Friday, 17 April 2009

When is a poem not a poem?

For the past two or three weeks I have been working on a "poem" on the subject of indecision - on trying to make up one's mind about an important issue and not being able to do so. Such decisions - and they come to us all at times - often cause me sleepless nights, when I lay awake trying to decide on the best course of action. I wish this didn't happen but it does for me as I am totally unable to switch off a worry at bedtime.

Now my problem for today is this: try as I may I cannot make the words I have written into a poem. They read like a paragraph of prose. And I want to know why that is. So - poets amongst you - and there are many jolly good ones amongst the people I blog regularly with - could you tell me why this is prose and not a poem please?


It was a long,
broken night;
sleep did not come easily;
shadows were forgiving,
their edges blurred
by the dappled moonlight
through the leaves.
In the half-light it was easy
to drift aimlessly
from one thought
to another
without coming to
a decision.

Incidentally, I wrote a poem some blogs ago about my recurring dream - a dream I have had all my life, a dream which is faintly disturbing. Since I wrote the poem and put it on my blog I have not had my dream once! Is that coincidence? I rather hope it isn't because putting this
poem/paragraph on about indecision might stop me having sleepless nights.


Sal said...

I would say that you have written a poem because of the way you have set it out with line breaks,although,having thought about it, it could be prose poetry!
According to Wiki (which I do take with a pinch of salt most of the time!):

'Prose poetry is usually considered a form of poetry written in prose that breaks some of the normal rules associated with prose discourse, for heightened imagery or emotional effect.'

I think you have done that!

Coastcard said...

Thank you for your challenge. I was very taken with your poem and felt little need to attempt to change it.

However, at your request, I went ahead and had a go (perhaps a case of fools rush in!)

I 'cut' my effort electronically, got distracted, 'copied' something else - and then realised that in 'copying', I had lost my 'cut'!

I could try to recreate my attempt (and would do so if requested, though I don't think it actually 'improved' on yours particularly, if at all); but in a sense I am glad this has happened.

It was remarkably hard to re-write someone else's poem without making it 'mine' in the sense of 'a poem from my perspective', and I have no wish to do that with what is 'not mine'.

I always make lots and lots of drafts, and the version you were set to receive was - by nature - just an early one. It might have taken me days or weeks to feel 'happy' with it. Some of my fellow poets work much faster, but I am a great believer in allowing the subconscious plenty of time for revision (which may or may not in fact be needed).

What arose, though, for me were the following general points. The exercise set me thinking about what principles I might hope to apply if the poem had been one I had written (& I wish it fell into this category!):

a) choose an excellent subject, begin with an enticing 'hook' for the reader, and handle it well (you have certainly ticked these boxes for me!).

b) create atmosphere or tension often: you have successfully created atmosphere.

c) check for 'spare' adjectives and adverbs, to see whether any could be shed to make the piece more punchy than it is. (I think I had a go at removing one - or at the most two in this instance).

d) look for repetition: one word caught my eye. From memory it was 'ease'/'easily' - though I can't see your screen as I type in this box. Was the repetition intended in this instance, or would the poem benefit from the removal of one of the instances or from the richness of a new word?

Well, my apologies here: you may feel I have cheated and side-stepped the exercise, though I did have a go. It will be interesting to read the posts that follow.

Poem making (and I believe I choose the word 'making' from the origins of the word) is SUCH an individual thing.

I am just wondering whether we could all as a future exercise start from a common standpoint (e.g. a given piece of prose, news item etc.) - and see what different poems arose out of it! The minute you think of the paraphrases of something well known e.g. Psalm 23, several versions come to mind, all (or most) pretty true to the original text.

Thank you, Weaver, for this evocative poem. It touched a chord with me: your careful (apparently 'seamless') handling of the unsettled nature of the subject grabbed my imagination from the start.

Heather said...

I have heard that writing down a fear or confiding it to someone will reduce it's power, so maybe your worries will disappear too. I don't understand the technicalities of creating poems so cannot help you there. But, does it really matter? You have written something expressing your thoughts and feelings to others, and we can appreciate it as it is.

Dave King said...

I don't know if this will help, but my solution is to do something rhythmical, walk about composing it in my head or bang it out (for me, really bang it out) on the keyboard. I would add this: most folk who worry about such things have no need to, it's the ones who don't worry who should.

Raph G. Neckmann said...

I certainly think it is a poem, Weaver - and a really good one!

I find it very evocative and it expresses so well that sleepless experience. The way in which it is written matches the feeling, in the rhythm and different lengths of lines.

I don't know much poetry, but I'm sure I've read poems by modern poets which don't fit in any stanza 'formula'?

My only suggestion for change would be maybe to make the very last two lines into one short punchy one.

Derrick said...

Hello Weaver,

What's wrong with a prose poem? I'm certainly not a poet, although I seem to be having a go lately! But if I changed anything I think it would be to remove "Through the trees" and then remove or re-write "In the half-light" somehow. But I don't have an alternative to offer! As the others have said, you have offered us a vision of your thoughts and that's fine.

Poet in Residence said...

It reads to me like the beginning of a novel or anyway a short story. So now we want to meet the character. Who is this person? Why couldn't he/she sleep. etc. etc.

And I think that's one of the reasons it's not a poem.

It also lacks a certain kind of completeness. It's more of an introduction, or a preamble about something else. It's not about coming to the core or essence of anything. It is as you say merely a paragraph of prose.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Poet in Residence is correct. I believe the "flag" you're responding to, the reason you think it reads more prose-like than poetic, is that it begins too much like the old shopworn story opener: "It was a dark and stormy night…"

Poems can tell stories—but the form still needs to be pared down to the essence. It's like making syrup or jam…you boil away what's unneeded (water) to get the pure and thickened liquid of flavor—dense, concentrated.

And I think you do have a good poem here—and that the fix is simple…just pare away excess words and perhaps do a little rearranging. Something like this:

Night long and restless
broken by uneasy sleep.
Easy to drift aimlessly,
amongst forgiving shadows
of dappled moonlight
through the leaves—
one thought to another,
never coming to a decision.

Just take each line and pluck out every unnecessary word you can and still keep the essence of what you're trying to say. I don't think you have to go anywhere else with this poem—the idea (or scene, if you wish) is brief but complete.That's the way some poems are—quick, deft strokes of illumination's brush. Just fiddle with it a bit more. You have a good ear and eye. Your poem—a good poem—in in there. Drag it out!

The Weaver of Grass said...

There is no doubt that you all come up trumps when called upon to express an opinion! Thanks to everyone who took the trouble to think this one through. In the light of what you all say I shall have another go tonight at reconstructing the poem/prose passage. I got a nice picture of Dave walking about constructing and then banging it out on the computer keyboard; another image of Coastcard searching for her lost material; Scribe, Poet - the rest of you, all offered good advice which I shall now take. Watch this space!

mand said...

Possibly because it's true?

I'll take it away, redo it and come back to you...

I agree, Coastcard, that it's "remarkably hard to re-write someone else's poem without making it 'mine'". Otoh it's something that often happens to me without trying, the rewrite when i like a poem but can see potential improvements.

Before i look at it, though, if you know any other language how about translating it and translating it back? Or even using Babelfish to do that! I've never tried that - but it may give you some different vocabulary that would help.

Otherwise, leave to prove in the airing cupboard for at least a fortnight, and look at it when you've forgotten the detail of it.

...I'll be back!

Coastcard said...

I got a bit bogged down in detail earlier (the shock of losing my attempt, perhaps) for which I apologize.

In all the excitement, I forgot to say just how much I like the fact that the speaker, the 'I', is right there in the poem, but beautifully muted (almost shadowy like the sentiment). This works for me in this context as it adds to the mystery of the scene.

mand said...

I'm back!
And i may have 'made it mine', but i took the liberty anyway and here's the product, for you to use or shred as you will:


A long night;
sleep escapes.
shadows forgive,
their edges blurred
by leaf-dappled moonlight.
In this half-light it's easy
to drift from thought
to aimless thought
without reaching

I changed the title; not sure if i do prefer Indecision, but it does echo the final word of the poem.

I like the visual shape - reminiscent of a slow breath or sigh - which was pure chance! ;0)

You can see i have taken out various 'non' words and verbs, things like It was which adds nothing really. I substituted reaching for coming to as being 'tidier' iykwim. And put it into the present tense, which is always my first thought - esp with something that starts as narrative of a true event.

In the interests of compacting it, as well as cutting 'non' words, i've shoved aimless and leaves into less prosaic structures.

( also gave me 'resolving' for 'deciding', so perhaps this or another poem could play on the resolving of a decision, and the resolving of light/colours into branches, moon, cloud shapes etc; perhaps adding a lake too...)

You ask why this is prose. When i said 'possibly because it's true' i meant that it tells what happened, literally. Which doesn't need line breaks. To be a poem it needs to have some of the mood and colour/atmosphere (whatever you call it) of the moment, as well as the facts.

I don't think being a poem is necessarily any better than being prose, or being a prose poem, but which it is should be the writer's choice - not just because you couldn't do anything with it. ;0)

Thoughts offered in friendship, intended to be constructive, not as censure. If you disagree then ignore! 80)

ps You have reminded me it is high time i blogged something else of my own!

BT said...

I loved this little piece Weaver and would probably agree with some that it is prose. I like mand's interpretation, but I enjoyed yours too.

Leenie said...

Whether it is prose or poetry: It is concise and expresses problems most people can identify with. Don't loose sleep over it.;)

Glennis said...

Writing down your dream would take away its power, writing your sleeplessness will also assist in that direction.

Mad Bush Farm said...

Weaver I have just simply enjoyed the picture painted with your words. I am not a poet therefore I will not attempt to add anything but instead take note of the constructive comments of those who are poets instead and very talented ones (including yourself) at that.

Also thank you for your caring words and sharing over my loss of little Yowie.It meant a great deal to me and my girls

Take care Weaver

The Weaver of Grass said...

Thanks to you all for the re-writes, the comments, the suggestions - am now working on it. Isn't blogland wonderful?

The Solitary Walker said...

Sorry to come late to this one... all comments very interesting.

Yes, you are right, and I agree with Poet in Residence, it is more like prose disguised as a poem. And I do like the Scribe's re-writing of it.

It really made us all think, this, didn't it? As you said before, blogging is brilliant!

Janice Thomson said...

Scribe has made this into a poem with a beginning and an ending. He has compacted your ideas and rid the poem of what is generally known as "fluff" words - words that are actually unnecessary to the poem.
As he mentions you have the basics you just need to 'drag' it out.
One of the benefits derived from working with haiku is that it teaches you to be minimal with words and ideas yet get the message across with whatever amount of feeling needed. After working for two years with haiku and tanka I eventually rewrote all my other poems with astounding results. I had not realized I was so wordy. :)

jinksy said...

Tried to send the following as an email, but not sure it worked, so here's a replay:-

Hi, Weaver!
I know what you mean about the prose/poem thing. I think it turns into a poem when you 'distil' it - by that, I mean take out as many of the small words as possible, without losing the sense of the piece, and sometimes by substituting passive verbs with ones to give a bit more 'oompf'?
I'm also a fanatic about putting line breaks where they follow the natural rythm of speaking, as much as possible - with me, they tend never to be haphazzard - ie' 'this line looks a bit long, so I'll cut it up!'
Don't know if this will help, but I palyed with your words, and came up with this...

Sleep evaded twists and turns
of broken night;
did not come easily.

Blurred, shadow edges of leaves
dappled silver moonlight,
allowed half-fomed thoughts to drift
without mind clearly seeing an answer.

But maybe you wouldn't class this as a poem, either?

jeannette stgermain said...

Don't know enough to help you with your question of your expression being a poem or prose.
What I do more about is that dreams, when told or talked about in some way, they often vanish in thin air (in my therapy with clients I do dream interpretation).