Helen Mort on Poetry and Prose

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The single thing I get asked most often at readings and other events is this: what makes poetry distinct from prose? It’s an enduring question because it’s a good one. Poetry seems so elusive to define it’s tempting to explain it in terms of what it isn’t, setting it in opposition to novels, short stories, creative non-fiction and other prose forms. As Mimi Khalvati puts it, poetry is about line breaks - the sine qua non of free verse. But even then the boundaries blur. What about prose poems? What about prose that we might deem ‘poetic’, without ever stopping to interrogate that word?

I’ll never be able to answer that question satisfactorily. But I can talk about other things: what feels different about writing poetry and writing prose, why so many of my ideas turn into poems before they’ve had a chance to become anything else. Over the past year or so, I’ve been absorbed by two parallel writing projects – a second collection of poems and a first novel. There are thematic similarities between the two. Both explore trust and risk in the context of rock climbing, both feature female protagonists, both draw on my own experience. But sitting down to write my novel feels like a very different experience from the way I write so many of my poems – on the move, running or walking with a line in my head. For me, poetry is drawn from movement while prose happens when I’m still, centred and thoughtful. For me, poetry is about whittling a thought down, paring it back to its essence. Prose is about building something up, layer by layer, line by line.

Already, I’m tripping myself up: I might have written most of my novel at a desk, but I lived with the characters so long I carried them with me wherever I went, listened to them talk while I drove or sat on trains or walked through Leeds early in the morning, leaning into the rain.

I loved writing the first draft of my novel and felt bereft when it was finished. So I ask myself other questions: why does poetry always come first and last? Why do most of my ideas have line breaks in them? Why do my thoughts get shaped by a rhythm I associate with poems?

Watching Amy recently – the heartbreaking documentary about the life of Amy Winehouse – I was struck by her words in an early interview: “I don’t think I’m going to be famous… I don’t think I could handle it. I’d probably go mad.” Her words seemed hauntingly prescient as the film unfolded, dramatising the conflict Amy felt between writing songs, staying true to her art form, and the commercial pressures and obligations of the music industry. One of the reasons Amy gave for her logic (“I don’t think I’m going to be famous”) was that she was a jazz singer. She seemed to suggest that her medium was always going to be appreciated by the few rather than the many.

I think there’s a strange link to our assumptions about poetry here, and it gives poets a kind of freedom. If you’re a prose writer, fame is a distant but not impossible idea; some novelists get their books turned into films, or aspire to huge sales figures. Poetry books don’t usually get the same kind of coverage: engagement with them tends to be deep rather than broad. That doesn’t mean that poets don’t write with large audiences in mind (indeed, the work itself might aspire towards the universal). But poets don’t usually become famous in their lifetimes – it’s a joke that gets thrown about… the most famous poets are dead ones. Something about that knowledge can turn your attention inward, I think, and it can make you feel incredibly free when you write. Whatever the differences and the reasons for them, I’ve enjoyed expressing myself through poetry and prose over the last twelve months, finding I could write one when I wasn’t in the mood for the other. Long may the unexplained parallels continue.

Division Street by Helen Mort is published by Chatto & Windus. Helen will be reading from her work at the shop on 18 August, with fellow Chatto Poets Liz Berry and Sarah Howe.

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