Rebecca Brown: The Poetics of Prose

Fall '06 TOC

  Writers have been fretting about the distinctions between poetry and prose for a long time. I want to start today with some things some other writers have said about the relationship and/or distinction between poetry and prose. I'm not going to tell you who said what now, but I will at the end of my talk. For now, I just want you to just listen to what they have to say without regard to whether the speaker is primarily a poet or writer of prose or both.

1:           Who has not dreamed, in moments of ambition, of the miracle of poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, subtle and staccato enough to follow the lyric motions of the soul, the wavering outlines of meditation the sudden start of the conscience?

2:           In my opinion, the time has arrived to essentially break down the barriers of form between prose and poetry.

3:           The distinction between "verse" and "prose" is clear; the distinction between "poetry" and "prose" is very obscure . . . I object to the term "prose poetry" because it seems to me to imply a sharp distinction between poetry and prose. which I do not admit, and if it does not imply this distinction, the term is meaningless and obtuse, as there can be no combination of what is not distinguished.

4:            . . . In poetry you just give instructions to the reader and say, "Reader, you go on from here." And what I like about poetry is its readers, because those are giving people. . . . those are people you can trust to get the job done. They pull their own weight. . . . I could not stand to write prose. I could not stand to write things like "the draperies were burnt orange and the carpet was brown." So please don't ask me for a little trail of bread crumbs to get from the smile to the bedroom and from the bedroom to the death and the then although you can ask me a lot about death. That's all I like, the very beginning and the very end. I haven't got the stomach for the rest of it.

Need I mention that this last writer is saying all of this about not being able to stomach what you "have to" do in prose during the course of writing a piece of prose?

5:           Poetry should be as well written as prose.

Now, because I understand things best in story, I want to tell you an anecdote from my life, the life of a writer of prose.
A number of years ago I did a reading after which a poet came up to me and said some nice things about what I read, but then he asked, "Hey, did you realize that that first piece you read was in iambic pentameter?" I think this guy was trying to give me a compliment, and I was grateful for that, but part of me also kind of wanted to slug him. I mean, I had written the piece. It may have been "mere" prose but I had sweat blood over every syllable of it, revised every phrase and line and sentence at least 40 times. Though what I write does go all the way to the right hand margin, which, when it comes down to it, may be the only thing that distinguishes prose from poetry, this does not mean that I know nothing about the shapes of traditional poetry. Like any former English major, I learned about and love stuff like Marlowe's "mighty line" and Anglo-Saxon ballad form and how to count syllables. What bugged me about this guy's response to my piece was his assumption that because I write prose I am unaware of form.
I also realize, however, that this guy was not unique.
Too often when people think of "prose" they think of the prose of mainstream, pulp or genre fiction, or just plain awful writing—prose that cares more for plot, dialogue or action than language. Or spends too much time describing, as the writer I quoted earlier lamented, "the burnt orange color of drapes" and exactly how the characters got from the smile to the bedroom. This kind of prose, and there is a lot of it, does not care about nuance or suggestion, about rhythm, word choice, etc. But assuming that all prose is like that is about as enlightened as assuming all that poetry rhymes or is about flowers or can fit onto a Greeting, Birthday or Sorry For Your Loss card. Or even that it's about the quiet moment of revelation some middle aged male professor has as he is taking his dog for a walk and suitable for publication in the New Yorker.
I didn't come up with that thing about the professor on the dog walk revelation school of poetry, by the way. I read it somewhere, the dearly beloved Rain Taxi maybe.
Too much of the time, though, the prose of mainstream fiction is sloppy, careless, hasty and the kind of stuff that gives prose a bad name. But there is some prose, maybe even some you just think of as a kind of machine for delivering content that is actually very consciously written in an apparently styleless style that is fact designed to be transparent, pure as a glass of water. Or prose that appears merely workmanlike but is an artifice constructed to create the illusion of simplicity or "naturalness."
And there is some prose writing is as multilayered and resonant, as worthy and demanding of rereading as good poetry. When novelist and essayist William Gass read at Elliot Bay book store in Seattle, Rick Simonson, who did the introduction, recited a paragraph of Gass's like it was poetry. And it was poetry, each word and syllable, each phrase and sound, meriting the attention good poetry merits. It was just that Gass had chosen the form of the paragraph as opposed to the line. A lot of prose could stand up to this memorize-it-like poetry standard: Some passages of Iranian novelist Sharnush Parsipur's WOMEN WITHOUT MEN, at least in the translation I read, the first paragraph of Hemingway's A FAREWELL TO ARMS, Beckett, some of Marilyn Robinson's HOUSEKEEPING and Ann Michaels' FUGITIVE PIECES, lots of Michael Ondaatje, even that dear ol' faggot Henry James.
Part of what I like is that these passages of gorgeous, resonant, beautiful, careful words are written in prose. Prose is a more humble seeming form, a form that looks from first sight mere. You look at it and think, I can handle that, it's "just" a story. But that as you read it, you slow down and read more bloodfully, more bodily. A rhythm emerges in your body as you read the words. Or an image loops and opens, disappears, implodes. You are reading along and you stop and say, Wait, I need to read that again. Then you reread and hear all the different things happening within and between these words. This gradual revelation is different from poetry which announces itself visually by how it looks on the page—short lines or broken lines, as opposed to the blocks of paragraph form. Whether you realize it or not, you approach poetry looking for certain things—sound or imagery or cut words. I think what I am getting at is, when I see a page of something that looks like poetry, I get a little nervous. I have to gear up to read it, like, By god, this thing is supposed to deliver so I better gird my little loins. Whereas with prose I see it and go, OK, so here's some writing, whatever. If it's bad writing, so what, most popular prose is. But if it's really good writing, I am slowly, slyly, deliciously enticed. I am seduced by the subtle things that only present themselves to me as I get to know the piece of prose the way we, are expected to have to get to know poetry. Maybe part of what this boils down to is that I am still intimidated by poetry.
That quotation I read at the start about readers of poetry being people "You can trust to get the job done. They pull their weight." I love that. I love the idea of the working relationship between the writer or the text and the reader who encounters it. And I think that, as I prose writer, I like to sneak up on that relationship.
In several of my books there are passages where, when I was writing them, I went back and forth trying to decide if I would print the words on the page in paragraph form, i.e. indent the first sentence and then create a more or less rectangular block of words that goes all the way to the right hand margin, or whether I should just show my hand and print the thing out in the iambic pentameter or ballad or whatever form that would visually cue the reader to the rhythm or emphasis they would encounter when they actually got down to reading the words. Would I make the rhymes and half-rhymes and parallel structures and whatever else visually obvious or would I, sneakily, hope that a reader would, at some point in her reading, realize that she is reading in some kind of regular walking or breathing or davening rhythm that then surprisingly, ecstatically breaks apart when the piece gets to some dramatic climax, uh, plot point? Maybe this whole "sneaking up on a relationship" thing is tied in with being homo in the times and cultures (I came out in print in l983) where overt signs of gayness could be dangerous, get you kicked out of wherever or simply scare people off. In any event, I usually I have not printed those passages out in "poetry" form but left them as prose, hoping a "poetry like" reader will detect the subversive signals therein and embrace my secret little poem-like thing that is passing as prose.
But I don't really know. Because in the same way that I am not a poet, I am also not a theorist. To the degree that I understand, I understand not abstractions or expansions or overarchings, but in specifics: in stories. So let me tell you another story.

Several years after the incident I told you about at the start of this talk, where the poet asked me if I knew what iambic pentameter was, I had a similar, but sort of obverse experience. It was another group reading and I read a new story. After the reading, another writer, a playwright this time, came up to me and said, "I loved your poem." "My poem?" I said, thinking she had confused me with another reader. "Yeah," she said, "the piece about . . . " and she went on to describe my story. She had really been listening and she had heard a poem. When I figured this out, I was thrilled. I loved the fact that this playwright—and if a playwright isn't someone who is always knocking around in some weird nether world between prose and poetry, then I don't know who is—had heard what I had read as poetry. This time, because she didn't assume I didn't know what a poem was, I took her comment as a compliment. Does this mean that I am a closet poet? A self-loathing prose-o-phobe? Beats me.
But whatever I am, I am not alone. I started this talk by telling you some things that other writers who have been writing about the distinctions between poetry and prose have written. Let me tell you who those writers of poetry or prose or whatever it is are:

1:           Who has not dreamed of the miracle of poetic prose . . . —Baudelaire

2:           The time has arrived to essentially break down the barriers of form between prose and poetry.
— Whitman

3:           I object to the term "prose poetry" because it seems to me to imply a sharp distinction between poetry and prose. which I do not admit.           —T. S. Eliot

4:           What I like about poetry is its readers . . . those are people you can trust to get the job done. . . . That's all I like, the very beginning and the very end. I haven't got the stomach for the rest of it.
Lynn Emanuel, in an essay called "The Politics of Narrative—Why I am a Poet."

and finally, from a letter written to Harriet Monroe:
Poetry should be as well written as prose. —Ezra Pound

I agree.

___________________

—From a panel on THE POETICS OF PROSE, NAROPA UNIVERSITY, SWP 2006

 

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