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By: Sebastian

HOW TO READ A POEM, A STORY AND AN ESSAY.

HOW TO READ A POEM, A STORY AND AN ESSAY.

Today, we will make a key distinction between a poem, a short story, and an essay – things you’ll be reading and writing about in this course. Many students struggle to understand their difference, and as a result, limit themselves when it comes to interpreting and writing about each genre. Let’s therefore distinguish one from the other, so you can better appreciate the benefits of each kind of literature and, more particularly, ensure you are making optimal connections with each writing genre when you encounter it throughout this course. If you already have a good sense of the difference between each genre, and their differing intent, then read over this section more generally, but do try the exercise at the end and add it to your E-Folder.
SUBJECTIVE AND COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The first thing we need to understand is the difference between poetry and prose. To start, consider poetry (from the Greek word poesis) as that which focuses on one’s subjective experience (which simply means “hard to measure”). By contrast, prose is more ordinary writing (from the word prosaic, which means ordinary), and so it feels more common, and is as a result, generally easier to understand. Prose, therefore, draws from common experience (narrative, or story), and includes what we think about or already know (ideas or concepts). While it is true that a poem can be narrative (story-like) in its style, or even express an idea (to instruct about something), it is more likely that a poem will have an irregular (uncommon or non-ordinary) quality of both writing style and insight. In this way, a poem is pretty much wide open for a writer to express how they experience the world, without grammar (or “ordinary” forms of expression and writing) getting in the way to limit how they want to express the world.
POESIS AND POETRY
In this section, we further acquaint ourselves with the three most common forms of writing, but focus on techniques to make ourselves more effective at storying our experiences in the world.
Poesis is the root word of poem. It’s a Greek word, meaning “to make” – but it has more to do with “making” creative connection, between a person and their world. Poesis is the posture of noticing the world in one’s own unique way – stopping to smell the roses, and to giveyour account, as they say. The poet creates the possibility for others to take notice of the world anew, perhaps calling them into a deeper or closer or more intimate encounter with their world, or otherwise attempting to foster an experience of the world to re-energize something that has become flat and prosaic, ordinary and stale. For example, the Bible uses poetry to revitalize how people experienced a timeless truth. The trouble with using the same old language sometimes may cause the same old truth to no longer inspire. Note therefore that in the Psalms or in the Book of Isaiah or Jeremiah, for example, new ways of noticing and capturing the world are offered to produce new ways to view reality and be human.
Martin Heidegger refers to it as a ‘bringing-forth’, using this term in its widest sense. He explained poiesis as the blooming of the blossom, the coming-out of a butterfly from a cocoon, the plummeting of a waterfall when the snow begins to melt. The last two analogies underline Heidegger’s example of a threshold occasion: a moment of ecstasy (from ex-stasis – or leaving one’s state; more accurately, rising above one’s common pose) when something moves away from its status as one thing to have the status of another (as we noted above – to see the same old thing anew or differently, like the tree outside your bedroom window). Since humans and human experiences change, the poet wants to harness this energy and bring out a new sense for how we have become accustomed to seeing the same old things. All one need do to grasp the insight here is to read Wordsworth’s poem Daffodils, and they will likely never experience Daffodils the same way again. Mission Accomplished, for the poet.
PROSE AND STORY/IDEA
Perrine’s Literature (p. 785ff) makes the following distinction between poetry and prose – which as you will recall is the word we use for more ordinary writing (story, essay). The word prose is related to the word prosaic, which means common. Prose writing uses ordinary form – common grammar/conventions – and is constrained by the rules of a given language (sentence structure, etc). You see, it is more limited, whereas poetry has no rules – as it is entirely uncommon. But in addition to the tighter structure and adherence to rules of language, prose is also more deliberate in its intent. It has a point to make, a destination to take the reader to, an instruction to accomplish. It sometimes makes the case in a softer way, as if to pass along something interesting or perceives something to be valuable; sometimes it will bear a moral lesson or even develop, support or defend a case to be made (here we think of an essay).
In short, the poet wants to bring out an experience that gets at the deeper text/ures, or underneath the event/moment if you will. A story (prose) or essay meanwhile conveys a plotline of action that is usually “going somewhere” – taking you to a point or state of mind, or capturing something prosaic (common). The poet stays awhile in the experience, so it may blossom as it will with the reader. Some poems are more alike prose, and some stories alike a poem. It may be said that writing between poesis and prose is to carry out action (plot), but with more descriptive or reflective pause. Some of the most charming stories have a poetic quality to them, with description that lingers and takes you away into a reverie, almost as if you’ve left the text. Consider Eragon (take a moment to get a feel for this writer’s more poetic style of prose by clicking). There is both action and pause. At one moment, you’re observer; and in the next, you feel caught up in the energy, as if you are right there experiencing the moment. Enjoy the excerpt to see how prosaic writing can be expressed rather poetically (just be sure not to confuse this with it being a poem).
PART II – THE SAME EXPERIENCE WITNESSED THROUGH THE GENRES OF POETRY, NARRATIVE AND ESSAY
In the remainder of this lesson, we aspire to better understand the relationship between the three most common forms of writing – poetry, story and essay. We’ll reflect on how one simple human experience can be differently represented by each style of writing, and how each style offers a unique opportunity to manifest our relationship to an experience. Sometimes a poem is more fitting, or maybe a story; and at other times, it may be easiest to most clearly explain the matter in logical form, through an essay. If you’re a little more sensory-oriented in how you experience the world, poetry and story may make the greatest sense, or come easiest to you as a writer. Or, if you’re more of a thinker and make sense of the world through ideas and argument, an essay may be preferred. But, before you decide with certainty, consider the following lesson carefully, exploring wider possibility for how to most effectively render a given experience in your world. It may very well be that a poem is best at times; and on other occasions, a story or ideational form of writing seems more appropriate. Keep your options open as we review how various stances can open up new ways of seeing and writing.
POETRY IN FOCUS
First, the experience. Why write a poem rather than start with “once upon a time, I went to the symphony and was overcome by sadness when the Cello sounded, because it did this and that and such and such.” What is key here is that the writer does not want to “tell” but instead offer the reader a gate or point of infinite entry to feel and experience as you are led to; a note is struck for you to dance, and you dance wherever and however you like. As such, the poet starts by reaching into their deepest senses (sight, sound, smell), faculties (intuition, hope, concern) and collected experience (memory, personal connections, truths) to convey a unique momentary experience – so just maybe you’ll be triggered to have your own similar experience (but an open ended one, mind you – where you are called into your own unique deeply felt connection with life). In this form of writing, you get to fill in the blanks, you get to decide the reasons, and you get to be taken away into your own contexts and connections with life. Consider the poem below: There may have been a time in your own life when you felt an unexpected difference from the intent of an event (by the way, the notion of experiencing something different from its intent will be featured in Lesson three’s El Greco Espolio poem, where two realities are contrasted side by side).
You see, the poem is infinite; its meaning does not stand still. It is yours to behold and relate to as you desire. The message is not declared; the text is instead a point of entry, with no end point decided by the writer. In this way, a poem is incredibly personal. This is why many poems seem cryptic or hard to get… at first (but maybe stay awhile). Poems are as personal (or unique) as people. When taken out of their common contexts and routines in life, people are just as cryptic as poems – hard to understand, unless you have reference points: shared measures (such as language) or experiences to help you. Ah, so there is a lesson here perhaps. Just as we may sit awhile to get to know a person (it takes time, and soon familiarity rushes in on this or that) we can do the same with a poem, and something just may emerge and speak to you. When it does, we notice the world a little differently. Such is the language of poetry. It does not come neatly packaged, like the outside of people, clothed in garments and brands and styles that typify a culture and are thus familiar. No, for a poem, we go deep inside, where there are no garments or grammars or easy giveaways; where things are messy and not so orderly and patterned by common appearances. One anonymous writer said it well: are you living like/for everyone else, or are you living poetically? To live poetically is not to live predictably or in step or fashion with the rest. So too is it to write poetically. The meaning or message will creep up on you, and how it lands may catch you by surprise. In a beautiful poetic stroke, consider the mood of sadness or neglect or despair caught by laureate poet Stephen Dunn (from Beneath the Sidewalk) in just one single poetic verse…
PROSE IN FOCUS
Second, prose (or story, essay and common writing) is expressing an action or an idea, and doing so in a way that follow rules, is familiar or else is quickly recognizable. As noted above, prose is “going somewhere” – it has an end or focus in mind; and so it usually is characterised by action, instruction, or a moral lesson (a point to the story, as they say). The point that people get will often be similar. Let me say it this way, to make a distinction. Two people may come out of a movie theatre and compare notes, more or less arriving at the same things that struck them, even amid disagreement or some striking differences on what affected them. This resembles the experience of prose in writing; for the most part, the message was caught. By contrast, two people may hear a single musical note or chord at a concert or symphony and walk away with completely different “affect” (emotion, mood, response). They might even try to explain it but can’t quite find the words, or the way to do so. Does this mean the experience is less valid? Is an experience only valid if it corresponds with how others connect/relate? Well, to many with a scientific orientation toward life, the answer is yes – poetry is considered inferior. Something needs to be commonly observed before it is true or has merit; things not easily understood are less true in their estimation. But think about that for a moment. Just maybe there are some things in life better expressed through poetry. Maybe there are parts of your own life experience that others would not understand. Perhaps a poem would say it best. In the history of literature, this has certainly been the case. Some of the most profound human experiences have been registered through poetry – whereas a story or essay just could not produce the same effect. Let’s take a moment now to consider music (like we did above in poetic form) through story.
CONSIDERING THE PROSE OF THE ESSAY
Finally, let’s get even more specific. Let’s look at the essay. Many of us, when we first learned how to write the essay were terrified by its austere style and lack of permission – its abundance of rules and specific method for executing an argument. But as we experimented more with the format, we found our own favoured essay writing framework, developing a style that served us well into English 12. So, let’s dig in and see what opportunities an essay gives us for manifesting important aspects of human life that poetry and story just can’t do.
The essay (which you will spend more time on later in the course) goes even further with specific and understood things. In an extreme sense, the essay can almost be scientific, specifying well known details and offering support that you “must” be able to access rather quickly, and commonly, for the writer to effectively make their point. Have a look at an excerpt below from an academic journal aiming to prove a point about music’s effect on people. It is not as personal, nor as narrative. It comes across the most direct, almost entirely emphasizing facts (things already decidedly agreed upon), or in some cases attempts to make something a fact. Such an expression is as far away as you can get from poetry, where if you’ll remember, human experience is not so easily agreed upon. An essayist seeks consensus – to get everyone on the same page. Have a look at the common form of language in an essay. Although the audience is highly academic, you can see from its style that its intent is to cement opinion. It explores a variety of things, gives evidence, and ends with a decisive position. Have a look at yet another difference, as the experience of music is expressed through the essay.
So, there you go. Three versions of an encounter with music: one poetic, one narrative, and one in essay form. Which one do you like better? Can you see an occasion for each kind of writing? Hopefully, you can, even if you favour one form or another. Some people – not so many mind you – love poetry. Others feel most at home in creative writing (fiction or short story). Many still love the power of ideas and lean toward expressing themselves through facts and opinions, desiring to make a point, to poke and prod and stir people toward agreement, in which case personal experience is just too subjective and open ended. In this way, they do not aspire to produce a piece of writing that lets you make the meaning on your own, as you wish. Their intent is to convince you to take up their position, to close the possibilities on what can be thought about something, to shape the reader’s outlook in some substantial way. The classic home of an essay, therefore, is the Opinion column of a newspaper, or a blog that is dedicated to specific socio-cultural or political issues.
In all such cases, the gift of language – with its tones and moods and greater possibilities for conveying meaning and experience – is yours to discover and experiment with as we take to the writing process. But before we get into the works of others, take a moment and try to account for something very real to you in each of the three voices just discussed. We observed a relationship between a person and music, with an encounter that moved from the infinite (poem) to the specific (essay). You might consider an athletic event, Christmas, the beach, skiing in winter, a break-up, a fight, a failed exam score. Give it a try: be a poet, a creative writer, an essayist – capturing the same basic moment in three very different poses or expressive forms. Were an artist to join our conversation, they’d likely want to add paint or mime or dance to capturing the experience (varied genres in the world of fine arts, to bring out the possibilities of human experience in three distinctly different, but equally powerful ways). The beauty of human expression is limitless. So too is how we can give voice to our own personal experience in the world. Now that’s something to write about!

ASSIGNMENT:
E-WRITING FOLDER (2)
YOUR TURN
Write a short poetic and prose selection based on an experience you vividly recall, following the spirit of what you learned above. Then, briefly express what you learned through this exercise or why you better appreciate the unique possibilities of each genre.
Approximately 500 words

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