Red Squirrel Press. I still explore the form from time to time.
And so to prose itself, and, because I’ve never written a novel, I’ll restrict myself to short forms – flash fiction and the short story.
For the most part, short fiction is a narrative which does not have the line structure of a poem, and nor does it (necessarily) embody poetic tricks and techniques. The conventional story is structured into a beginning, middle and end; or an opening, a development and a denouement.
The opening can be as short as the first two sentences. The first tempts the reader in; the second hooks them. Or you can go larger. The ending can be a full stop, or it can be more open-ended or ambiguous. I’ve found that the needs of the story itself dictate the type of ending. Sometimes the end is a question, requiring the reader to speculate on ‘What happens next?’ If character and plot have been sufficiently developed, there are probably enough clues to tease the reader into answering their own question.
That’s my personal take on these particular borderlines, but I’ve read and enjoyed, or written and enjoyed writing, examples which have transgressed these boundaries. Borders are made to be crossed.