Saturday, August 25, 2012

Prose Means You're Crazy

I'm re-reading Hamlet right now (pregaming Infinite Jest) and the introduction of my edition made a fascinating point that everybody else (especially Serena) probably already knows: apparently in Elizabethan English drama, characters only spoke in prose to indicate a formal proclamation, a low conversation, or insanity.

Let me say that again: when a character in Shakespeare speaks in discursive prose, it usually means s/he's nuts. Joshua Mehigan points this out about King Lear (in an essay I'll dig up and link to because it and him are both great), but I didn't realize that that's standard.

So this raises a few questions: What would Shakespeare think about contemporary theater, where things tend to be a bit, um, prosaic? Would he assume everyone was crazy? And would he be a little bit right?

Other question, for people who paid more attention in school than I did: when and why did we decide that human speech doesn't sound like poetry? And can we trace the decline and fall of contemporary poetry to that shift?

*Disclaimer: I don't actually feel that gloom-and-doomy about contemporary poetry, but let's be a little bleak about its current state for the sake of the conversation.


  1. Interesting thought to take this another direction for you when you have some spare time. :-)

    Peter Kreeft mentioned in a lecture I listened to (used to be a free download here: - I think it was The Cosmic Dance) that he saw prose as a lower form of poetry and poetry as a lower form of music. If he is right, then this would follow along with the idea you seem to be throwing out: the prosaic nature of poetry today is a symptom of a culture that has fallen out of touch with reality. you've got me really excited here...more freebie thoughts to mull over...

    This (decline and fall of poetry) might correspond to the rise in Humanistic thought in Western Culture as well. After all, strictly speaking, Humanism has no use for beauty. All it cares about is practicality. Therefore, why waste time writing in poetry - you can communicate so much more simply if you just write prose. In the process though, you lose most of the beauty in the language (as well as some of its goodness and truth - assuming beauty, truth, and goodness are linked). If this is true, than the more humanism permeates a culture, the more prosaic the poetry will become and the less beautiful it will be.

    I'll admit, this is purely theoretical conjecture here...but I think there might be some truth to it, even if we have to dig it out.

  2. I might comment more in a little while, but what edition is that? I'd love to get my hands on a copy of that introduction.


  3. Eh, I think that to say that Shakespeare usually uses prose when people are looney is a bit of an overstatement. Unfortunately I have no Shakespeare available to me right now to check out a few plays. However, I did sort of pay attention to the whole prose/poetry thing when taking that class on the late plays, and my immediate thought is that those three categories are fairly evenly divided. Also there are lots of examples of crazy people speaking poetically: Ophelia, whats-his-name-wolf-dude in A Winter's Tale (you can tell I've retained a lot from college....), and if I had a complete works of Shakespeare available to me, I'd pull out other examples.

    But, dude, that whole thing about the poetry to prose transition in language has been utmostly interesting to me for a long time, but I've never formally researched it. I have this theory that the transition (as a prose stylist I reject the term "fall") between the two forms is linked to the transition to written language itself. Here on the farm, for example, I work with a man from Ghana who is basically illiterate; very intelligent guy, just never really went to school. Out in the fields, I have fun drilling him on vocab and spelling words and he teaches me some Ghanian words and songs in exchange. It's really, really interesting to talk to someone whose conception of language is predominately aural. I, like probably all of you, think of language as primarily written. Maybe I'm an extreme case, but my brain almost produces a kind of streaming subtitles to the conversations I'm in. The letters of a word are a word to me.

    That's not the case at all with Nii'Anung. He gets me to explain the words of hymns he sort of knows quite a bit (he's a musician) and it's always funny to me the difference between what he thinks a word is when he hears it and what the word "actually" is in any given song. I wish I could think of an example... sometimes he thinks, for example, that a two-word phrase is one word because that's the way we say it. He also pretty freely rewrites the texts of various songs to get them to fit into various rhythms. For him, the rhythm and melody are primary and the words are secondary and not set in stone.

    Where was I going with that... Oh yeah. So start thinking about what language would be like if it was aural rather than written. Now think about punctuation. Is the way you punctuate things when you're writing the way you speak? Sort of, but not really. We speak not so much in sentences as much as lines of meaning. Punctuation and even spaces between words are a relatively late invention in the world of the written world, from what I understand, and I think that testifies to a more fluid way of thinking about language in an aural culture. In an aural culture you don't have "words" as units of meaning but rather the meanings themselves are their own unit--hence the poetic line. Does that make sense?? Of course the whole aspect of memorization in an aural culture also makes poetry more "practical" than prose. Rhythm and whatnot makes the words easy to remember and be passed down. Once the written word becomes primary, poetry doesn't have as much practical necessity.

    1. [Part II] I've heard that argument of Kreeft's, Jeff, as well as the whole prose/Humanism thing, and I just don't buy it. I reject a hierarchy of artistic forms because I just don't see any basis for it. Also I don't see any evidence that prose necessarily communicates more simply. That seems to be a projection of us as a culture which has lost the poetic art as second nature (but I'll agree with you that that loss is tragic). What I mean is that once upon a time everyone who was educated was taught to write metrical verse and I'm sure the lost annals of history contain a mind-boggling amount of really terrible but formally competent poetry which, thank God, has disappeared. Actually early American poetry is a great testimony to the fact that a poetically literate people do not necessarily produce anything worth reading for any except historical reasons (sorry, Wigglesworth). I guess the real issue for me about the whole music/poetry/prose thing is that it reflects a Platonism which I reject. I guess my "humanistic" explanation for the drift from poetry to prose, however, could prove Jeff's point. :D

      But before you accuse me of something silly like relativism or humanism or philistinism or whatever, let me say that I do a) love poetry and b) love formal poetry and think that it's a travesty it's been lost on a mainstream cultural level. I sort of think of formal poetry like literary chess: it's good for the brain to have to wrestle with that level of complexity. It's also easier to be lazy when writing prose than poetry just like it's easier to be lazy when writing a novel than a short story. Does that make one form better than another? I really don't think so, it just means that achieving excellence in certain forms of literature is really difficult because the form presents more dangers. Writing a truly excellent novel may be more difficult than writing a truly excellent poem because a novel allows you to mush all over the place in a way a poem doesn't and therefore requires more inner discipline (that's just speculation on my part). The beautiful thing about formal poetry in particular is that it's an exercise in glorying in limitations, which I do think makes it uniquely human. The balance between the infinite and the limited at play in a formal poem reflects a similar paradox in the human person and I'm of the opinion that this fact indicates the reason formal poetry is so tenacious, so old. Perhaps the loss of formal poetry in the modern world is in fact a testimony to "humanism" but not for the reasons Jeff suggested--rather, that loss testifies to the rejection of human limitation which most definitely is characteristic of modernity. Modernity rejects the limitations of nature, family, place and a formal poem is a microcosm of those limitations in which humanity exercises its boundless creativity and wonder.

  4. Seth: This is the edition I have: (
    I didn't read the whole introduction (it seemed kind of geared to high school students), but it's probably worth going through. If you read it, let me know what you think.

    Serena: But It Says So! But That's What It Says! Literary critics are always right! Everybody else is always wrong! But seriously, I'm sure you're right about Ophelia etc., but I don't think it's totally fair to write off the point that prose often indicates insanity.