Wednesday, September 22, 2010


I recently came across a poet who is new to me. Mary Oliver has written and published poems and prose for decades. I had run across one of her works, liked what I read and then went searching into the SLFL catalog. No dice. So I expanded my search to include the entire CEF system and hit pay-dirt. I made my requests online and then went back to browsing. If you want to see the collection of American poets in the SLFL wander over to the 811s in the non-fiction section of the library.

I received the first book last Friday and have been enjoying it since then. Included in the book are a number of short items that are termed prose poems. Now, I’ve used the term prose before but I realized today that I may have misspoken in the past. When I started to think about the term I realized I was unhappy with any definition I might use for the word. So I did what any librarian worth her / his salt would do: I did a search.

I checked a number of different sources including the OED, American Webster Dictionary, Encyclopedia Britannia and Wikipedia to educate myself. This is what I came up with: all writing structure can be summed up into just two categories. They consist of prose and verse (poetry). So if it is not verse (poetry) then it is prose. This definition can get rather sticky. Another way to think about it is that prose is the use of the English language in the written form when not meant to be perceived as poetry. These are both pretty broad definitions. So I continued my search and I also came across a quote that I liked and explains the issue nicely. The quote is attributed to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and I've paraphrased it here: “prose is made up of words in their best order; poetry is the best words in their best order." Nice, huh? And of course none of that helps if the poet her/himself has put the two terms together as Ms. Oliver has done. In addition, after rereading Mr. Coleridge words and giving them some more thought it seemed to me that any writer who wanted to produce poems would have to build upon their own prose first. In other words you need to master prose prior to working on poetry. If you don’t know what the best order is then I think it would be hard to put the best words in the best order. But maybe not.

Hmmm, it has also occurred to me that what the best words might be is also a variable. I’m not sure that Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver would always agree as to what the best words or the best order for those words might be in any given situation. But both of these poets have a tremendous use of the English language. Both often wrote about nature and the interaction of themselves and others with the landscape. Both also delved into how that relationship is perceived by both the writer and then the reader. I’m also pretty sure that both would feel that they had more often then not hit the mark on what it was that they were tyring to achieve. Which is all very nice for us as readers.

And isn’t that is part of the enjoyment of coming across a new writer? Especially when finding a new, to you, poet. I think that in poetry, or even prose, the initial point of contact and following relationship of discovery between the reader and the writer can be extraordinary. All of a sudden you find someone who has taken your thoughts and put them to paper in a unique and artist way. And perhaps in a way that you yourself didn’t even realize was actually what you were thinking about before you read the work. Almost as if they had already read your mind and then run ahead, just a bit, putting the thought to paper and then just waiting for you to catch up.

See you at the Library,

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