Thinking About Prose Poetry

As someone who has read some literature but has never studied it formally, I’m not clear on what makes prose poetry poetry. Is the defining factor authorial intent? I thought of this a couple of weeks ago or so when I read Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping (and incidentally had similar thoughts some months ago when reading Paul Harding’s Tinkers). Consider this passage from a larger scene in which the narrator, Ruthie, boats out to an island on the lake to find a place almost suspended in time and full of ghosts:

Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water—peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.

Pg. 152

There is an extent to which the paragraph could stand alone. Prose feels the need to contextualize and explain, to clarify and expound. Poetry almost loathes clarity insofar as poetry wants the reader to dwell longer on its verses than is allowed in the lines of prose. Poems are written with an economy of words that lay layer upon layer without burdening the reader with more words. This leads, incidentally and intentionally, to a degree of ambiguity; if the reader can divine the meaning of the poem he should be able to fill in some blanks. Simple poems are often written for children*:

John had
Great Big
Boots on;
John had a
Great Big
John had a
Great Big
And that
(Said John)

“Happiness,” by A. A. Milne, from When We Were Very Young

Now, I have not read much in the way of prose poetry. If I was better-read more comparisons would surely spring to mind, but as is I thought, while reading Housekeeping, of Gary Snyder, who is no slouch of a poet:

From the doab of the Willamette and the Columbia, slightly higher ground, three snowpeaks can be seen when it’s clear—Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, and Mt. St. Helens. A fourth, Mt. Rainier, farther away, is only visible from certain spots. In a gentle landscape like the western slope, snowpeaks hold much power, with their late afternoon or early morning glow, light play all day, and always snow. The Columbia is a massive river with a steady flow. Those peaks and the great river, and the many little rivers, set the basic form of this green wooded Northwest landscape. Whether suburban, rural, or urban the rivers go through it and the mountains rise above.

Gary Snyder, from “The Mountain,” Danger on Peaks

The question is not, “Is prose poetry too prosy to be poetry?” nor “Is this poetic language in a prose story better, in some way, than prose poetry?” But rather, can a passage within a greater prose work still be called poetry, even if it is thoroughly woven into the story, if its absence would rob the story told in prose of a vital element? Can there be such a firm distinction between two literary styles that we must parse passages, saying “This is poetry,” and “This is prose”?

*Of course this is over-simple. Narrative poems such as ballads, for example, are often less-layered. And we needn’t think all simple poems are just for children. Consider Arthur Guiterman’s lovely poem, “Routine”:
No matter what we are and who,
Some duties everyone must do:
A Poet puts aside his wreath
To wash his face and brush his teeth,
And even Earls
Must comb their curls,
And even Kings
Have underthings.
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