In an ongoing conversation with a novelist friend about their respective genres, Billy Collins said yesterday as the guest speaker at the National Writing Project annual meeting that “Poetry is a bird. Prose is a potato.” I wonder if he really means it — because I’ve met some potato poems and some bird prose in my time.
It may be that Collins pays prose a compliment — prose feeds us, does the hard, earthy work of conveying information, telling stories. Poetry does those things, too. But does he mean that prose is the workhorse of language? That can be both compliment and insult — especially if poetry’s birdiness takes us places, wings us up to the airy spots of imagination and beauty. But then poetry can also be flighty. And not in a good way.
Given Collins’ penchant for poking fun at everything, including himself, I suspect he means all those things. So while at first listen, “Poetry is a bird. Prose is a potato” sounds like an insult — and when we all laughed, I assumed the joke was at prose’s expense — that may not be so. I imagine potato-prose hopping on the back of bird-poetry, and the two of them flying next to eagles. When poetry gets hungry, it takes a bite out of prose. When prose gets bored, it shifts its perch for a startling view.