Thinking Beyond the Poetry-Prose Binary
Thinking Beyond the Poery-Prose Binary
MLA Special Session, Seattle, WA, January 9-12, 2020
Organized by Nick Bujak, Oglethorpe University, and Lizzy LeRud, Emory University
This panel seeks to uncover the history of one of our most entrenched classification systems: the division of literature into “poetry” and “prose.” Before this binary emerged, “poetry” was often deployed as a generic term for imaginative or creative literature in general—that is to say, the term “poetry” encompassed texts written in prose. And since at least the 18th century, many theorists, philosophers, and writers have proposed that any perceived differences between poetry and prose are relative, not essential. Both are comprised of words, both may be arranged typographically in various ways—in lines, in paragraphs of sentences, or otherwise—and both draw freely from the complete range of literary styles and tools, like rhythm, sound patterning, focalization, figures, imagery, narration, or address. In the words of William Wordsworth, “there neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition.” Perplexingly, 20th century writers tended to agree with Wordsworth even as they increasingly relied on this division. For example, in his modernist defense of poetry, “The Serious Artist,” Ezra Pound roundly dismisses the question “What is the difference between poetry and prose,” but then he bisects all “good writing” into either prose (to be used for communicating ideas) or poetry (for “an idea and its concomitant emotions”). Contemporary poetry cultures continue to embrace this paradoxical tendency to define poetry by its difference from prose despite tacit agreement that the two are not essentially different. On the one hand, literary forms like the prose poem continue to point up the perpetually unfixed borderline between poems and prose. On the other hand, common usage reinforces an oppositional definition. Even specialists often fall back on these distinctions: many university creative writing programs offer students a course of study in either poetry or prose, and in publishing, poetry and prose distinctions are customary when collecting writers’ works, sometimes even when the writers themselves opposed such divisions. How and when did this dichotomy emerge? Why do these categories persist? And how do they color how we read, write, and study literature today?
We welcome papers addressing the binary relationship between poetry and prose, broadly construed: the emergence of prose genres (novel, essay) in relation to poetry ones (lyric, epic); the rise of heterogenous forms like prose poems and verse novels; the historical definitions and shifting purview of terms such as “prose” versus “poetry,” “paragraph” versus “stanza,” “verse,” “line,” or “poem”; and related practices of reading, writing, theorizing, criticizing, publishing, and circulating texts as “poems,” “prose,” both, or neither.