People are always asking – or talking – about the difference between poetry and prose, and here is a great little thing to add to the collection. Michael Horovitz recently wrote a sort of obituary memoir in the Independent about the novelist Beryl Bainbridge, and in it he describes having asked her to write a little something about poetry for his Poetry Olympics festival and anthology ten years ago. (In it she refers to her novel According to Queeney.)
She sent him this:
“I know little about poetry, possibly because at school I was given to understand it was a separate discipline from that of prose. To this day I know by heart ‘The Slave’s Dream’, ‘The Lady of Shalott’, ‘A Highwayman came riding …’ and ‘They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead …’ In my head – which, although dependent upon my heart, is further away from it – I hold bits of TS Eliot, Auden and Louis MacNeice, most especially that poem by the latter which begins, ‘The sunlight on the garden / Hardens and grows cold …’
“Beyond these few examples, all learnt in childhood, I remain ignorant, and yet without them I would find it difficult to write prose, for I rely on the sound and rhythm of words when endeavouring to construct a sentence. To try to achieve this I say aloud everything I intend to write down, and not until it seems to me that the ‘tum-te-tums’ of what I am reciting have the right sound, do I commit the words to paper.
“For instance, when composing a paragraph to do with a post mortem of Dr Samuel Johnson in 1784, I originally wrote – ‘Reaching Windmill Street the cart was pulled into the yard of William Hunter’s School of Anatomy. The carpet was carried to the top floor and laid on a dissecting table … In the corner of the room, a dog, half-flayed, hung from a hook in the ceiling. Grey heavens touched the skylight.’
“This was eventually changed to – ‘… Arriving in Windmill Street the cart trundled into the yard etc … In the corner of the cosy room, a dog, half-flayed, hung from a hook in the ceiling; above, the grey heavens nudged the skylight.'”