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Re-examining the Verse-Prose, Poetic-Prosaic Graph
– Jan 30, 2015
– originally posted to the PDC Aug. 17, 2014

A 'Best Of' post from the Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page.

correcting some problems in an earlier post – a theoretic exploration


This post to the PDC was a follow up to an earlier post, which has also been collected into the Best of the PDC: "Verse or Prose, Poetic or Prosaic".


A couple of posts ago I used a diagram that depicted literary texts (and art in general) as being describable by two axes: one the material, one the spiritual, as described by Owen Barfield in his Poetic Diction. Barfield does not present the two spectra as axes on a graph; and, even in creating that highly technical graphic, I knew intuitively that the graph was not, as a representation of the possibilities of literature, a terribly accurate one, and may be creating more false ideas than it was presenting valid ideas.

So I gave the graph an afternoon's exploration. Seeing, now, that there is a problem in making the jump from "we can – and should – talk about literature recognizing two related but distinguishable spectra" to "we can make a visual graph of those spectra by crossing them," I think it is something of a necessity to offer a correction to my previous graph-work. Especially in that the quality of the graphics themselves might have falsely created an authority of voice that was never really intended.

Though, having now finished that exploration (or, having taken it as far as I wish to take it), I see also there there need to put up front here a note. A reader's guide. A suggestion to how to read and get anything out of the following. That is, the graphs themselves are, in the below, the least important part of the exploration.


We can get a grasp on the material axis if we wholly divorce it from the spiritual axis[FN], which is to say isolate it as far as is possible from meaning in its broadest conception: an entirely artificial act, but workable so long as we stay alert to its limits. (For an exaggerated comparison, imagine reducing the discourse about fish to the shape of their dorsal fin without any other consideration. Yes, we can make useful analyses in such a manner, but they can only ever be limited – even limited in their own validity – until we bring in the rest of the body.)

[FN] I must immediately digress for a note on terminology. "Spiritual" and "material" are Barfield's terms. There is a problem in the use of "spiritual" in that it cannot but pull in the idea of the religious. In truth, it is meant to be so associated. But in doing that it creates the temptation to anchor the term within the religious – and in turn religion –, which is wholly fallacious. "Spiritual" here is best understood in its being contrasted against the material, which is to say a categorical, rationally analytic look at the text as a material object. I have the thought to exchange for the term "ideational," a word I frequently use. Though, through my own use, I wonder if "ideational" would be best used to describe the resulting union of the spiritual and the material. So, here, I will leave it with "spiritual."

Doing such, seeing the verse-prose axis as something wholly and only material, reducing the text to but its form, its shape, its grammars and resulting syntax, it is not at all a difficult step to see prose as that which exists in the absence of verseform. Which is not to say that prose is formless: there is also such a thing as "proseform." But if we were to look to the extreme prose end of the spectrum, what we would find there are texts that offer no structure beyond the grammar and syntax elemental to the language used: texts like that of children, writing mostly in direct statements, reducing language to simple structures. E.g.,: "The dog is on the chair. The dog is hungry. The dog gets off the chair. The dog goes in the kitchen."

More complexity in grammar and syntax means greater potential and possibility for varieties of and use of proseform, as with greater understanding of paragraph structure, argumentative structure and the like. This increase in formal possibility is movement toward the verseform side of the material spectrum. With that movement, there would appear within the text elements of what might be called verseform: structures that are used to an end beyond the basic needs of language, which is to say the communication of ideas.

At their first appearance they would exist in a minor role, offering ornamentation or structure without disturbing the foundationally pragmatic proseforms. An example might be the use of anaphora within a paragraph to aid in marking a structure that already exists within the structure of the paragraph.

As the verseforms increase in presence in texts, they will begin to interact with the proseforms to create new structures: for example, the use of anaphora across paragraphs to create a structure out of paragraphs that cannot be created with standard proseform.

If one were to explore such use of form, a minimal presence of what might be traditionally called verseform to supplement or create structure in what would traditionally be called prose, two things would be apparent. First, there is no dividing line between "verseform" and "proseform." Or, perhaps more accurately, those forms that we might call proseform, those aspects of texts that are accepted as being of the structures and grammars of prose, are but conventional in their classification. That is, it is only conventionality that marks a normal word ordering as prose and distinguishes it from what one would call a poetic inversion. Second, at some point along the line, it will become difficult to speak of the texts as being either prose or verse. Indeed, it will become of equal value to speak of the texts as either prose or verse.

More and more structures – the possibility for more and more varieties of structure – will enter the texts as we move farther and farther down the line, until the presence of form and structure becomes in itself dominant within the text, in themselves become visible within the text. There will appear structures that do not at all exist in what is conventionally defined as prose: e.g., line breaks, and with them stanza forms; certain uses of the space of the page; syntactic inversions and grammatical forms that exist outside what is found in style manuals. There will also appear more and more structures that can only work counter to the communicative ends of prose. At some point along that way it is verseform which dominates the structures of the text. Which does not mean we cannot yet speak of proseform within the text; but those proseforms will tend to be subservient to the now dominant verse forms, where as at the other end of the spectrum, verseforms, when they might appear in prose, were subservient to the functions of the proseforms.

What distinguishes "verseform" from "proseform"? Proseform can be seen as the base structures of a language. Forms can continue to be called proseform insofar as they are not working to the ends of the base, pragmatic purpose of language: that of communication.[FN] Though, also, we should be able to see that the continuum of the material axis is one of the presence of form in general, and any in-depth analysis would reveal that even the ideas of verseform and proseform are themselves a continuum, as there is no proseform that cannot be put to use as or as an aspect of verseform.

[FN] There can be pulled out of that statement an assumption that is not necessary to the subject at hand, but is rather fundamental to discussions of language: the idea that the base purpose of language is communication, ergo the origins of language – and its primary structures – lie within the theoretic (prosaic, a la Barfield): language was created in order to communicate facts. That is a theory I do not at all hold: I hold that language began within the subjective, not the nominative; and that language began as a means to identify – for the individual – experience, not fact. The pragmatic aspect of language develops naturally from that, when and individual desires to share experiences. The theoretic idea of language as a means of categorization of the world and the communication of factuality is a cultural event, not an individual event. (Obviously, a quick presentation of the idea, so unavoidably flawed; but, necessary to correct what is implied in the sentence above.)

Which, hopefully, is a long path that brings us back, though with a bit more strength, to the opening point, that on the verse-prose axis, the far end of "prose" can be thought of as the absence of forms unnecessary to the basic ends of communication. Proseform are forms are those forms that would fall under the phrase "good, effective, communicative writing." But there is nothing essential to proseforms that establish them as such: they exist that way only because of the conventions of language and culture: simply, if everybody writes and speaks the same way, under the same "rules," then it is far easier to communicate with each other than if everybody writes and speaks with their own rules.

I will say it again because it bears repeating: When you consider the material aspect of the text, it is only convention that distinguishes verseform from proseform. If one wanted to start, say, a philosophical coterie that wrote their shared texts only in blank verse, it would not take long before blank verse was as natural and pragmatically useful a method of writing and organizing one's communicated thoughts as the general paragraphs and sentences. There is nothing about blank verse, in itself, that makes it unusable or obstructive to the purposes of prose.


There is something of equal importance – and particular importance to the theme of this exploration – in the above. In the end, it became impossible to explore the idea of the material axis without bringing in the spiritual axis, impossible to speak about structure without also speaking about the use of the structure. The two axes cannot be divorced without wreaking havoc upon our understanding of the material axis, for the very idea of "prose" seems unavoidably dependent upon the "prosaic." Indeed, I wonder if best definition of "pure prose" is that language which would be used in pure, unemotional, unaffected and uneffecting reportage – that is, the purely prosaic. In turn, the best definition of verse would then be structure which either is superfluous to or works counter to the prosaic. Though, I question whether those two ideas can be so readily or sharply distinguished.

It is far easier to speak about the spiritual axis without influence of the material axis because in the end the material axis serves the spiritual axis. To successfully write prosaic texts demands using form to prosaic ends. Writing poetic texts demands using form to poetic ends.[FN] The difficulty in the consideration of the poetic-prosaic axis lies rather in what is too natural an assumption, the assumption that Barfield was working to reveal and remove: that there is a necessary relationship between verse and the poetic. It was to such an end that it is helpful to think of the two spectra as crossed axes, and to such a thought that I presented them as such.

Conceiving of texts within such a grid is a good, visual reminder that just because a text is structured in verseform does not mean that the text is thus poetic; likewise, just because a text is poetic does not mean that the text is by necessity dominated by verseform. Let me write it out so that it is clear: Just because a text is prose in form does not mean that the text cannot be poetic in effect.

[FN] Which means that there is a place where prose writing will work against the poetic. Does that mean, by necessity, that proseform in itself is contrary to a poetic end? No. But the prosaic use of proseform would be. As well, proseform that is structurally incongruous with the verseform would work against a poetic end.

This is the whole point of Barfield dividing the two aspects, to point out that the poetic is not dependent on the presence of verseform, and that verseform does not in itself create a spiritually poetic text. The difficulty here is in accepting what that means as it applies to the body of poetry (and literature, and the arts): namely, it opens the door for the possibility – and in turn the recognition – that most of the texts that are called "poetry" in contemporary poetry culture are not poetic but prosaic, only with some characteristics of verseform. As I have pointed out many times on this site (though with different words): Line breaks may make for verse, but they do create the poetic; and, the word poem as used in contemporary poetry culture really has no necessary link to the poetic either – except, perhaps, in the claims made of the works of contemporary poetry culture by those wishing to defend it.

Now, I feel the need to inject one level of complexity of which I find myself in constant need of reminder. That is the issue of success and sophistication. When we speak about texts within contexts such as this discussion, there is always carried within the discussion the assumption that the texts under consideration (especially when they exist only in the abstract) are successfully written texts, are well-written texts. That is, that if a text is said to be using verseform, that verseform is assumed to be well-executed and well-executed to the ends of the text. Perhaps the most useful example to the error in thought created by forgetting this lies in that previous, implied class of poorly written, free verse poetry. Simply because a person adds line breaks to a paragraph does not launch the text from the prosaic end of the spectrum to the poetic. The false tendency in thinking is, while moving from the abstract to the concrete, to assume that the abstract idea applies to the broad spectrum: that, what is upheld today as great (or merely good) poetry is assumedly an example of the poetic, which in truth in may not at all be. That is, it is the natural tendency to grab what stands for "poetry" in contemporary literary culture and look within it for concrete example of the abstract idea of the poetic. In doing such, the individual redefines, limits, modifies, if not emasculates and distorts the abstract idea so that it will fit their chosen exemplum. Rather, one should move from foundational ideas to the concrete body of texts with a critical mind, building first out of the abstract into a general notion of what constitutes a poetic text and then seeing if the text in hand fits within that idea – and what parts of it and how – rather than the other way around. After all, reading critically – which is to say intelligent if not competent, active reading – is to read with a critical mind, exploring texts out of one's foundational philosophies of poetry, though at the same time always testing those foundational aspects of poetry. As Eliot wrote, the first step of sophistication in poetry is learning to discern good poetry from bad, genuine poetry from sham poetry (The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism). It is the first, necessary critical step too contemporary writers of poetry take.

But to return to the primary line of thought: What is the difference between the prosaic and poetic? Remember, the answer does not lie in the formal properties of the text.

The terms Barfield uses – "prosaic" and "poetic" – are descriptive, not nominative, and importantly so, for they mark modalities, not characteristics. Of course, if you follow this blog, the difference is that same difference as between the cultural and the individual; between the nomic and the aesthetic, as I use the terms; between the mythic and the theoretic in Cassirer's very useful terms. The theoretic, the prosaic, is that modality of language and thought that is used to the ends of the defining and systematizing of the world. It is the language of fact, of science, of hard rationality. It is the language of truths in the sense of categorizing, naming, defining truth: be it the "truths" of the physics of mechanical dynamics or the "truths" of religious dogma. It is the modality of language in its pragmatic use: the conveyance of information via a message. In that we are cultural people, tribal creatures, it is an essential part of our language and thinking. But we are also individuals, individual psyches in active, experiential engagement with the cosmos. The aesthetic, the mythic, the poetic modality is language and thought functioning within that activity. The poetic modality is that used to create that unity of object and subject, that experience of the self within and as part of the cosmos. It is the modality of the experience of beauty, of the experience of the spiritual.

At its base distinction, the prosaic is the language of fact and argument; the poetic the language of experience and the symbolic. But it should also be understood – to hold off the threat of the poetic becoming anchored in religion – as the difference between understanding something mechanically, factually, and understanding something intuitively, systemically. I can read the rules of chess, I can memorize openings and endgame tactics, and play the game by the calculatory method of every move its possible responses. That that if the game of chess in its factual, theoretic nature. When I move beyond the "facts," and can think the game of chess, get a feel for the structure in the pawns, the interaction between the pieces, be able to judge one move as better than another because an intuitive understanding of the relationship of the pieces on the board, that is when I am thinking chess aesthetically, poetically.

Within culture, the arts, and literature (as well philosophy and religion), we can speak of the prosaic and the poetic as being, in turn, world-affirming and world-creating. The prosaic, which is the language of systematizing and categorizing, needs no intellectual participation on the part of the reader. The reader reads the facts, accepts the facts in their proffered structure and organization, and accepts them as given, affirming both the truth of the facts, the truth of the world the facts describe, and the validity of the modality that gives those facts and organization their truthfulness: prosaic thinking thus affirms the world as stated.

The poetic, on the other hand, is world-creating: for it is the exploration via experience of the cosmos behind and beyond the limits of the discourse of facts, of dogma, of dogmatic truths. A poetic text prompts and demands active, creative participation on the part of the reader, prompts and demands an awareness on the part of the reader of the text and of their own engagement with the text. It is active as opposed to the passive prosaic modality.

As a simple example, of I am trying to communicate a factual idea to you (as with a physics textbook), I want to use language that functions to the end of that communication, that carries to you the idea I have in as clear a transmission as is possible. I do not want metaphor to get in the way of that communication; for, importantly, metaphor always will get in the way of that communication. In a more profound example, if I as a cultural leader am trying to get you to behave and think in an antagonistic or negative way against a body of people, I will speak a language of truths that will give factual validity and affirmation and thus energy to whatever negative biases and prejudices you may already hold. Against that theoretic argument, an aesthetic experience of, say, the ubiquity of the human experience, will only function contrary to those intended truths.

All of which comes round to demonstrate that, unlike the verse-prose axis, which can be perceived as an increasing presence of a class of textual events, and thus is an unbalanced spectrum, the prosaic-poetic spectrum has a balance to it, as the poetic and the prosaic each serve separate purposes.

Yet, simply by naming it the "spiritual" spectrum, we see also that there is an imbalance to the axis, as "spirituality" increases, the potential for intuitive knowledge increases as you move farther to the poetic. This is because while the poetic works counter to the prosaic, the reverse is not true. The poetic recognizes the prosaic and includes it within its own functioning. (You do need to know the prosaic rules of chess to play the game.) [FN]

[FN] Since I am frequently having to go into the difference between the aesthetic, the mythic, and the nomic, the theoretic, I keep it brief, and as such cannot ever offer in any one place a wholly adequate distinction – if that were even possible. Though, I try each to time to do it somewhat differently, and hope that in that I offer some expansion of the presentation of the idea.


Let's now consider both axes together. The act of calling them axes has rather pre-supposed their ability to be brought together into a grid. Neither can be explored without the other creeping in sooner or later. They are inherently tied together: to speak about the medium of a text is to bring in the purpose of the text; to speak about the purpose of a text is to sooner or later bring in the medium of a text. Though, the whole purpose of the two spectra are to point out that there is no necessary relation between them. There is such a thing as poetic prose, and there is such a thing prosaic poetry. You will find in no small amount of errors and holes in the criticism – especially popular criticism – created by a failure to recognize the two axes or to distinguish between them. Indeed, if you but look, you will find in the contemporary discourse on poetry a frequent willingness – if not willfulness – to ignore any such distinction.

In thinking over the idea of presenting the axes as a graph, there is no real issue in surface, primary result of presenting the four quadrants: we can very easily speak about four kinds of texts, and can find no small use in that description. For example, it solves the false dilemma of "prose poetry." I say "false" dilemma because the only real dilemma lay in the need to maintain a link between verse and the poetic, coupled with the uncritical want to speak of texts in terms of defined, demarked categories. Recognizing spectra rather than categories, recognizing that the medium and the modality are not by necessity linked, there arrives no issue in ignoring categories altogether and addressing the idea of prose poetry along the two different subject lines: its verse-prose qualities; and its poetic-prosaic qualities. (That is to say, to speak about prose poetry according to its own nature, rather than forcing that type of text into some category and treating out thereof.)

Where the visual of the two-axis graph betrays the ideas of the spectra, however, is that such a graph (especially with the visual cue of the centrally placed origin) normally presents a balanced grid. But as we have seen the spectra are not balanced – particularly the material spectrum. In that the verse-prose spectrum seems to be able to be successfully described in terms of the increasing presence of form within texts, it is not best represented by a line with no origin. There is an implied "0" where there is no form beyond what is necessary to basic communication (as in pure reportage).

Which is, if you remember, where the discussion of the material spectrum merges with the discussion of the spiritual spectrum. For the purpose of the prosaic modality is the communication of information with as little distortion as possible. In that, the prosaic-poetic axis seems also to find something of a zero-point, also at pure reportage. So there is a place where the two axes meet. So let's redraw the graph in the nature of two rays emerging from an origin.

This graph does have value in speaking the verse-prose line as an increase in the presence of form in the text, and it shows that there is a unity of the lines at the point where prose and the prosaic meet. But there is a falsity in it speaking that a text can have a endless increase in form and maintain its prosaic nature, which is an idea on its face in error: structure serves the modality, and sooner or later, an increase in the presence of structure is going to begin to work against the desire of the prosaic for the clear communication of meaning. (Arguably, that moment is at the moment where you leave pure reportage.)

As such, the closer we get to the prosaic along the material axis, the less potentiality and possibility will be found for the use of form. To say it again, the greater the prosaic demands, the more strictly will material structure be controlled. As such, the upper border of texts will not lie on the verse-prose axis, but on a line somewhere between. This is wholly an abstraction, so there is no reason not to divide the space in two:

The body of possible texts lies within the darkened region. The full, prosaic verse quadrant has to a great degree been eliminated from the graph. It has been replaced with the recognition that form can exist within prosaic texts, but form by its own nature will at some point work against the desired prosaic ends. Which is the nature of the prosaic. If I am writing a technical guide on how to repair a car engine, I want every aspect of the text – the grammatical, the syntactic, the rhetorical, and the formal – to work to the ends of the clear transmission of information to the reader. I want the reader to get out of the text as precisely as possible the factual information I desire to convey via the text. Does that mean that there is no formal elements to the text? No. In fact, considering that it is a text about car engines, I imagine there would be a great amount of uses of form within the text, including anything from lists to charts to flow-charts to diagrammed images. But in each case I will want the formal manipulation of the text to serve the end of the transmission of meaning.

As such, I will want those formal aspects to become transparent within the text. I do not want the formal aspects to force the reader to stop and think about the organization of the text. The most efficient prosaic text presents its information so that the reader can move through the text with mechanical precision, the information being presented piece by piece in the needed – natural – order exactly to the ends of the desired knowledge. In the most efficient text, the reader will never have to stop to figure out the structure of the text, and the structure of the text will never interfere or modify the message being transmitted through the language. In efficient communication, the message becomes transparent in favor of the meaning it conveys.

Consider, writing a prosaic text in verse. If I write a text that describes the customs of an African tribal group and write it in blank verse, the choice of blank verse need not have any more influence upon the transmission of information than the choice of sentences organized in paragraphs, so long as the chosen form is transparent to the reading of the text. Do not here confuse opacity of form with newness of form. If I had never read blank verse before, it would take some amount of time and for me to get develop a familiarity with the structure, just as a person who has never used crossed referenced charts will need some time to become familiar with the structure – which is to say for the structure to become transparent within the message. But after a while, I would be able to read through the blank verse without any attention needing to be paid to the form itself – it would be as "prosaically" natural as reading well structured paragraphs.

Because of this, we see that in our graph the verse-prose axis – as it relates to the poetic-prosaic axis – should be understood not as a spectrum of presence/absence but as a spectrum of the transparency/opacity of form. A prosaic text desires transparency, while a poetic text uses opacity of form to bring to the reader to attending to the text. The poetic text wants the reader to stop and think about the text in front of it. But as said, that does not mean that form does not exist within a prosaic text, or that there not such a thing as mastery of prosaic form. In fact, a writer of car engine manuals would study form to learn how to make it transparent, how to convey complex meaning in an efficient way; that is, they would learn how to use the form to the prosaic ends of the text.

So the last graph above does not chart the presence of form in the text, it charts the increasing presence of verseform in the text. A prosaic text can be highly formal without the form becoming opaque in the reading of the text. By having both axes begin at a point, I have created the false idea that prose is wholly the absence of form. (Again, prose can have highly complex form and still be highly poetic if the form is transparent to the conveyance of meaning.) Thus, proseform needs to be brought back visually into the graph. Keeping the above recognition the prosaic nature of the text on its own limits the forms of the text (which itself must recognize that proseform does not requisitely create prosaic texts) we get this:

The arrows are artificial: the lines would not in fact extend to infinity. The fact that there is a medium means that there is limits upon what can be done with a text. But, those limits are unknowable – and the more you approach those limits the greater there is variety in the possible texts. So arrow heads are still preferable to points.

Except . . . . the diagonal was brought in with the understanding of the material axis as being descriptive of the increasing presence of verse form. With the axis now understood as a spectrum of transparency of form, it is now incorrect. In fact, we with that change brought the two axes into a direct relationship: the greater the transparency of form, the more prosaic will be the text; the greater the opacity of form, the more poetic will be the text. Likewise, the more prosaic the desired text, the more the form will need to be transparent, and the more poetic the desired text, the more the form will be desired to be opaque. The two lines have been brought to unison. In reasoning congruent to that offered above I can bring the arrowhead back to the prosaic end of the spectrum: namely, prosaic texts can approach but never reach perfect efficiency; that is, within human language, as regards the human mind. Which gives us this:

While it may appear so, we have not lost the four quadrants that were in the first graph. The issue of verse and prose is, simply, not presented as having a necessary relationship to the idea of the prosaic and the poetic. What is the concerning relationship is the transparency/opacity of form. By eliminating the presence of the verse and prose in favor of transparency/opacity we have recognized that there is no real distinction between verseform and proseform except for that transparency/opacity. That is, "proseform" identifies those forms that are most conventional within a language, and thus most transparent within the language-in-use. "Verseform" identifies forms that are not conventional within the language, that by their non-conventionality become opaque to the reader and usable to effect outside the efficient transmission of information.

If we were to depict a graph that showed the relationship between the two spectra of poetic-prosaic and verse-prose, it would be best presented as Barfield himself inadvertently offers it within Poetic Diction, as this:

That is, as two unrelated lines.