Writer in Residence

Poetry vs Prose part 2 of 2

By Dane Swan


“But what does this have to do with poetry and prose?”


What is poetry? What is prose? If the medium is the message, and the primary medium for most written poetry and prose is the page, why don't we call all creative writing, creative writing?


Partly, so that we can exploit poetry and prose. However, the perception of the medium, how the creative mind looks at that blank sheet of writing paper differs.


Whether we realize it, or not, all writing takes into account three elements:


1/ Visual aesthetics – how text looks on the page

2/ Text – the words placed on the page

3/ Subtext – the meaning implied by the text


With most poetry, the importance of all three are heightened. However, the most paramount element to poetry is the visual aesthetic. I've met my fair share of academically trained writers who fail to get this. They believe that genres like prose-poetry exist and in turn, write failed poetry in a nonexistent form.


If visual aesthetics are at the forefront of poetry, then we recognize the importance of where each letter and each word is placed on the page. Furthermore, we can recognize the importance of the blank space of a page. The untouched, barren section of a page is just as important, if not more so than the segment of the page we write on.


Therefore, what is commonly called “prose-poetry” is not a combination of poetry and prose, but the act of subverting the blank segments of a page that most poetry creates. Covering the page with text is a cultural response to the idea that poetry must be pristine, and have space to breath on the page. Instead the page is covered, the reader is given little space to gasp for air.


For Bending the Continuum (my first book), I wanted to expand on this idea. The majority of the manuscript is tight, succinct poetry. Of the four visual poetic works that I wanted in the collection, only one made it through editing -- an edited version of the first A Dozen Roses poems.


Bending the Continuum was originally meant to have prose-poems beside these tight poems and visual poetics. I wanted to show the reader that I understood the academic framework of poetry and then throw it away. You could argue that I'm throwing away the academic framework of poetry in A Mingus Lullaby. I would argue that A Mingus Lullaby is merely a response to the draft of Bending the Continuum that ended up being published.


That said, one of the four poems that I didn't submit for Bending the Continuum, which I knew would get rejected, was a visual poem that I only had the concept for. I wanted to fill the page completely. I wanted the reader to drown. I wanted a limited amount of people to grasp the subtext of my poem. My plan was to write a poem in binary code.


The visual aesthetic of poetry is paramount. This is why I demanded that the typesetter redo the layout for A Mingus Lullaby. Why I can be a difficult writer to work with. The visual aesthetic is paramount. With a large amount of my poems, the text, and subtext are completely different. A friend of mine, Burlington Slam Project's Tomy Bewick and I used to discuss this. How negro spirituals sang on slave plantations sounded like they were exalting Jesus to slave masters and overseers, but in reality, were telling potential runaway slaves where to find the nearest underground railway conductor. That's what my poetry is doing. If you're attuned to the subtext of my writing, and can get something from it, wonderful. If you can only get my poetry at a surface level, that's fine too.


With prose, the visual aesthetic of a literature takes a backseat. I would argue that the text is paramount, the subtext secondary and the visual aesthetic tertiary. Yes, some prose takes its influences from poetry, but the visual aesthetics still play a tertiary role.


As for plot, both poetry and prose can have a plot. In theory, neither needs to have a traditional plot. When I started writing prose, the first thing I tried to do was throw away traditional linear story telling. There's no need for it. It's an idea that comes from the oral tradition of story-telling. As a spoken word artist, I don't bring every rule from performance to my poetry in print. It's on the page, the reader has something they can reference. Encourage the reader to use their imagination.


I'm not sure why visual aesthetics are paramount for poetry. I would argue that we first find poetry in print from early literate cultures (think Middle East, Asia, Africa). In particular, Iran and China are historic hotbeds of literary poetry. Both countries have written text that are beautiful. Chinese calligraphy is considered an art form, as is writing in Farsi. This is likely why as Western Europe became more literate and poetry in print gained popularity, care was taken to make the work as visually beautiful as the images poets attempted to paint with their words.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Dane Swan is a Bermuda-raised, Toronto-based internationally published poet, writer and musician. His first collection, Bending the Continuum was launched by Guernica Editions in the Spring of 2011. The collection was a recommended mid-summer read by Open Book: Toronto. In 2013 Dane was short listed for the Monica Ladell Award (Scarborough Arts) for his poem "Stopwatch."