A thesis is not a poem

In my post on why Procrastination is not your fault, I suggested that 

If you are a professional musician, a nano-microbiologist, a civil engineer, a poet, then focusing on detail, and going over and over small flaws and improving them is how you practice your craft. 

Now, in my other life, I actually am a poet. I win small prizes and am paid small fees and get small commissions. (So a real poet, but a very minor one). So I know whereof I speak when I claim (as I did in a recent consultation), ‘A thesis is not a poem’, and then I had to explain… so this is that explanation.

Paul Valéry (a significant modernist poet and critic), said:

A poem is never finished, only abandoned.

Poetry, and 20th-century poetry is my academic speciality, is quite a different kind of text from a doctoral thesis.  And in this post, I will talk about 3 ways that might help you to write.

1. You can say things in poetry that you can’t say in prose.  

As cool as the pale wet leaves
Of lily-of-the-valley
She lay beside me in the dawn. (Ezra Pound)

Translate that into prose and the experience disintegrates like cold wet leaf sludge.

In other words: a plan ≠ a thought ≠ a discussion ≠ a transcript ≠ academic prose

Remember that  brilliant idea that didn’t work when you tried to write it down? That illuminating insight from when you were talking about it with a colleague? That beautiful plan that wouldn’t turn into a chapter?

That’s because, for an idea to work in academic prose, it has to be in the form of academic prose.  It doesn’t mean your other knowledges or insights are wrong.  These are things that are true, that you can hear in the music, that you experienced in the field, that you feel, but they may not work in academic prose.

Academic prose is only one kind of knowledge, but it’s the one you’re being examined in.

2. In poetry, every word counts.

     ‘The Music Box’
I wound it up, a single sound,
That hurts my palms just like a wound,
And palm trees rustle in the wind,
I wind the clockwork round and round.

That poem would not work if I used another word, any other word, that was nearly the same, say ‘hand’ instead of ‘palm’; or if the line ended, say, with ‘single’, ‘rustle’ or ‘clockwork’.  The words that sound exactly the same but have different meanings (homophones), like ‘palm’, are set against the words that are written the same but said differently (homographs), like ‘wind’ and ‘wound’. The rhythm, the number of syllables per line, even the decision to have half rhymes (sound, wound, wind, round) are all very important details.

Academic prose is not like that. For starters, a typical sonnet is just over 100 words. A typical thesis can be 100,000 words. In a poem, every word and everything about the word matters.  In a thesis as long as the grammar is okay and the words are technically correct, it’s fine.  Mostly though, a poem is designed to be analysed, read closely, learned off by heart, read aloud. Your thesis should be read once, by a couple of examiners. 

3. And yet, even a poem is never finished, only abandoned.

The above poems are not perfect. Pound’s is an early work and mine was written to illustrate a blog post on the back of an envelope. They are good enough to put out there and not be embarrased about it, good enough to make my point… and still… not only did I not make the poem perfect, I couldn’t. 

If I can’t make 4 lines and 30 words (a single prose sentence) perfect, and I made 4 drafts, have been doing this for 20 years, and occasionally win prizes for it…  you are doomed if you are trying to do it for every sentence in your whole thesis.

Bonus 4. The imperfection of poetry is it’s power.

(Yes, I know I said 3 points. It’s my blog. I’m giving you something else free).

            ‘Three Things
‘O cruel Death, give three things back,’
Sang a bone upon the shore;
‘A child found all a child can lack,
Whether of pleasure or of rest,
Upon the abundance of my breast’:
A bone wave-whitened and dried in the wind.  (W.B.Yeats)

This poem is also not perfect. It leaves things out. It is incomplete.  Yet it is polished, carefully judged, and written by one of the greatest writers of the 20th century (and is one of his great poems).  The poem gains much of it’s power form the places where it decides to go no further.  It does not explain everything. It does not give quantifiable answers. It is not like mathematics, even the higher mathematics. It is not like sociology, or anthropology, or philosophy though it draws from these knowledge systems.

A doctoral thesis is incomplete. It does not record, exhaustively, everything about a given topic, it does not even record everything that you know about it. It is strictly limited, in scope, time and word count. 

A doctoral thesis is only 80-100,000 words, a representation in academic prose and some other schemata, of the kind of research that might be achieved in 3-5 years of full time study by someone who is new to scholarship; and it makes a small but defined original contribution to knowledge.

That is all.

So, a dissertation is not like a poem, except in that fact that all language, and all writing, is a limited means of communicating knowledge and truth… but nevertheless (or perhaps, in just that way), powerful because of its limits and focus.


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