Creative non-fiction / April 2018 (Issue 39)

The Problem of Poetry and Prose Poetry (1921)

by Hirato Renkichi, translated into English by Sho Sugita

The "problem of poetry and prose poetry," to be more specific, is the "problem of formal poetry and prose poetry." By providing a new interpretation of what has become known as prose poetry, I think I can remove the dividing line between the two forms of poetry.

Instead of vaguely claiming something as poetry, or in a broader sense claiming something as poetic, a standard of poetry and prose is created when observing the existence of both its interior and exterior forms, by which there is then no meaning in calling something "poetry written in prose." Considering this point, the term "prose poetry" is impure, and there is no need to place a term for this particular form of poetry.

Recent criticisms I hear from people outside of poetry coteries are from reasons similar to the aforementioned mischaracterisation that is a result of their insufficient understanding of poetry. Certain people say that we adapt free verse to prose or direct translation, forgetting the immediacy of the interior form created by the unique rhythms of the Japanese language, ultimately creating a mere passage or line of prose, and that our works should fall from the level of pure poetry to the world of prose. Certain other people, and I certainly sympathise with them, say that poetry coteries nowadays only lineate what should have been prose to begin with.

While accepting this point of view, another critic takes some prose written by a novelist and vaguely critiques it as poetry. There is a contradiction in describing poetry written by a poet as prose, and there is also a contradiction in describing prose written by a poet as poetry. Criticism of poetry should justly come from critics with a deep understanding and experience of writing poetry. For example, even if critics outside of poetry coteries with relatively better understanding of poetry were to write a favorable critique, there will be many contradictions, and it will be no more than a superficial observation on the surface of poetry. They only peek at the trend of the poetry coteries, with no sympathy to provide guidance, and their tendency to forcefully pressure the coteries can be seen as a paradox.

With poetry coteries establishing new poetry these days, it could be the crudeness of our poetry that various conditions of impurities and disorder cannot be avoided. However, I cannot accept the reckless language that claims our poems are direct translations of free verse from foreign countries or that our works only convert horizontally written lines to vertical lines. Look, this condition of disorder today is all an absorption and synthesis under the premise of creating a new culture, whether in politics, law, industry or all of the intellect you possess. Moreover, is the wild Europeanisation and imitation not unavoidable? In addition, we are not stupid enough to say that we are satisfied with the imitation and formal borrowings of our imported ideologies, or in other words, with mere "prosification." We are powered by something more active than that. Even in terms of free verse, the style itself is not a special privilege to France, but because by chance it was refined in France, certain poetic movements in France just happen to have benefited from substantiating their works. Poets of each and every country were strengthened by this, and they eventually drew strong attention to themselves.

However, when I reflect and see my poetry coterie, I do see the reasons worthy of criticism. Firstly, regarding the criticism of poetry being too prosey, as I will mention later, is something of a tendency in the Japanese language; however, even putting that aside, I can't help but to think that for the past forty-five years, poets' attitudes have been too capricious. As mentioned before, poets trying to combat this dire, uncultured and disorderly generation will not find success in asserting their passion with static rhythm. In lyric poetry, passion is an interior form constructed by the rhythm of language, and as that interior form immediately emerges as an exterior form, waves of breath and passion construct rhythm, thereby creating a poetic form—this is a hackneyed explanation already discussed by most poets. And because those waves of passion are all too active and complex, as the degree of merging and fracturing intensified, there was resentment towards poets who became too verbose and descriptive. All poets know these delicate negotiations of too much and too little, but because they had too fierce a passion, too many sentiments and became too capricious, they broke through the barrier of prose and poetry, and, from the layman's point of view, I think they are observed in a negative light.

Now, the negligence of terminology is also a problem faced by the tendency of prosification, and though it warrants the discontent and criticism towards today's poetry, this is also a problem originating from the purity and impurity of our own language. The vagueness and unmusical form and characteristics of the Japanese language directly functions as a way to present our inner passion, and I cannot fathom how much of an unprofitable position we are placed in, considering language as the ingredients used by the most tightly organised poets. However, even if we put aside this essential balance, I cannot deny that poets are too imprecise and obtuse. When considering how Mr. Homei simply claimed free verse as prose poetry, confusing the two terms for the same poet's works, the fact that he was unrepentant about this use is a point that poets should be greatly aware of.

Though I have somewhat digressed over the course of this conversation with a poet's apology for the criticism against our poetry coteries' tendency towards prosification, I would like to provide a fact to explain, from a different perspective, how my free verse could possibly have a greater tendency towards prosification. That is to say, the characteristics of our language are more apt to narrate in prose than to sing as poetry. I think this is not only an issue of our language having deficient or weak accents compared to other languages, but rather that the language is easier to lean towards exposition or description. At the same time that my free verse tend towards prosification, I think the turn towards cultivating what we currently call "prose poetry" is not necessarily useless. I mentioned in the beginning that prose poetry is not simply a mix-breed of prose and poetry, but that it is a kind of formal poetry in its own right. I should now think about my reasoning behind coming to this conclusion.


Recently, a Parisian publisher called La Connaissance published two posthumous titles by Laforgue, Chroniques parisiennes – Ennuis non rimés and Dragée, both which collect fragmented records and memos. These are good records of Laforgue's ideology, the philosophy he embraced and the hidden engravings of his mind, but at the same time, they also provide interesting ingredients for meditation. This poet's notebook is the most candid expression of honest inward thoughts, and looking at the fragments of simple phrases and panting marginalia, they are more unrestricted than what can be piled inside formal poetry, with more ups and downs, becoming a tool to show the development of remarkable inward thoughts. I can see this as a book of good repute for aptly demonstrating poème en prose. In order to express the wide-ranging and free-spirited passion of these poems, I can also understand why recent poets have explored the forms of modern prose poetry.

I will explore here the prose-poem translations by Amy Lowell printed at the end of Six French Poets. If the breath is sought after tracing the outlines, one could call upon the ambience of the original poet, and it would not be hard to capture its appearance. While a complete translation is inconceivable, translated poems are neither impossible nor meaningless. Translated poems, however, are prosifications of original poems, and it is not possible to precisely locate where the original poem sings with a direct experience of passion.

Considering this, though vague, a demarcation is made between formal poetry, prose poetry (a type of formal poetry) and regular prose. In other words, what should be sung is poetry, what should be sung with more narrative particles than song particles is prose poetry, and what is removed of song particles or what should be narrated is prose.

The position of prose poetry is of course a shift in values for what should be sung, while what should be narrated or explained are reduced to a methodology. The change in muscles, reproduction of a person's (if any are introduced) personality, a precise sketch of nature—there is no necessity for these things. It is only a momentary prosification, where the small container from times past cannot hold onto the fiercely free-spirited passion, and that passion spilled out of the container. The always luxe and multi-faceted Paul Fort made a séjour of this, and nothing could be more suspicious than if he were to start rhyming. Thus, by using this type of printing methodology, Paul Fort attempts to create the integration of flexible, impressionistic, diverse and organic rhythms.

I do not know when our country started creating prose poetry, but if I look at the range of common usage for this term, the following five definitions come to mind:

1 Short stories with a lyrical tendency

2 A sketch by means of novelistic mimesis

3 A scene within a full-length novel with superior mimesis (in this case, the particular scene is considered poetry)

4 To perceive free verse in current poetry coteries as prose poetry

5 In a vague sense, putting the particularities of the four aforementioned conditions aside, to perceive these as one form.

1–3 are beside the question, 4 holds a special meaning (as explained in the previous paragraph), and I recognise 5 as the most evolved form, though I haven't touched upon a clear explanation of this. I think this new form will thrive in our poetry coteries in the near future. And I hope that the new form will mature with time.

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.