[Editor’s note: The following is a brief essay Lighthouse instructor Elizabeth Robinson wrote for the Prose vs. Poetry Smack Down at this year’s Lit Fest. If it convinces you to join Team Poetry, try Robinson’s July session workshop, Intro to Poetry.]
By Elizabeth Robinson
Entering into a smack down is antithetical to my nature, and that’s because I’m a poet. I’m a lover, not a fighter.
When people talk about the language of love, the language of the amorous swerve, the satin sheen of syllables, the dilation of the pupil before a beautiful image, they aren’t talking about prose.
There were distinctive
dips and shivers
in the various foliage,
as Rae Armantrout says, and these dips and shivers are what makes up poetry.
Poetry is sexy. Prose and its narrative are indebted to plot, they have to make their troth with the linear, move from point A to point B. Poetry doesn’t have to go anywhere if it doesn’t want to. It just peels back the sheets and says, “Beloved, get in.”
Poetry is always saying, with all the senses that we have: “Let’s get intimate.”
I’ll let Walt Whitman sing it:
I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it;
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
…It is for my mouth forever—I am in love with it;
I will go to the bank by the wood, and become undisguised and naked;
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
The smoke of my own breath;
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine;
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood
and air through my lungs;
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore, and
dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn;
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice, words loos’d to the eddies
of the wind;
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms;
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag;
The delight alone, or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and
meeting the sun.
When you take a workshop in prose, the teacher usually tells you to think of the action of the story as looking like an upside down checkmark. The tension rises until it reaches a peak, the climax, and then quickly resolves. In other words, prose is the equivalent of wham-bam-thank you ma’am.
By contrast, poetry, with its textures and color, its sinewy graces, its curves and sighs—well, poetry knows all about foreplay. Poetry keeps candles burning all through the night. And when poetry finally realizes its peak, it doesn’t just climax, it has an epiphany.
Elizabeth Robinson is the author of more than a dozen volumes of poetry. For more on her July class, click here.