Tuesday, April 27, 2004

As for opening remarks, excellent prose is often called poetic. Prosaic poetry, depending on who you talk to, if often called a failure. I would say that a prose poem is made a poem by its context, entirely. A prose poem in a book of short stories is called a short short (not to be confused with short shorts, huzza!); in a book of poems, it’s called a poem. I’m thinking especially of the excellent tiny bits in “Coast of Chicago” by Mr. Dybek. And the poem in Jim Galvin’s collected that is also a vignette (is this another can of worms?) in The Meadow. I also think of Jim’s poems (and those of many others) that let the sentence wrap around the page only to start the next sentence a line down.
Like this. (I can't get it to look right in the post!Like should line up with the period after "down". "It's" should line up with the period after "this")
It’s a kind of prose poem that has been pulled on from the top and bottom margins. It makes the period a line break and there’s no reason to ever think of it as prose because it looks like a poem. He’s maybe having his prose poem cake and eating it too? But these are just distinctions. I don’t think they are so different and care less about the differences than I do about the quality. Good’s good, no?

But the choice, or lack of, that you’re talking about it quite interesting and more to the point. I rarely write prose because it makes me feel almost opposite of what you’ve described. I feel more self-conscious, less free, less natural with the prose. Your instinct seems right. One needs to overcompensate with everything the language can do to make the prose sing. I think of the stretches of iambs in Moby Dick. Writing in prose must get the prose poem writer out of his/her mind long enough for bursts of language that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. But perhaps yoga, or a motorcycle ride, or lighting candles could do the same thing. Form’s then, maybe, a way of feeling about yourself and your capabilities.

I feel often naked writing prose. I guess we’re finally talking about how important the line break is and without the line break I feel I’m losing a great ally, especially when one wants to talk about rhythms of speech, which I think are less renderable without breaks. So what is a line break then? A complete mystery. They are perhaps what make poetry so re-readable. They are little vacuums that suck everything up at the end of a line. They are like punctuation, though less stable. They misbehave when you turn your back. They are agents of meaning as much as words are.

But to back up, I have been especially interested in the past two years in expressions, bits of idiomatic residue and their ability to usher in a context even more quickly than metaphor. A test case then: “I know you are but what am I” delivers one instantly to a time and place; petty, weak, though emphatic and mean. You’re at the schoolyard maybe or with a sibling. You’re young and ill equipped. And we can hear the natural cadence of the words at a glimpse (sing-songey, monosyllabic, slight pause between “are” and “but”). Some variations: “I know you are / but what am I” is most natural; I’d think it’s the way it gets said, though one could make an argument for the rapid fire line of prose in this case. However: “I know you are but / what am I?” implicates the self much more, brings an adult sensibility and well, hell, it’s existential. “I know you / are but what / am I?” stress on the “am” more emphatic, angrier; the you is written off right away. “I know / you are but what am / I?” there’s barely a self in this one. One could go on and on, the point being that I think no matter what, you read, even broken, the phrase as a whole. The line breaks make recommendations on how one is to feel in undertaking the utterance. If they don’t make meaning themselves, they fine-tune it. I see now I’ve been defending the line break rather than explaining the prose poem. In any case, without the line break, I feel less able to function poetically. I feel crippled form the get go (ha, ha). Perhaps, it is for someone else to defend the medium.

Luckily Nate your prose poems turn out well and it’s no surprise given the “rules” you’ve set for yourself in writing them, but I’d agree with Joe that there are a lot of bad ones because the poets feel opposite to you in writing them. They feel, I’d imagine, that they are “free” to be less poetic. A straightforward, lineated poem with simple diction and syntax can be saved from becoming prose by the line break (Heather McHugh,What He Thought, all things / move) In your case, it seems that you’re contorting yourself into a form while being conscious that it can’t always do what you want it to? To which I’d say, I wouldn’t want to crab walk to work, but a race down the beach is a hell of a thing.

Is it true Chris? Let’s see some of those.


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