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Punjab Notes: Prose writing: orality, force of habit and underdevelopment

Mushtaq Soofi

December 3rd, 2016

 

 

Poetry precedes prose in all human societies, history of writing unambiguously tells us. Poetry comes perhaps naturally to human beings. But this seems to be a half truth. One can assert that how poetry can be natural when what it rests on is not natural.

Human speech whether you call it an invention or something else, is not a product of nature. What you find in nature is sound, not human speech. In simple words, language is purely a human product developed in the long human evolution spread over tens of thousands of years.

Since language is not a natural product how specific linguistic construct called poetry can be declared natural which expresses a higher level of command over language?

So poetry precedes prose not because it’s natural but due to the fact that it can bring forth the hidden power of language with an overwhelming effect.

Secondly it is structured in a manner that makes it possible for human memory to retain it. Retentive memory transmitted to us poetry of ancient times when written word was non-existent or rare. Retentive memory preserved the riches poetry offered and was in turn enriched by such retention.

Poetic expression had been highly suitable for man for a very long stretch of time when here lied heavily on his intuitive and imaginative faculties.

Intuition and imagination more than logic and rationality have been and still are some of the defining features of poetry. But in the evolutionary process man gradually learnt how to employ logic and rational thinking in conducting human affairs and affairs of the world he has been forced to interact with since time immemorial.

Practice of prose writing is commensurate with the level of use of logic, rationality and empirical thinking in a society. Not that poetry is illogical, irrational and non-empirical. It’s mainstay are some other human faculties and whenever it employs elements of logic, rationality and empiricism, main objective is invariably to enhance emotional and psychic impact in the sense of making credible what is being expressed.

If we look at the globe and spot developed and developing countries, we can discover that the former produce more prose and the latter more poetry.

When we take our society as an example, we come across innumerable poets and a handful of prose writers which makes it abundantly clear that ours is a developing country, a euphemism for an underdeveloped society. Not that we don’t have cerebrum.

We do have it but socio-intellectual development of our society is at such a low point that it doesn’t encourage the use of tools that help people nurture cogency of logic and clarity of rational thinking.

Here we find poets a dime a dozen because poetry or poetry like something is much easier to produce. In our cultural context poetry is mostly created for the ear, not for the eye i.e. reading.

Creating a traditional structure and rhythmic pattern is neither time consuming nor intellectually demanding. Rehashing of what has already been expressed in one way or the other doesn’t require special skill or conditions. You can compose verses anytime anywhere with the help of poetic conventions you are familiar with.

But writing prose is not that easy, not that it’s more complex. Linguistically speaking good poetic constructs are more complex than good constructions of prose, fiction and nonfiction.

What prose writing requires is an organised thinking process (however imaginative it may as in the case of fiction) which includes mental concentration, clarity of thought and familiarity with logic, empirical data and power of inference.

Ambiguity in poetry can stir your imagination but ambiguity in a piece of prose can make your mind befuddled. Amazing paradox that same thing in two different contexts, that of poetry and prose, produces contradictory results.

That’s what the hidden charms of language expose us to. So prose writing needs time and dedicated long spells. Writers in our society need respite from the worries of livelihood in order to have time for writing. Secondly, writings when published in the form of book don’t sell. Writers are not paid decent royalty because publishers don’t find the whole business profitable. How can a society sustain writers if it doesn’t buy what they get published.

Issue of language also plays a significant role: bulk of writings is in languages that are alien for the people. Writings in the peoples’ languages are a few because of lack of official patronage and low literacy rate.

Writers are usually from middle classes with meagre financial resources. A writer has to do a job to make a living which has nothing to do with creative act of writing. Writing is thus reduced into a part time hobby, not a fulltime job. Such a part time work results in half-baked products making them more unsalable.

Another factor responsible for the paucity of prose writings is sheer intellectual laziness which is in a way a by-product of our longstanding association and obsession with orality.

Orality has historically played a great role in illiterate societies (every society has been illiterate at some point of time) in the transmission of knowledge generated by previous generations. Oral tradition, one may say, made verbalised expression function like written word.

In a less literate culture like ours, the increased propensity to verbalise becomes a habit with many a wise person. Such a habit becomes an unbearable burden in the days when the primacy of written is unquestionable.

And treacherously frustrating is one’s effort to fight against the force of habit. Changing habit means changing the conditions responsible for its forming. But that’s easier said than done.

Thus for the moment we will have to live with undercooked prose and stodgy poetry which are not easy on the eye and the ear. So beware of prose and poetry; both may be hazardous for your mental and emotional well-being. — soofi01@hotmail.com

 
 

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