Sunday, June 20, 2004

John Holbo has a series of posts up about defining fiction - just the sort of thing that sets me going. This one, for example: Is Poetry a Kind of Fiction? Is it?

I don't think it's the right question. When we describe a text as poetry, we are describing a different aspect of that text than when we describe it as fiction. Calling it poetry describes how it is written, not what is written, and how what is written relates to truth. Poetry is opposed to prose, not to fiction/non-fiction. The content of a poem can be anything - it is probably possible to think of any form of writing, fiction or not fiction (novels, stories, plays, essays, history, reportage, memoirs, love letters, name it) being written as poetry, without in any way undermining its status as poetry (or anything else it might be). It is possible to write novels in verse - essays - love letters... it is possible to write those things in prose. I think that is the answer to the question, is poetry a kind of fiction? Or better - can you define poetry in terms of fiction/non-finction? Answer being no...

The harder problem, the stickier one, is defining the difference between poetry and prose - or fiction and non-fiction. It starts with this - can you define them in terms of intention? writing? or can a text be read as either poetry or prose depending? And what would be the difference? I'm not answering that tonight... though it's a game I can't help playing, however badly I play it. Meanwhile, I think there is something in the air - John Holbo points to this post by Jim Henley, musing about the definition of a poem - a couple days ago, Long Story; Short Pier pointed to the same Jim Henley post, for the same purpose - all these definitions! it has to be a sign! Sign of what?

Probably a sign that I should quote Monty Python: this whole question of the definition of poetry has seldom been so succinctly addressed as in the work of the Poet McTeagle.

"If you could see your way to lending me sixpence. I could at least buy a newspaper. That's not much to ask anyone."

If you read it as a poem - it is - isn't it? And explaining why or why not is coming close to answering the question, right?

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