It’s Just an Expression…

“Poetry has a greater capacity than prose to express the complexities of life.” True or False?

If you happen to like poetry, this is one of those sentences that seems intuitively accurate, amiright? Especially if “prose” means academic polemic, comments on YouTube (though calling those prose is arguably a stretch), news, conventional history, textbooks, most blog posts, etc.

Unfortunately, the sentence kind of unravels when you pull on one thread: What can’t prose express? You can see, I think, that if the quoted statement is true, the only possible answer can be a poem. It certainly can’t be prose. That’s amusing and a little bit freaky because it means that critics can praise poetry for its superiority of expression all they like, but they can never in seriousness (which here means prose) tell us what the content of that complexity is. If the quoted statement is true, all of literary criticism faces what has been called “the problem of paraphrase.” (Paraphrase, being a form of translation, can never exactly reproduce the thing being paraphrased. What did Shelley say about translating poetry? Something about violets and crucibles. They don’t mix well.)

But of course lots of people still do literary criticism, officially and unofficially, so either people are okay with perpetual failure or we don’t really think that poetry has a greater capacity than prose to express the complexities of life. I think the latter possibility is the most likely.


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