Poetry and Prose

“Marriage is a book in which the first chapter is written in poetry
and the remaining chapters in prose.”
– Beverley Nichols (1898 – 1983), British writer;
attributed in The Quote Verifier, by Ralph Keyes

In high school I wanted to write poetry.  All my succeeding chapters have been in prose.

Most of my work life has been helping other people write better prose: clearer, shorter, punchier.  Most of my leisure time has been trying to help my own self write better prose: snappier, funnier, memorablier.  

Yet even I can be inspired to poetry sometimes, as I was on an after-dark arrival in Calgary in December.  Herewith, the result: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” meets “The Road not Taken.”

Taking an Exit on a Snowy Evening

Two lanes diverged in an exit knot,
And conscious I must not both o’erpass
As just one driver, quick I thought
And glanced down one as far as I ought
To where it bent by the overpass;

Then took the other, as just as bare,
But offering p’raps the safer game,
Because it was darker – from extra wear? –
Though as for that the traffic there
Had cleared them really about the same,

And both that evening equally lay
In snow that tires had packed down (whack!).
Oh, I held my choice to avoid the tway!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I could ever change back.

I shall be blogging this with a sigh
Right here and very shortly hence
Two lanes diverged in an exit knot, and I—
I took the one more travelled by,
And that made really no difference.

This exercise has reminded me that inspiration may be necessary, but is hardly sufficient.  As Thomas Edison said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

Incidentally–while  poking around in quotations about poetry and prose–it has also reminded me that my first reading or hearing may miss the point, and that subsequent hearings tend to “hold my choice” (or “keep the first,” as Frost said).

“You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.”
– Mario Cuomo (1932 – 2015), Governor of New York from 1983 to 1994,
attributed in The Quote Verifier

I had always heard Cuomo’s adage as meaning that governing was harder than campaigning, but my experience with prose and poetry is the opposite.  Maybe all he meant was that they were different: that governing was more, well, prosaic.

Given that people are still talking about the meaning of “The Road Not Taken,” 100 years after Frost published it, it’s good for me to be open to rethinking old understandings.

Finally, if I ever had any doubts about the value of “clearer, shorter, punchier,” this account of what Edison likely actually said helps put those to rest, too.

An associate of Edison said he’d once asked him what genius was.  “Well,” replied Edison, “about 99 percent of it is a knowledge of the thing that will not work.  The other 1 percent may be genius, but the only way that I know to accomplish anything is everlastingly to keep working, with patient observation.”
The Quote Verifier, by Ralph Keyes

It’s not exactly poetry, is it?

 

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10 Comments

  1. Lorna

    You had to pick my most favourite ever piece of poetry to do that to?

    I must say it was cleverly done though I believe your real talent lies in prose, Isabel, and it is a significant talent.

    Somehow 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration has a better ring to it for my ear!

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Lorna – I thought The Highwayman might be your favourite. On an optimistic note, I guess if “The Road Not Taken” can withstand my assault, it can withstand anything! And yes, I think I’ll stick with prose. Unless, of course, you’d like to tell me what your second-most-favourite-ever poem is?

  2. Marilyn Monroe said of poetry. “I read poetry to save time.”

    I like Pulizer-Prize-for-Poetry Charles Simic’s remark, “Be brief and tell us everything.”

    (Talking, as we were, on FB about over-achievers…John has taken to memorizing one poem a month,” and will only recite them if I ask.)

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – Fabulous quotes. I wonder if an editor (individual or the sort of public-memory editing that goes on with the things people say) got at either of those. Re John, I started to memorize a poem every month. In fact, I’ve started that project several times. I got as high as 3, one time. Go, John!

        1. Isabel Gibson

          Barbara – Thanks! I bet we could crowdsource poetry about bridges. I started Googling bridges in various locations (places we were driving through, for example) and was amazed at the sites devoted to listing and photographing said structures. It turns out there’s something about bridges.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Tom – Great! Just don’t read any others today and it will maintain its status. On a side note, I do wonder why “memorablier” hasn’t been a word until now . . . Its “mouth feel” is a bit off, perhaps.

  3. Excellent meditation on overpasses – don’t think I have ever heard of such a thing in prose or poetry – panic often characterizes my efforts to make knotted decisions behind the wheel. All classic poets can withstand anything we make of their genius.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Judith – Classic poets, eh? Certainly true of Frost. I remember (whether it happened or not) that someone once asked him to explain one of his poems and he demurred by asking, incredulously, whether they were asking him to say the same thing again but in worse words? (Something like that.) As for overpass poetry, I think you’re right – it’s likely not a genre. Maybe I’ll start one for bridges . . . After all, how hard can it be?

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