Statement of Philosophy

A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Free Verse by Charles O. Hartman (sort of)

Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody (Northwestern UP, 1980)


Two Thoughts (and a Note) on the Poetic After Having Barely Started to Read Charles O. Hartman's Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody

-- corrected a terminological error, Nov. 20, 2013

And when I say "barely started to read" I mean only as far as the second paragraph. So, before I continue, for those of you who are unfamiliar with what the phrase "thoughts on reading" indicates, keep in mind I have only read two paragraphs of Hartman's book. This is not, then, an engagement with the ideas therein but only ponderings prompted by that little bit that I have read. As such, it is very much the thoughts that I am bringing into the book (and, as such, it rather prompts a follow up essay after the fact, to speak out of the ideas of the book).

To note, this post is the post on terminology that was cued in the post two back on "Rocket" by Todd Boss. Though, it obviously because something larger when happenstance had me pick up the Hartman book.

Thought #1
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This is from the second paragraph:

That year [1908] Y.S. Omond wrote a short article on the subject of verse for a widely read intellectual journal, Living Age. [. . .] In the article, he poses an innocent question: "It is not uninteresting to ask what determines the length of verse-lines." Omond observed that the length of lines readers were willing to accept, and poets were therefore willing to try, had gradually increased until "Tennyson ventured at last on nine beats." The progress might be sustained, but Omond dared to doubt that is "can be considerably prolonged without substantial other modification."

There is an interesting though not at all uncommon phrasing within that sentence: "what determines." The phrasing speaks an assumption within the question: an assumption that is in the limited context only presumed in the Osmond quotation, but which is nearly ubiquitous in conversations on poetry and its writing. It is an assumption that in a great measure predetermines both the nature of the answer to the question and that answer's invariable and inevitable failure as a lasting solution to the question.

The assumption is that both the question and the answer, and the subject of the two lie within the domain of the quantifiable and qualifiable. To say it again, when you hear this question asked and explored in contemporary poetical circles, it generally carries the assumption that "if one is to ask a question as to the length of line-verses (or anything else about poetics for that matter), then that question is an exploration of the measurable, the discretely identifiable, the definitionally qualifiable." The question, as it is written in the quotation is then the search for that some thing that "determines the length of verse-lines."

Once it is figured out, then, what it is that determines the length -- and nature -- of the poetic line, then poets can set themselves toward mastering that technique and write poem after poem of accurately determined line lengths. But then, as I've said many a time, technique is not art but the practical methods of art. So how then would the finished product of the "technique" of the accurately determined line length create masterful poetry? It's all in the conventions: the solution ultimately would either derive from established conventions or develop new conventions; and when poetry would successfully implement and follow those conventions then, obviously, they would be good poems. Unfortunately, being a answer based on convention, it answers the question of poetics only so long as those conventions are in vogue; once the culture of poetry decides to shift to a different set of conventions, the question has to be asked -- and thus redefined -- anew.

Every established (that is, nomic) culture of poetry is defined by (and defines) its conventions, and poetry will be judged within that culture according to those conventions. The question of that which "determines" the length of a line of verse will no more escape that conventionality than anything else. Questions like "what determines the length of a poetic line" -- in that they pre-assume, in their positivist orientation, an appeal to conventionality -- will always fail to present any understanding of the poetic beyond speaking -- and in speaking, reaffirming -- the conventions of the time.

Of course, this conventionality is concealed beneath the surfact appeal to the general concept of poetry. "What determines the length of the poetic line" (and all other such questions on poetics) is very much a question about the nature of the poetic line. On its surface it wholly appears to be an inquiry into the nature of poetry. But it limits that inquiry with its carried assumptions: the modality of the nomos. After all, if the accepted "truths" of poetry (that is to say, the conventional truths of poetry) are to sustain their truth value, then questions about the nature of poetry must appeal to those accepted truths. Thus and in turn, they must appeal to the nomos within which those truths find their legitimization. To give a ground example, given any serious examniation, you will find that defenses of LANGUAGE poetry generally assume, apriori, the political and philosophical positions that LANGUAGE poetry is supposed to annunciate. But when the "truths" that LANGUAGE poetry is striving for are themselves only conventions within a nomos, then there is no other way to reach those truths than to accept the nomos in its entirety (or, when LANGUAGE was first being defended within the culture of poetry, manipulate the nomos so as to accept and rationalize the new conventions and truths). And in assuming the whole, you also assume the part.[FN]

[FN] One day I may address the instance of claims of such as LANGUAGE poetry directly; but right now it is too far afield to go any farther than this. I put it in here intentionally, however, to drop the idea: read defenses of LANGUAGE poetry and defenses of political poetry with that assumption: are they assuming their conclusions? Are they validating the political stance of their poetry by assuming that their the poetry actually has a valid political stance? It can be a very enlightening experience.

A more immediate example can be seen with the last line of "Rocket" by John Boss, the poem that was the subjec of the post two posts ago. The final line -- "still swing" -- is the emotionally defining thought of the sentence that constitutes the poem. Everything before is setting a scene that is qualified by the phrase "still swing." To give it emphasis, the phrase has been isolated both as a single line and as a one-line stanza. So there is the appearance that the energies of the line come from the manipulation of the medium of the poem. And, indeed, there is some energy developed from it. Except that that event of closing off a poem with a very short quip is usually used -- as it is here -- to manipulate into the poem some poignancy that doesn't really exist to any great degree otherwise. Like a bad mystery, it uses the temporality of the line (that is, that you read from beginning to end) to put the wanted phrase as the last thought: and as the last thought, the unattentive reader dismisses everything that might have happened before and accepts the stated conclusion. Also, "still swing" is very difficult to justify as a successful line, except within a poem that, like "Rocket," pays very little attention to the crafting of its lines and gives very little energy to the idea of "line" within the poem. If the poem was constructed as such, the line "still swing" would very likely stand out rather for the diminished degree of energy created by it (as compared to the other more consciously crafted lines). Examining the poem through the medium of language on a page, every defense of the line ultimately rests on the fact that everything in the poem that precedes it offers nothing that might overshadow or diminish it. (Indeed, it can hardly be argued that the rest of the poem even develops with that final idea in mind, outside of that the poem is a sentence and "still swing" is the last words of the sentence.)

What really marks "still swing" as successful poetics is that that final line is a well-established convention within poppoetry, reitering handily the convention of closing a poem with a line that is a "quippy profundity" (oxymoron intended). The trope is wholly accepted as a mark of a decent poem, as an expected form of demonstration of "depth of thought and/or emotion"[FN], and when read by the audience of poppoetry (which is to say the members of the culture of poetry), it will be received to the end intended: that is, it will carry the "meaning" of poetic profundity, of "adept execution of a poetic line that speaks a brief moment of closing, potent content."

[FN] Notice that actual depth of thought is irrelevant, and universally, poems that use this trope lack such. But when it is not necessary to the success of the poem, when a poem -- and thus the reader -- need not go through the effort of developing depth of thought, then why bother?

So, to pull this into the context of Omond/Hartman, what determined the length of that final line in "Rocket"? The convention of the quippy profundity. The whole of it is the consequent of conventionality; there is very little inherent about the words or the poem -- which is to say the crafted medium of the poem -- that works to the real success of the line. (In truth, what is aesthetically legitimate about the line really only serves to legitimize the application and validity of the convention.)

To ask the question, then, what determines the length of a verse-line, is, because of the quanitfying/qualifying modality of the question, invariably and inevitably going point you to convention, and what the reigning nomos of poetry can bear. It is a question that functions, in the modality of its asking, to reaffirm the nomos of poetry and the conventions of poetry. The question could never be legitimately asked within the nomos of poetry in a way that would undermine that nomos: such would be immediately rejected as nonsense.

To find an answer that avoids appeals to convention, to genre, to what is merely the current acceptable practices[FN], the question cannot be asked "what determines?"; the question cannot even be asked "what?" Aesthetically, what has to happen is to look directly to lines of poetry: "Is 'April is the cruellest month, breeding' a successul, creative line?" Yet, it is a question which can only be answered within the context of "in the The Waste Land." And to ask such a question about the line is also, simultaneously, to ask the same question of the poem:

Is 'April is the cruellest month, breeding' a successul, creative line in The Waste Land?

is the exact same question as

Is The Waste Land a successul, creative poem as regards the line 'April is the cruellest month, breeding'?

With lines like "still swing" in "Rocket," the question that is being asked of the poem is

Is "still swing" a successful and thus recognizable and acceptable reiteration of the trope of the quippily profound final line?

Which it most certainly is. And thus, it appears in Poetry Magazine, which has become a poetry-cultural signal of acceptable conventionality. And if that is what you're shooting for, knock yourself out.

But is it beautiful writing? Is it aesthetic writing? Is the poem a created thing-unto-itself? (or is it merely the reiteration of conventions spoken a thousand times before, only with different -- but not too different -- words?) That question demands a wholly different approach to the line than that embodied in the question of "what determines the length of a verse-line." It is the question of "what is a beautiful object made of words-on-a-page, and how does the "line" function as an element of the crafted medium of words-on-a-page.

Which is a question that cannot be answered in definitions, qualities, or quantities. In fact, aesthetically thinking, it is a nearly absurd question to ask, in the abstract, "what determines the length of a verse-line?" Because the question can only be answered text by text, and only in the context of the text's own success and sophistication.

Which is also to say, the question can only be answered by the writer and reader for themselves. To ask the question in the terms of the quanti-/quali-fiable is to establish an answer external to the individual writer/reader and the individual text (obviously, in that it establishes a convention). But to ask the question aesthetically demands that you are really asking, within the context of the individual writer/reader, "What is my understanding of the success of the various lines of poetry that I read and write, that being understood through my literary understanding and sophistication; aiming that such explorations will develop that understanding and sophistication."

But, then, of course it is, for the exploration and engagement of the aesthetic is never about about the affirming and sustaining of a culture of poetry, but about the development of the individual, in their mind, their spirit, and their being.


But what of formal verse?: When it comes to it, the question of the "length" of a line is not limited in its scope to free verse. The exact same question applies to formal verse. To say it doesn't is to say that formal verse of, say, iambic pentameter, is merely iambic text broken after every fifth foot. Which is wholly untrue: the created metered line is a line created to be (in this case) five feet long. Within that understanding there lies the exact same questions as above: In the nomic: What "determines" that those five feet consitute a singular line (as opposed to a string of feet severed, at start and end, by an arbitrarily inserted break)? And in the aesthetic: Does this line work successfully and brilliantly in this poem; and does this poem work succesfully and brilliantly with this line?

Thought #2
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Take a look at this image.

This is the back cover of Free Verse. Something I found striking about the cover (that is, while thinking about the ideas in this text) is that the text, especially the lower body of text, looks like a poem. We can call it "found poetry" if you want, though I feel it fair to point out that the phrase "found poetry" usually carries an inherent irony in it that generally mocks the people who use the phrase, for reasons that very much parallels (if is not congruent to) what follows.

Not only does the text look like a poem, it has much of the basic form and characteristics of much contemporary poetry. It is made of sentences; it line breaks. In fact, the lines are primarily a loose iambic with either three or (mostly) four stresses per line: very much giving the appearance of loosely measured lines. The fact that the text is made of prose sentences in no way clashes with contemporary poppoetry, which, by any casual glance, is primarily constituted of sentences (and usually fairly straight forward ones at that). Subject matter cannot come into play, because subject matter is no longer a qualifying aspect of poetry, or even gets, I sometimes think, even the smallest consideration as regards poetry.[FN]

[FN] Most people would ssay the idea of "to educate and delight" long ago lost its presence in discourse about poetry. Though, it does seem that poppoetry and popcritics do seem to make a continual argument that the subject matter of poetry should have either some socio-political commentary or emotional profundity: so, maybe we have not escaped the socially rightist ideas of "educate and delight" after all.

I do not think it too far fetched to say the response I would most likely hear from the readers, writers, teachers and critics contemporary poetry to pointing out "hey, this looks like a poem" would be something in the arena of "the inherent poetry of language." And, yes, merely competent prose will generate a poetic feel for two basic reasons: (1) English is primarily iambic in nature (and thus will very easily generate loosely iambic text), and (2) competent prose includes the musicality of the line, not in the sense of a formality but in the sense that if the rhythm of prose becomes clumsy, the text will sound bad to the listener/reader (thus competent prose will generate text that flows like poetic text).

But what does it really mean to say that that the above text looks like a poem? If the text looks like a poem, can we not then call it a poem? Even, should we not then call it a poem? Now I am not saying it would be a brilliant poem, but if "brilliance" were a necessary quality of poetry then I think most poetry-publishing houses would have to pack it up.[FN] So what are we doing when we say that the text looks like a poem? Consider this:

There is no point at all here to bring up the question of formal versus free verse, except to then (and now) dismiss it as irrelevant.
  • This was not written in the way poetry is generally understood to be written. That is, it was written as straight prose, published on the cover left justified, in a narrow column.
  • These are not line breaks. They were created by the line of text reaching a point near enough to the edge of the right margin that the next word could not be fit into the line. They were generated not by choosing a place to hard-return, but by the width of the column dictating the point of hard-return. (Or, technically, softreturn, for, as prose, if you were to expand the column, the text would expand as well.) The idea of line breaks carries with it the idea of intentionality: this line is defined as this length because the writer intended the text, in its printing, to be so formatted. So these are not line breaks; this is left-justified text. If you are to say these can be treated as line breaks, then you are saying you can also treat full-justified text (just like this text) as having line breaks.
  • After all, whatever the intention, these lines are very much what one might expect to see in contemporary poetry.
  • Also, competent prose has the quality of smooth writing. Competent prose has a musicality in writing in the minimum in its flow. Musicality is thus a trait that is shared by both prose and poetry. As such, there is nothing inherent to the potential musicality of writing that is wholly poetry's claim.

Thus, if this one is to claim that this has a poetic character, then that character cannot lie within either lines and their breaks (neither of which exist here) nor in the musicality of the language (which is equally inherent to competent prose). We have, in pointing out that the text looks like poetry, begun to undermine those characteristics that are generally used to identify poetry. The text has musicality in the same manner as a great body of contemporary poetry: but it is mere prose. (Indeed the text as semantics and syntax no different than a great mass of contemporary poetry.) The text has lines and line breaks that to all appearances look exactly like the kind of lines and line breaks you frequently see in contemporary poetry. Except they are neither lines nor line-breaks.

The poem has the characteristics of poetry, but those characteristics are not, here, poetic. Which means, those characterics are not, then, anywhere, defining of poetry. By claiming the cover text sounds and looks poetic, we have actually eliminated from the idea of poetry the very things that supposedly make the text look and sound poetic. In that we have above already taken content and brilliance out of the essential qualities of poetry, the question is demanded: what is left? In merely asking the question "what does it mean to say that that text is [like] a poem?" we have undermined the very concept of poetry: it has line breaks, it has musicality, it even has loose meter, yes. But all those qualities are also inherent to prose, as is quite overtly demonstrated on the back cover of this book. So if line breaks, musicality, and meter are not definitional of poetry, what is?

As such, I am led here to wonder, was I too flippant, too quick, in my elimination of content and brilliance?

Let's take a look a this poem:

Lights and shadows —
Books and drafts mean different things
to different thinkers: one has collected
in a book the lights that he was able
swiftly to steal and carry home from
the rays of some insight that dawned
on him; another is able to convey only
the shadows, the after-images in grey
and black, of that which built itself up
in his soul the day before.[FN1]

Except for one line, it can be read in accentual tetrameter, or a loose iambic tetrameter. It has philosophical and even elegantly written content. It even has a title (which I did not add to the text). Why is this not a poem? Because it is a paragraph: §90 from Nietzsche's The Gay Science, written in a narrow column, left justified.[FN] But, the nature of the language and the appearance of it -- and also the sound of it -- does very much make it feel like a poem. So why is it not a poem?

[FN] As translated by Josefine Nauckhoff (Cambridge UP, 2001). Because it is not possible for me to control the appearance of the text within the columns of this page for every possible viewer, this above is broken into lines by html code and not the width of the column. However the text was generated within Wordperfect, using Times New Roman font at 12 point, by narrowing the column to 2.44" wide. And I must admit that I lied just a touch in the above: while the words given are the title of the section, the text of the book has the title as the opening words of the paragraph, set off from the paragraph by the italics, a period, and an m-dash only. But in that the typography is meant to mark it as a title, the change of adding an early line break (or removing the period) does not change the function of the words. The book could have been edited to have the title presented in different ways without modifying the text except in decorative ways.

Nietzsche himself provides the answer not two sections later (§92). For my purposes, I want to present it in its full.

Prose and Poetry. — It is remarkable that the great masters of prose have almost always also been poets, be it publicaly or only in secret, in the 'closet'; and verily, one writes good prose only face to face with poetry! For this is an uninterrupted, courteous war with poetry: all its attractions depend on the fact that poetry is constantly evaded and contradicted; everything abstract wants to be presented as a prank against poetry and as if with a mocking voice; everything dry and cool is supposed to drive the lovely goddess into lovely despair; often there are rapprochements, reconciliations for a moment, and then a sudden leap back and derisive laugh; often the curtain is raised and a harsh light is let in just as the goddess is enjoying her disks and muted colours; often the word is taken out of her mouth and sung according to a melody that makes her cover her refined ears with her refined hands -- and so there are a thousand delights of this war, including defeat, of which the unpoetic, the so-called men of prose, know nothing at all -- which is why they write sand speak only bad prose! War is the father of all good things; war is also the father of good prose! In this century, four very strange and truly poetic persons attained a mastery of prose, for which this centuryis otherwise not made -- out of a lack of poetry, as I have suggested. Excluding Goethe, who may fairly be claimed by the century that produced him, I see Giacomo Leopardi, Prosper Mérimée, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walter Savage Landor, the author of Imaginary Conversations, as worthy of being called masters of prose. (emphasis his)

If you are not familiar with Nietzsche's own prose style, and unaware that he is constantly using humor and irony within and throughout, the above might be a little difficult to grasp first go. (There is also a slight difficulty in that he is speaking out of a larger context that is not wholly carried into this paragraphy.) He is here generating three ideas. There is a difference between poetry and prose; but, that distinction is generated out two comparisons: the similarity between poetry and good prose, and the difference between good prose and badprose.

That difference is that good prose is written poetically. (Thus, bad prose is not).

Let's reshape §92 one more time, at 1.25 inches:

Books and drafts mean
different things to
different thinkers: one
has collected in a book
the light that he was
able swiftly to steal and
carry home from the
rays of some insight that
dawned on him; another
is able to convey only
the shadows, the after-
images in grey and
black, of that which
built itself up in his soul
the day before.

Look how naturally it assumes the shape of a contemporary free verse poppoem. (Again, I'm not saying fantastic poetry; I am only saying poetry.) Lines and phrasing seem to fall fairly easily into poppoetic sync, including showing the "variety" in lines (the ending of lines on "and" or "to") that is frequently defended within poppoetry through authorities such as postmodernism or natural voice. There is even the repeated structure of the lines with the semi-colon and colon: "different thinkers: one" and "dawned on him: another." In every way we could speak of this narrowed, left-justified paragraph (from within the culture of poppoetry) as a successful, contemporary poem. (Or, perhaps I should say, in no way could you condemn these lines without equally condemning much of contemporary poetry.) When you consider it in terms of the discussion of musicality and lines, it goes to show how so much of what passes as poetics in poppoetry is really only the natural phrasing of prose, and that line breaks within a sentence of prose can only be considered functionally arbitary, even if the poet is so-called "measuring" the points of the breaks within the sentence.

Which is exactly what Nietzsche is pointing out. Good prose is written poetically: with care as to phrasing and musicality, to grammar and syntax. And, thus, competent prose quite naturally breaks up -- even with such a purely arbitrary act as narrowing the column of text -- into what very much passes for poetic lines.

So, if the idea of "poetically" does not lie within the quantifiable concepts of the line and the line break, (if it did, then the above experiments would have immediately failed as being quite apparently not-poetry); and if the idea of "poetically" does not lie within the rhythms or musicality of language (which is something attended to in good prose as well as poetry); and if "poetically" does not lie within content (except within the idea of conventionally acceptable or conventionally expected content, but neither I nor Nietzsche are concerned here with such) then where then does it lie?

In the goddess's "refined ears," and in her "refined hands."

Holy noses on our faces, Batman! Was the answer right there all along and we tossed that baby out the window with the bathwater? Could the answer to the question "what constitutes poetry?" really be brilliance?!

But just think about it. What would be the difference between bad prose and good prose? The brilliance of its writing. And what then would raise the goddess-like character of poetry above the more mundanely-anchored reality of prose, even good prose? That poetry is the effort to write brilliantly in ways that prose, because of its being necessarily anchored in the grammatical demands of communication, in the dry and cool meanings of blunt reality, cannot attain. Thus:

It is not lines or line breaks that make poetry poetic; it is the brilliant crafting and use of lines and line breaks.

It is not the mere melodicism inherent to language that makes poetry poetic; it is the crafting and creating of brilliant music out of the natural musicality of the language.

It is not content or words or language or lines that makes poetry poetic, it is the brilliant use of content and words and language and lines that is beyond what can be worked within prose.

And here I will speak what I am sure many of you thought in the above experiment: but if we think that they are line breaks, are they not then line breaks? To which I must answer, yes. Because the reader is equally a part of the reading of a poem as is the text. What the above experiment does show is that the reading of it as line breaks is insufficient to calling the text poetic in the manner of the word as it was used above, in the original observation. Reading it as line breaks at best creates really bad poetry, so bad that it will naturally fall back into prose, because, once thought over, no real distinction between the text as poetry and the text as prose can be settled upon. For a text to distinquish itself as poetry, it must, in its writing offer the reader the chance to engage something more refined, more brilliant, something striving for something more divine than prose. Which is to say, ultimately, that the mere appearance of text on the page is insufficient to identifying a text as poetic; such, at most, can clasim only that it is prose irregularly spaced.


Those of you familiar enough with my terminology might now be asking, How does that that sentence, above ("poetry is the effort to write brilliantly in ways that prose . . . .") fit with the ideas of the nomic and the aesthetic?

The answer is fairly straightfoward: precisely as the domains of the nomic and the aesthetic would have it work, as it is touched upon in the first note, above. If one is working wholly within the nomic, then the very idea of "more refined, more brilliant" will be somehow be defined within the conventions that make up the nomos. This is the history of French art and the Salon, where high art -- "brilliant" and "refined" art -- was defined by those characteristics accepted by the establishment of art and as judged by the governing body of the Salon. (Though, not only by the governing body: by other artists and the art-viewing populous as well. They all participated in the same nomic reality, after all.) Brilliant art (and poetry) within the nomic is brilliant art (and poetry) because it follows the rules of brilliant art (and poetry) as established in the nomos. Most simply put: a genre work is brilliant because it follows the rules of the genre -- and within the nomic, even high art is understood through genre. (This is how you get to the rather puerile ideas that "brilliant" writing is the manipulation of convention and genre to clever ends: which is really itself an acceptable convention within the literary nomos. Such thoughts are opposed by those who say brilliant writing is that which stands outside genre -- and the modality of genre -- altogether.)

Within the aesthetic, there is simply the shift in modality from the definitional to the experiential. There can still be "aesthetic prose" and "aesthetic poetry" both, if you but recognize that creating a distinction between "prose" and "poetry" is a nomic act, and thus arbitrary. And just the debate betwen what is the difference between poetry and prose is merely a debate of what is acceptable definitions: a debate that does not in any way eliminate the fundamental reality that those definitions are still wholly arbitrary in their making, and applied to, not derived from, the texts. So also with any debate about the nature of the poetic line: all definition is, in the end, nothing more than an agreed upon convention, and "debate" over those definitions is merely the mediation that generates the current standing of those conventions. (They must, after all, change with time and external pressures. Get enough poets demanding that randomly rearranging the lines of John Donne's poetry is a landmark exploration of poetics, have there be a reason why such belief is sustaining to the nomos of the culture of poetry, and that culture of poetry will shift to permit, create, and establish the legitimacy of those ideas.)

What is important as regards poetry and prose and the aesthetic is that the division between poetry and prose is relevant only as much as you want it to be. And the more relevance you give it, the more you pull yourself, both as a writer and a reader, out of the experiential and into the definitional, out of the aesthetic and into the nomic.

The reason that lines and line breaks play such an important role within the aesthetic -- and, within the nomic, the reason they so naturally function as a definition of poetry -- is that lines and line breaks open up to creative working of language an aspect of the medium of the written word that is not generally available to prose. To say it another way, prose generally eliminates that aspect of the medium of language as a-pragmatic.

But, in the end, does it matter, aesthetically speaking, if we categorize, say, Broch's The Death of Virgil as poetry or as prose? Perhaps even more importantly, does it at all matter whether or not The Waste Land -- or even "The Flea" -- is categorized as poetry? It does to the people who cannot read literature without their handbook of conventions, those that say "this is a poem, therefore X." But to those people whose literary drive is to seek the altars of beauty, the only relevant question is, is it beautiful?


As a side note: the ideas above are the ideas that you find within Barthes's "From Work to Text," which is an exploration the nature and value of nomic and aesthetic texts. It also explains the use of the word "text" in theoretical (post-structural) writing, a usage that is often used as a means to attack post-structuralism (in a universally fallacious manner).

In truth, though, the use of the word "text" by theorists is simply the observation that, is simply an aesthetic reader saying, "I do not want to call this a 'poem' if it means I am forced to approach it some artificial way; nor do I want to call this 'prose' if it likewise forces some cultural meanings upon it; I want to engage the text on my terms, out of my individual experience, from my understanding of literature and sophistication in literature." Of course, from the critical side it is also the observation that such conventions do exist, both from the point of the nomic reader and the nomic writer, and how conventions function within a work to append cultural meanings and values to that work is an important area of study. As Barthes points out: there is nothing inherently wrong with nomic texts (though, his word is "disposable" texts); and they can be quite enjoyable to read. But they are not beautiful.

A Final Note on Prose and Poetry, the Aesthetic and the Nomic
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Because of the nature of "prose" and "poetry," both in their form and in their uses to which they are put, but also because of conventional ideas that tend to elevate poetry above prose as a linguistic work, it might be very easy to associate poetry with the aesthetic and prose with the nomic. In truth, there is nothing inherent to prose that makes it nomic, nor is there anything inherent to poetry that makes it aesthetic. At most, one might say that (1) the history of literature pushes poetry toward the aesthetic and prose to the nomic; and (2) within that history can be found an ideal for each (especially with poetry) and that ideal is often used to define the category rather than the actual texts themselves.

"Poetry" and "prose" are categories that identify surface characteristics of texts. "Aesthetic" and "nomic," however, identifiy modalities of reading (and of language, and thinking). Like poetry and prose (though for different reasons) the "aesthetic" and "nomic" are not discrete: a text is always to some degree both. (Purity of either is an impossibility.)

One might think then that we can set up a double axis out of the concepts, with poetry and prose on one axis and aesthetic and nomic on the other. And thus we would be able to speak of nomic poem in one quadrant, and of aesthetic prose in another. Except, it is something of a false graphing, since both terms "poetry" and "prose" are, as discussed above, inherently nomic concepts. So the diagram (if one were to draw it out) would be less a square and more an arrowhead, where, on the nomic side, you have the ever widening distinction between poetry and prose, and on the aesthetic side you have their collapsing into unity through increasing irrelevance. Say it another way, the farther into the nomic the chart moves the more definitions and conventions are important and, ultimately, essential, and the more both "poetry" and "prose," both in their identities and their characteristics, will be governed by convention and essential to understanding literature in general and texts in specific ("understanding" there meaning both reading and writing). Whereas the farther the chart moves toward the aesthetic, the more the concern is solely the aesthetic experience.

That does not mean that, in the nomic, the division of texts into only poetry and prose is the requisite division, which is obvious as there are many genres (poetry, prose, short, novella, prose-poem, epic, narrative poem, etc.). Likewise, it does not mean that all aesthetic texts look alike, that collapse of "poetry" and "prose" is a collapse into unity of all texts. It is paradoxically the opposite: an aesthetic text (or, reading a text as an aesthetic text) demands treating the text as a singular object. As such, the farther into the aesthetic, the greater the number of identifiable texts. The nomic, however, moves to the opposite: texts are gathered and identified by the conventions and their genres. The nomic is about duplication of the known, and of a limited known. As such, in no small way, texts collapse into a smaller and smaller number of categories. The more generic a text, by definition, the more interchangeable it is with other equally generic texts. Whereas in the aesthetic, the more there is the intent to read and write aesthetically, the more each text has to be considered individually, and the less categories and groupings hold their relevance.


  1. Hey there. I just want to say that I've been following this blog for awhile , and it's been an incredibly valuable resource for me. I'm a mere high school student, so don't take my word for anything, but after reading through all the posts here I feel as if my knowledge of aesthetics (And the Aesthetic 'experience' itself!) has received a much needed infusion.

    Anyhow, I really just wanted to come out of the metaphorical closet and say that I appreciate the blog. I hope you keep on writing here, despite the lack of comments on a lot of these posts. There are probably other silent admirers beside myself.

    1. Thank you much for the nod. (They do come occasionally behind the scenes.) Glad you are finding this worthwhile; I know I am, though for selfish reasons: it has permitted me to focus on aspects of poetry in a manner I probably would not ever otherwise --- and, on the flip side, rather pushed me in my own efforts.

      To say, though, I have found that where on the educational curve a person stands often has little to do with the value of their words. One of the best conversations (which is also to say one of the most honest conversations) about Poe I have ever had was with a farmer who read him in high school and literally had kept a copy of Poe's complete on the bedstand ever since. Which is to say, don't be shy about jumping in.

      Thanks again,