When Prose Becomes Poetry

I must admit (sorry, Casey) that I’m not a big poetry fan (other than the big epics:  The Iliad, The Aenied, The Inferno). But most modern poetry is so vague and abstract that I find it more irritating than edifying. I read some of it, but it feels more like work than pleasure.

On the other hand, I love prose that has a poetic feel to it. I was reminded of this when I recently finished C. S. Lewis’s The Four Loves. Those who claim that Lewis was not a great writer should read or…

  1. Severely Ltd.

    A favorite book of mine is Far Tortuga by Peter Matthiessen and though it is self-consciously poetic, it lives up to its pretensions. I recommend it as a moving story very well told. If you have any love for the Caribbean, it’s a must.

  2. tabula rasa
    Severely Ltd.: A favorite book of mine is Far Tortuga by Peter Matthiessen and though it is self-consciously poetic, it lives up to its pretensions. I recommend it as a moving story very well told. If you have any love for the Caribbean, it’s a must. · 2 minutes ago

    And we have the extended scene in which Gussie Fink-Nottle awards the school prizes at the Market Snodsbury Grammar School (while drunk).  That was Wodehouse ascending his poetic Mt. Everest.

  3. Severely Ltd.

    I used to have The Four Loves and read it repeatedly in my late teens and early twenties. It is a wonderful book. The section on friendship made the deepest impression on me and I regret I haven’t had it around for the son still at home to look into. I’m going to order a copy.

  4. CandE

    Does Isaiah 53 count?  KJV, of course.

    -E

  5. Crabby Appleton

    The poems I enjoy most are those that cleverly and beautifully express  ideas and at the same time invoke an emotional response (an internal reward for me the reader – if that makes sense) and the prose writers who consistently provide that emotional component/reward, for me, are  James Agee, William Maxwell, and Thornton Wilder.

  6. Severely Ltd.
    tabula rasa

    Severely Ltd.: A favorite book of mine is Far Tortuga by Peter Matthiessen and though it is self-consciously poetic, it lives up to its pretensions. I recommend it as a moving story very well told. If you have any love for the Caribbean, it’s a must. · 2 minutes ago

    And we have the extended scene in which Gussie Fink-Nottle awards the school prizes at the Market Snodsbury Grammar School (while drunk).  That was Wodehouse ascending his poetic Mt. Everest.

    That was the perfect intersection of humor, character development and ideal phrasing. I am a Blanding’s man, but I agree, that was his Everest.

    He did have a handful of short stories and a surprising number of scenes in other novels that approached that altitude (K2?). The section in Summer Lightning where Baxter hides under the bed is somewhere up there.

  7. tabula rasa
    CandE: Does Isaiah 53 count?  KJV, of course.

    -E · 37 minutes ago

    I think Isaiah was actually written in poetic form (help:  Bible scholars), but, prose or poetry, Isaiah 53 is about as good as it gets.

    Wait.  The judges have ruled:  It counts!

  8. CandE
    tabula rasa

    CandE: Does Isaiah 53 count?  KJV, of course.

    -E · 37 minutes ago

    I think Isaiah was actually written in poetic form (help:  Bible scholars), but, prose or poetry, Isaiah 53 is about as good as it gets.

    Wait.  The judges have ruled:  It counts! · 26 minutes ago

    Just in case it didn’t, the Gospel of John would be a good alternate.  I’m 99% sure that it wasn’t originally written as poetry.

    -E

  9. RushBabe49

    Mark Helprin:  Winter’s Tale, Soldier of the Grat War, In Sunshine and In Shadow (his latest).  Poetic from word one.

    Winter’s Tale is my desert-island book, if I could only take one.

  10. Crabby Appleton

    To be fair, the reason the KJV English Bible is so wonderful (besides the beauty and elegance of its language) is its enormous cultural significance to English speakers.  There are several (almost all) contemporary English translations that are severely lacking in my mind.  To translate something like the Q’uran from its original (and no doubt beautifully rendered Arabic) into contemporary English is asking quite a bit.  In my opinion.

  11. Severely Ltd.
    RushBabe49: Mark Helprin:  Winter’s Tale, Soldier of the Grat War, In Sunshine and In Shadow (his latest).  Poetic from word one.

    Winter’s Tale is my desert-island book, if I could only take one.

    I saw an interview with the sci-fi writer John Scalci that this was his desert island book. Not that I’m a fan of his, having read only a few pages of his work. But it stuck in my mind.

  12. DocJay
    “He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”  ― Cormac McCarthyThe Road
  13. DocJay
    Severely Ltd.: A favorite book of mine is Far Tortuga by Peter Matthiessen and though it is self-consciously poetic, it lives up to its pretensions. I recommend it as a moving story very well told. If you have any love for the Caribbean, it’s a must. · 3 hours ago

    We did this one in my book club a year ago.  I enjoyed it for those reasons especially.  Some aspects were bothersome but not the writing, it was  just beautiful.

  14. Severely Ltd.
    DocJay

    Severely Ltd.: A favorite book of mine is Far Tortuga by Peter Matthiessen and though it is self-consciously poetic, it lives up to its pretensions. I recommend it as a moving story very well told. If you have any love for the Caribbean, it’s a must. · 3 hours ago

    We did this one in my book club a year ago.  I enjoyed it for those reasons especially.  Some aspects were bothersome but not the writing, it was  just beautiful. · 18 minutes ago

    The writing is truly beautiful. What aspects bothered you? The portrayal of Jamaicans isn’t politically correct, but I gather from friends that lived in the Caymans that it accurately portrays the Caymanian attitude. There’s no question that they are the bad boys of the Caribbean.

  15. Schrodinger

    The Life of Christ by Fulton Sheen – the man wrote as beautifully as he spoke.

    Story of a Soul  the sutobiography of Ste. Therese of The Child Jesus (aka St. Therese of Lysieux) – she writes with the innocence and fervor that is compelling.

  16. Lee

    Persuasion, Wentworth’s letter to Anne:

    “I can listen no longer in silence.  I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul.  I am half agony, half hope.  Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever.  I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago.  Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death.  I have loved none but you.  Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.  For you alone, I think and plan.  Have you not seen this?  Can you fail to have understood my wishes?  I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine.  I can hardly write.  I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me.  You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others.”

    Sure beats “hey baby, let’s get back together.”

  17. tabula rasa
    RushBabe49: Mark Helprin:  Winter’s Tale, Soldier of the Grat War, In Sunshine and In Shadow (his latest).  Poetic from word one.

    Winter’s Tale is my desert-island book, if I could only take one. · 1 hour ago

    You and Drew in Wisconsin need to talk.  He’s a big Helprin and Winter’s Tale fan.  Although it is an odd book, I love Freddie and Fredericka.  A wonderful story of love between a husband and a wife. 

  18. tabula rasa
    DocJay: “He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”  ― Cormac McCarthyThe Road · 1 hour ago

    I really liked The Road, but the McCarthy book that sings like poetry for me is All the Pretty Horses.  The man can write.

  19. notmarx

    I’m on the sidelines of this discussion, I guess.  I tend to read more poetry than prose.  And enjoy contemporary poetry.  Poetry’s the espresso of language: a good jolt from just a little.  Prose?  Can’t take all those damn words.  Anyway, here’s an elegant little poem on this particular mystery by Howard Nemerov.

    *****

    Because You Asked about

    the Line between Prose and Poetry

    *

     Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle

    That while you watched turned into pieces of snow

    Riding a gradient invisible

    From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.

     

    There came a moment that you couldn’t tell.

    And then they clearly flew instead of fell. 

  20. DocJay

    No nice people I guess beyond Wodie.    I couldn’t get behind a hero and was expecting one.  More about me I suppose.   Badass boys is right!  Lots of sadness in the fight to exist.  The drama of the reef escape attempt still gets my pressure up.    

    We had a lively discussion in our group.  Those who sail adored it intensely.

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