“Prose is a certain comportment of language when, during which, contact has to be maintained with the actual object, which is both moment in time and thing, something other than myself yet the product of my functions, something whose properties, particular demands, irregularities and singularities must be imitated in language.”
One of the last century’s supreme poets wrote this. Valéry goes on to say that the language of prose is “a sort of resistant substance that nonetheless yields to pressure and allows you to trace lines in all directions, like engraving, or sculpt it as if it were sold rock.” This he contrasts with verse, “a different substance, unyielding and full of accidents, of holes, of infinitely hard knots, of strata running this way and that, of fault lines.”
Prose, Valéry suggests, has a one-to-one correspondence with the subject at hand. That still leaves a lot of room for playfulness, irony and wit, but prose remains prosaic in the most complimentary sense. If, in the vernacular, “poetic” means flowery, “prosaic” has come to mean boring and conventional. In the words of an OED definition: “unpoetic, unromantic; dull, flat, unexciting; commonplace, mundane.” Yet who would apply such qualities to the prose of writers (all of them poets) as various as Swift, Santayana, Willa Cather and J.V. Cunningham? Less flattering is another poet (and author of good prose), Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001), in a previously unpublished sonnet, “Prose,” included in The Collected Poems (ed. Emma Mason, Carcanet, 2012):
“It halts, it limps along, it cannot soar.
Try as it will, prose cannot reach the stars.
It knows about ambition, power and war
And lists the names of aeroplanes and cars.
“It has much strength, it has an army and
Its military is well-trained and kept
At the ready. It can understand
The needs of reason. It has seldom slept.
“But still all prose is limited and will
Keep to certain grounds and certain parks.
It does not know those secret stayings-still
“On the large promises of light and dark
Poetry rises up and it can fill
All upper air and never leaves its marks.”
I’m convinced anyone can learn to fashion prose that is orderly, logical and vivid – prose that fulfills the job of conveying information without ambiguity, unless ambiguity is intended. I’m equally certain that almost no one, even after they’ve mastered prosody and rhyme, can learn to write a minimally pleasing mediocre poem. Great poetry shares a realm with music and mathematics, gifts few mortals possess. “Prose is limited,” Jennings says, but to use an old-fashioned term, I’m proud to be a proser. In The Feast of the Poets (1815), Leigh Hunt refers to “such prosers as Johnson, and rhymers as Dryden.” Good choices. Both excelled at poetry and prose, and are among our greatest critics.