It is not the birds and weather that defies the difference, though. Instead, it is how the poet approaches the subject matter. It is about what Nemerov says and let’s go unsaid, as well as the questions his writing leaves readers with at the end of ‘Because You Asked about the Line Between Prose and Poetry.’
Explore Because You Asked about the Line Between Prose and Poetry
‘Because You Asked about the Line Between Prose and Poetry’ by Howard Nemerov is a thoughtful depiction of the differences alluded to in the title.
The poem uses a snowy and rainy scene and the images of birds feeding to define the difference between “prose and poetry.” It is not a clear or obvious difference but one that requires some analysis to understand. This is part of the poet’s way of suggesting how poems are different from prose work. They require more interpretation and may leave the reader without a clear understanding of what every image means.
You can read the full poem here.
Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker introduces a very vivid image, something that occurs throughout the six lines of this short piece. He refers to “Sparrows” who were feeding in a drizzle of very cold rain. They were withstanding this hardship in order to eat. This, like all skilled poetry, should create a clear image in one’s mind of what the experience would look like, feel like, sound like, and more.
This is one of the integral ways that poetry is different from prose. Few prose writers will spend as much time on the details that Nemerov does in his poetry.
The speaker goes on, describing how “you,” the reader, were watching the sparrows and the rain, and suddenly it turned into snow. The temperature dropped, and the atmosphere changed. This smooth transition and the fact that the writer looped “you” into the poem are other elements that set poetry apart from prose.
The line “Riding a gradient invisible” comes next, followed by “From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.” These terms define the movement of the rain as it transitions into whiter and slower snow. Readers may also be inspired to imagine the snow landing on the sparrows’ backs, transforming the scene further.
There came a moment that you couldn’t tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.
The second stanza is a couplet, completing the scene and leaving readers to figure out their own interpretation. The speaker says that suddenly there was a moment that you “couldn’t tell” what was going on, how the snow, or perhaps the birds, were moving. This is also a reference to the title and the difference between poetry and prose. “You” couldn’t tell if you were reading one or the other. But, then, the birds/snow “clearly flew instead of fell.” They took flight, something that can be interpreted in different ways. Perhaps the poet was interested in suggesting that poetry is able to accomplish what prose is not or that when one realizes the difference, it becomes easier to see how similar they are to one another.
The poem itself sits somewhere on the line between the two. It uses poetic elements and prosaic ones.
Structure and Form
‘Because You Asked about the Line Between Prose and Poetry’ by Howard Nemerov is a two-stanza poem that is divided into a set of four lines, known as a quatrain, and a set of two lines, known as a couplet. The first four lines follow a rhyme scheme of ABCB, with the “A” and “C” end words, “drizzle” and “invisible” serving as half-rhymes. The second stanza is a couplet. The two end words “tell” and “fell” are perfect rhymes.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound a the beginning of multiple words. For example, “silver” and “slow” in line four of the first stanza and “flew” and “fell” in line two of the second stanza.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before the natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza as well as lines three and four of that stanza.
The purpose is, as the title suggests, to show the differences, or lack thereof, between prose and poetry. There are some differences one can interpret, such as a focus on imagery and detail, as well as a willingness to leave things unexplained. But, they are also quite similar as well.
It is seen throughout the poem as the poet describes the rain, the snow, the way the birds are feeding, and “your” reaction to all of it. The poem is a beautiful example of how heavily short lines of poetry can rely on imagery.
The meaning is that through a few lines and several vivid images, poetry can tell a whole story. While prose, on the other hand, needs multiple paragraphs, pages, and chapters to do the same. Poetry is okay with leaving the reader with a few words and questions when the writing is over.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some related pieces. For example:
- ‘In a Station of the Metro’ by Ezra Pound – the quintessential Imagist poem. Using very few words, he paints a clear and unforgettable image.
- ‘September’ by Ted Hughes – a moving poem that touches on a troubled and important relationship.
- ‘Poetry’ by Marianne Moore – a in which the speaker, who is likely Moore herself, discusses her feelings about poetry.