Each poet has a unique voice and a different motivation for writing poetry. All poets have a somewhat different perspective that drives what poems they aim to write. Some see poetry as a form of art meant to be enjoyed, contemplated, and perhaps even thoroughly studied. Michael Palmer is one such poet who writes poems that are simply a pleasure to read. Other poets see poetry as a way to tell a story from experience or to express a part of them that simple prose may not express quite in the way that poetry in its many forms can. A good example of that sort of poet is Phil Levine, who writes much more prosaically than Palmer.
Many of Levine’s poems, if they were not separated into stanzas, would read as prose. But, what makes Levine’s work distinctly poetry and not prose is more than simply its structure. Although poetic norms, such as rhyme and meter, are followed much more closely by Palmer, Levine’s work flows as poetry even if it does not appear to be purely poetic. Poetry can take many forms and the act of expression through poetry can allow its writer to express things that may be difficult to write in straightforward prose. Poetry makes readers step back and consider the text a bit differently than if it were written in prose.
For example, Michael Palmer writes poems that are pure poetry, many of them singsong. This is especially true of his work, “Song of the Round Man”. As its title suggests, it follows the form of a song. It involves a speaker and a character loosely characterized as the “round man.” The narrative of the poem does not really go anywhere. There is no definitive beginning, middle, or end. It is very much a cyclical poem. “The round and sad-eyed man puffed cigars as if he were alive,” the poem begins. That man is still puffing cigars at the end of the poem.
Considering that this round man is apparently blinded by his head being locked “in a Japanese box” the imagery of the poem would seem to be imagined rather than actually seen. The round man asks the poem’s narrator to look at the flowers that are supposedly around them, but the speaker says that he cannot, saying “my eyes have grown sugary and dim from reading too long by candlelight” (lines 14-15). The round man then asks the speaker what he has read. But, the narrator replies that he also cannot do that because his memory “has grown tired and dim from looking at things that can’t be seen by any kind of light” (lines 17-20). He may well have been talking about imaginary things. In effect, the whole poem is not really happening. It is only taking place on the page, and it is all imaginary. The poem is just a song, a sort of nursery rhyme.
Palmer’s poem “Sun” is one of his more prosaic works, but it is not really a story like one of Levine’s. This peculiar piece is composed of sentence fragments ending with periods and complete sentences ending with no periods at all. Like “Song of the Round Man”, despite clearly being not a song at all, does not definitively start or end anywhere. It is again a very circular poem. “Write this” the poem says for its first few lines, implying for the reader to act out things in their minds.
“Sun” is very much a poem that requires the reader to follow not as much a story, but a trip through the imagination. It leads to more wonder and confusion than defining any particular event or emotional state, and drives you pleasurably crazy, which some poets would argue, is the entire purpose of poetry. But, it is not the only purpose; if it were, poetry would perhaps be simply a clever form of diversion. There must be more serious, down-to-earth poetry, as well, to balance out the more abstract and esoteric.
Levine’s autobiographical work “You Can Have It” is a fine example of what would at close analysis appear to be prose written as poetry. Levine is much more autobiographical and telling than Palmer. He would not really be considered a confessional poet like Elizabeth Bishop or Robert Lowell, but he speaks much more from actual experience than from imagination. “You Can Have It” is an autobiographical piece about the relationship between him and his brother. It is about watching his brother become a tired man, weary from working long nights and no longer the brother he had long known. “Give me back my young brother,” Levine writes in line 41. Looking closely at the poem, it seems to be a short story separated into four-line stanzas; in a sense, it may not be true poetry at all. It has no rhyme scheme, but it does have a good rhythm. What it is definitely not is a song.
Although Levine’s work is not truly traditional poetry in its most essential elements, such as meter and rhyme scheme, it certainly feels like a poem. On the surface, though it is very prosaic, it does work as poetry. It may lead one to wonder, however, if it was first written as a paragraph and then thrown into a somewhat poetic form, but there is nothing truly haphazard about this poem. The lines seem to break only to keep a simple meter, but this was clearly constructed as a poem, whether it looks like something that was conceived of in paragraph form or not. It is a traditionally unusual voice for a speaker in poetry, but it works for Levine. For Levine, poetry is more of a vehicle for storytelling than anything else.
There are limitless forms poetry can take and many ways in which it can unfold. Anything that follows any kind of pattern, as any poetry inevitably and necessarily does, and anything that a human being creates does as well, can be considered as poetry. Good poetry has a rhythm, no matter what the rhythmic devices may be. The topics involved in either prose or poetry are limitless, really. What makes a good poem is how it is displayed on the page, not the exact methods in which it was written.
Roxanne Smolen wrote an excellent article about poetry versus prose. She wrote about how if you take apart a paragraph of prose line by line, keeping rhythm and the intent of the words in mind, you can make yourself a poem. It may not be a particularly good poem, but it is the start of one. Then, if you take out the non-essential words, while keeping the meaning of the words intact, you find yourself with a much better poem. One can go even further and extract from the prose only the most important words in the piece. Doing that, you may have a fair poem when all is said and done.
Smolen concludes her article with a very good statement.
“Be it prose or poetry, rhythm is an effective way to control your readers’ emotion. You can lull them with a plodding gait then change it. Your reader won’t know what woke them up—but you will.” – Roxanne Smolen
Poetry is all about controlling your readers’ emotions and directing them to see your point. In a sense, prose and poetry are both really much the same thing. The rhythm of the language exists equally in both. Good writing must have good rhythm, and good poetry must have the same. The main difference between poetry and prose is simply in its organization; the essence of the two is essentially the same, but we perceive it differently.
Michael Palmer and Phil Levine are two poets with very different styles and perspectives on the usefulness and writing of poetry. What they have most in common is that they are simply expressing their creativity through the art of writing poetry. We may criticize what we consider to be truly good poetry all we want, but the fact remains that poems are to poets what novels are to novelists. This may seem an elementary analogy, but when you consider it briefly, you realize that prose writers and poetry writers are very much the same. This is why it is imperative for writers and readers of literature alike to dabble in both areas. Poems are really as much work and as much inspired as novels. It may be popular opinion that poetry is simpler in its creation, but it is not.
It takes great skill to write with good rhythm and make clever metaphor. But, writing isn’t all about being clever, either. It is about being both concise with the content and precise with the intent. Both poetry and prose share that in common, and that is why those that are bored with poetry are very much likely to be missing something valuable from their experiences of literature. By combining elements of poetry and prose, Levine is able to take the best of both genres and form artistic ways of speaking about his experiences. Meanwhile, Palmer uses poetry’s ability to experiment freely with language to create songs and other curious verses. They are two significantly different writers with contrasting ways of creating good poetry, but their aim is essentially the same. They each use language and shape it to say what they want to say effectively and concisely, as any good writing should do.
Levine, Philip. “You Can Have It.” The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Ed. Jahan Ramazani. New York: W. W Norton & Co, 2003. 424-425.
Palmer, Michael. “Song of the Round Man.” The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Ed. Jahan Ramazani. New York: W. W Norton & Co, 2003. 827-828.
Palmer, Michael. “Sun.” The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Ed. Jahan Ramazani. New York: W. W Norton & Co, 2003, 829-31.
Smolen, Roxanne. “Prose Vs. Poetry.” Authors Den. 21 Nov. 2004. 6 Aug. 2022 <http://www.authorsden.com/categories/article_top.asp?catid=23&id=16045 >.
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