Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
James Rother

Between Poetry and Prose: A Critical Ballet in Three Scenes


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Construire un poème qui ne contienne que poésie est  impossible.

Si une pièce ne contient que poésie, elle n’est pas construite; elle n’est pas une poème. 

          ―Paul Valéry, Tel Quel


          That poetry often hides its light in a bushel of serviceable prose ligatures is something we tend less to forget than work at banishing from our minds intentionally. Just as to some, the writings of an Ammons or an Ashbery offend by thrusting the sentence, already fronting the poet’s insensate thought, further along toward its proscenium’s edge, at times by adopting the hectoring tone of a lecturer and at others by simply extending lines from the page’s far-left margin all the way to the far right. We easily lose sight of how near to the fourteener’s margin of errancy much traditional verse routinely strays, and that does not exclude poems in which metrical regularity is not so much a disguise as the formal donning of a masque (no, that’s not a spelling error) by other means. Consider for a moment Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella. There, surely, is a poem which, rather than hugging the shore with embalming timidity, embraces the sea with all its unplumbed fathoms as both trusted friend and colloquial familiar:

Loving in truth, and faine in verse my love to show,

                        That the deare She might take some pleasure of my paine:

                        Pleasure might cause her reade, reading might make her know,

                        Knowledge might pitie winne, and pitie grace obtaine,

                         I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,

                        Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertaine:

                        Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow

                        Some fresh and fruitfull showers upon my sunne-burn’d braine. . . . 

          Hard as it might be not to sacrifice intimacy when steering an off-road vehicle chuffing dodecasyllabics, Sidney was clearly one to essay such multi-tasking. What kept his verse from more than an occasional descent into blabber was the innovative way, locked and loaded within a syntactic frame suggesting anything but a hunter provisioned for big game, it stalked its imagery. In more recent times, poets like Ashbery have sounded the angelus of the New by reversing Sidney-esque dynamics and letting the somewhat daffy interlocutor of his verse blow smoke-rings of surmise into an air pocket heavily polluted with a turgidity for which the network of tightasses promoting greater cultural anality can take full credit:

                        Barely tolerated, living on the margin

                        In our technological society, we were always having to be rescued

                        On the brink of destruction, like heroines in Orlando Furioso

                        Before it was time to start all over again.

                        There would be thunder in the bushes, a rustling of coils,

                        And Angelica, in the Ingres painting, was considering

                        The colorful but small monster near her toe, as though wondering,

                                    whether forgetting

                        The whole thing might not, in the end, be the only solution.

                        And then there always came a time when

                        Happy Hooligan in his rusted green automobile

                        Came plowing down the course, just to make sure everything

                                    was O.K.,

                        Only by that time we were in another chapter and confused

                        About how to receive this latest piece of information.

                        Was it information? Weren’t we rather acting this out

                        For someone else’s benefit, thoughts in a mind

                        With room enough and to spare for our little problems (so they

                                    began to seem),

                        Our daily quandary about food and the rent and bills to be paid? . . . 

         But then, poems like “Soonest Mended” (just quoted) are notoriously the outgrowth of distractions encouraging contours of enticing irrelevance to conform themselves to the shapes (ever decomposing) of mindfulness left to idle on the shoulder of life’s via dolorosa—though this achieves little more than raising to the exponent of the highfalutin the conventional wisdom that prose (albeit in a disorderly form) remains: a) the natural medium of the mind in repose; or b) the loquacious equivalent of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “solitary walker’s reverie” as picturesquely limned in his slim book of that title (pick one). For prose must also be—if information theorists are to be believed—a sparse flatland traversable by information without whose authority the medium cannot master the circumstantial and lay claim to the consequential, a feat attainable by none but the greatest poems, and then only by plurisignative default of all but the strongest qualifiers able to offset sublimity’s Grand Design. The revolutionary assault launched by Rimbaud on convention-laden verse in the 1860’s and 1870’s was originally an effort designed to revivify a French prose flogged to bloody bits by futuristic Pharisees intent on earning Hugo awards for stentorian valor, but soon assumed the character of a crusade against mediocre Parnassien-isme too drenched in attar of roses to sniff out le fin du monde en avançant springing up everywhere around them. 

          The problem with most asseverations seeking to sever poetry from prose is that they are so finely granulated that they preclude the posing of certain basic ontogenetic questions without whose input the problem of just what (rather than where) poetry proceeds from, or how its operating system accommodates itself to the passing phenomenological scene as something parsable rather than a mere eidolon which meaning courts with little but flirtation on its mind dissolves into a plethora of survey-course evasions. What devotees of “pure poetry” have never been able to wrap their minds around is the nefarious inherency found in language which can make it appear a “monstrosity of disseminative différance” to worshippers of Joyce and others eager to associate polyphiloprogenitive atom-smashings like Finnegans Wake with actual particle accelerators such as The Book of Kells. Watching over the last decade or two the most recent wave of poststructuralists do their Derridean thing with an avidity redolent of proctologists on crack has for many lovers of literature been something they would not like soon to see repeated. Even the atypicalities of a Paul Célan, however recursive their clenched poetics, remain keyed to prose skeletons without whose minimalist ribcages even the bleakest cerementary sackcloths could fail to interiorize a semantic shape. As much as the flight of “prose paraphrasability” from a Mallarmé sonnet might resemble jetées of fat globules in a sauté-pan ballet, the nimbus thrown up by all those implosions of lipidity is as reducible to the “good cholesterol” of grammar and Wittgensteinian analyzability as any Nonsense poem by Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. Fortunately, the awareness of the dangers posed to poetry by over-wide pendulum swings away from conventional prosaics returns every generation or so like the good penny we would be well advised to take it for. The reason for this is not far to seek, since with a providentiality that is as magical as the re-appearance of the phenomenon itself, there almost always appears alongside it a Rimbaud, a Whitman, or a William Carlos Williams who, with a sequence of stunning veronicas, turns aside the stampede of poetasters determined to obscure all naturally lucid advertence with flushings of rhetoric aimed at convincing the credulous that the metallic quackery of mechanical ducks of the sort for which the 18th Century French illusionist Vaucanson was known is nothing less than whole-cloth oracularism on the wing.  

Imagine “Western Wynde” without its bowsprit of indemnity against sehnsucht; or an Anne Sexton verse-camisole without its unfastenable—“Wait, Mister”—hook-and-eye; or a Shakespeare sonnet without its rock-steady terminal cadence providing its separation-grief with sufficient closure to hold it until the next pairing of octave and sestet in the sequence commences. It’s neither possible nor for that matter even desirable to do so—though praising poetry unalloyed by Fregean Sinn is still de rigueur in circles unrattled by the until-now persistent lull in the “poem as food-fight” approach to Bedeutung embraced by the Fanny Howe/Alice Notley school of drip-dry poetics. The mastery of expression in prose is, as Northrop Frye pointed out years ago in a Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1962) article, a much more sophisticated development culturally than the vast pre-history of gists and piths chalked up by scops, skalds, and others who made the dipodic a hospicious half-way house between split-screen heroics and the unified sensibility. While not necessarily superior to the oneirically fertilized ova of visionary pumpkin-eaters, verse may itself be said to function as a midpoint between the blurts and charms of “naked poetry” and the Escher-like allurements of a steroid-enhanced prose with attitude. Which latter, by the way, is in no sense a kissing cousin of conversational speech, whose heartily un-Escher-like tropisms communicate more through what may be seen falling through its cracks than via anything likely to ally it with what language theorists like John R. Searle term “speech acts.” Prose is idealized talk, which analogizes it to wordage thrown on the potter’s wheel of molten locutions and manually rounded idiomatics rather than runic haikus or bits of Snyder-esque “rip-rap.” Among its consanguinities not too far removed is the sort of “associational poetry” that Amy Lowell drew the ire of Ezra Pound for having blithely tossed off and which Wallace Stevens carved into sand sculptures as tidally swampable as his early “O Florida, Venereal Soil”—

                        A few things for themselves,

                        Convolvulus and coral,

                        Buzzards and live-moss,

                        Tiestas from the keys,

                        A few things for themselves,

                        Florida, venereal soil,

                        Disclose to the lover.


                        The dreadful sundry of this world,

                        The Cuban, Polodowsky,

                        The Mexican women,

                        The negro undertaker

                        Killing the time between corpses

                        Fishing for crayfish . . .

                        Virgin of boorish births,


                        Swiftly in the nights,

                        In the porches of Key West,

                        Behind the bougainvilleas,

                        After the guitar is asleep . . . . 

At the furthest end of the same Freudian fort-da may be noted the here-and-there’s of Gertrude Stein and her guild of zanies which dilates to take in even the spot-on minstrel-wanderings into sublimity of a Louis Zukofsky, though the author of “A” would doubtless disaffirm any direct linkage with bric-a-brac from Stein’s atelier. Her repetitive incrementality may be less regimented than that normally encountered in stanzaic poetry, but its inchworm progresses are less tolerant of internal variation than much verse parceled out in regular line-forms. The categorials of Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914)—“Objects,” “Food,” “Rooms”—exhaust their potential for sound and conjuration not through embracing the precinctual ceintures of the prose poem but by extending the Soviet-era “sound poem’’s demesne deeper and more extenuatingly into full-blown incantorials than the run-of-the-mill prose litany of non-particulars. Take, for instance, “Apple” from her “Food” column:

             Apple, plum, carpet steak, seed clam, colored wine, calm

            seen, cold cream, best shake, potato, potato and no no gold

            work with pet, a green seen is called bake and change sweet

            is bready, a little piece, a little piece please.

             A little piece please. Come again to the presupposed and

            ready eucalyptus tree, count out sherry and ripe plates and

            little corners of a kind of ham. This is use. 

          Here, Stein’s “prose” (the scare quotes cannot be dispensed with) is crumbly as tea-cake, yet remains prose beyond the claims of all other proclivities, despite its laying out with carbon chain-like mappability what is among the strangest gastronomical itineraries on record. Poetry, though itself associational by dint of license afforded by its tropes, averts succumbing to the crumblies unless through loss of control due to such things as pilot error, it becomes indecently conjoined with morsels of talk. Its atoms, favoring aggregation in colloidal masses, careen beyond the orbit of trackable particles (and particulars) with which prose routinely consorts, gravitating irresistibly towards the metaphorical (as opposed to the metonymic), the self-reversible (as opposed to the self-identifying), and irrefragable (as opposed to the distinctional and extrapolative). As soon imagine a diamond reduced to dust by a human fist as envisage a symbol reduced to its constituent signs by a parsing hammer. A metaphor—and what are symbols if not categorical limits arbitrarily imposed upon exponentially expandable metaphors?—has the consistency, indeed the viscosity, of a globule of mercury: it can be broken down only into smaller, less scrunchable versions of itself. Which is precisely why prose resists globulization with all the force at its disposal, consenting to be other than narrative, or discourse, or memorandum fodder only when its play of semes and apparencies find the siren-call of the self-referential resistible in no other way. 

            Since the ascendancy of Vladimir Mayakovsky during the bad-seed infancy of the Soviet Union, poets have tried aerating the spaces around their verses’ lapidary sonics with imagistic tumult where syntax would otherwise hold sway. The results have more often broached the hazy, mazy subfusc of Lauterbacchanalia than anything that martyred revolutionary could have imagined. A few superb exceptions to this put-down of “overdetermining” poetics could be adduced, but passable instances of poetry that have emerged from that draught cupboard unscathed are, to say the least, few and far between. In recent times, in fact, only the finest of John Berryman’s “dream songs” and a scattering of like miracles would survive such winnowing. “26” of Berryman’s cycle most certainly does, towering over nearly all of its 384 bunkmates in having found a third way to go on giving in defiance of giving over or giving up:

                        The glories of the world struck me, made me aria, once.

                        ―What happen then, Mr. Bones?

                        if be you cares to say.

                        ―Henry. Henry became interested in women’s bodies,

                        his loins were & were the scene of stupendous achievement.

                        Stupor. Knees, dear. Pray.


                        All the knobs & softnesses of, my God,

                        the ducking & trouble it swarm on Henry,

                        at one time.

                        ―What happen then, Mr. Bones?

                        you seem excited-like.

                        ―Fell Henry back into the original crime: art, rime


                        besides a sense of others, My God, my God,

                        and a jealousy for the honour (alive) of his country,

                        what can get more odd?

                        and discontent with the thriving gangs & pride.

                        ―What happen then, Mr. Bones?

                        ―I had a most marvellous piece of luck. I died. 

Twenty years ago, in a poem titled “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky,” Frank Bidart strip-mined a like vein in order to infuse a tale of a famous Russian dancer’s homoerotic woes with much the same crackling nervous energy as drove his subject to ever more terrifying heights and depths. And yet, for all the disjunctive fragmentariness of its projection, Bidart’s “War” gives us a Nijinsky parceled—some might say “Diaghilev-ed”—out into panels of discretely choreographed prose. It may be a prose “gone ballistic,” but its electrically charged ganglia remain quite unmistakably distant from anything that could reasonably, or even unreasonably, be called “verse.” The declamatory nature of Bidart’s galvanized sideshow forbids selectively brief quotation:

                        —Even now, I can see the World

                        wheeling on its axis . . . I


                        shout at it—


                                     CEASE. CHANGE,—

                                                                         OR CEASE.


                        The World says right back: —


                        I must chop down the Tree of Life

                        to make coffins . . .


                        Tomorrow, I will go to Zurich—

                        to live in an asylum.


                        MY SOUL IS SICK, —

                                                            NOT MY MIND.


                        I am incurable . . . I did not

                        live long.


                        Death came

                        unexpectedly, —

                                                 for I wanted it to come.


                        Romola. Diaghilev.


                        . . . I HAVE EATEN THE WORLD.


                        My life is the expiation for my life.


                        Nietzsche understood me.


                        When he was sick, — when his SOUL

                        was sick, —

                                     he wrote that he would have


                        much preferred to be a Professor at Basel


                        than God—;

                                     but that he did not dare to carry


                        his egotism

                        so far as to neglect the Creation of the World. . . . . 

Even the spaciest prose can occasionally appear to successfully superintend the spasms of its own over-active brain activity, but poetry, however pixilated it might be made to seem by the intoxicants it itself secretes, most certainly cannot. Nor with equivalent feasibility can one assert that the overleaping of normal continuity by pressing language to its outermost rim of suggestiveness, whether through bypassing “ordinary usage” (whose spectral presence the “ghosts in the machine” of grammar and syntax can easily be coaxed to project) or by emotive “bangings-on-a-can,” is within verse’s generally accepted range of options.  

But there is yet another can of worms which anyone preferring poetry to all other kinds of writing must eventually come to terms with, and that is the constant tug exerted upon prose by the forms and desiderations of storytelling, as opposed to the moony fits to which the starts of poets and their creations are alike subject. Startling—and disturbing—as it might be to accept, poets do not always prefer poetry over prose as primary reading matter. James Merrill, for one, confided to interviewers that he would much rather curl up with a witty and engrossing work of fiction than run a marathon with either a real or an ersatz Pindar. “I’ve enjoyed reading novels more often—or more profoundly—than I’ve enjoyed reading poems,” he confessed in one such tête à tête. “There seems to be no poet except perhaps Dante whose work has the extraordinary richness of Tolstoy or Proust; and there are very few poets whose work gives as much fun as [Henry] James. . . . You hear a voice talking in prose, often a very delightful voice which can say all kinds of odd things. For me, to get something of that into poetry was a pleasure and even perhaps an object.” 

Merrill gloried in what he called “the waywardness of speech . . . disruptions, reversals of attitude, shifts in mid-sentence.” Not all that seldom poetry gets in the way of language doing its best to do better things within the brief time it is given to control the attention span of the endlessly distractable reader. “Too much poetry,” Merrill concludes, “sounds like side after side of modern music, the same serial twitterings, the same barnyard grunts. Just as I love multiple meanings, I try for contrasts and disruptions of tone.” Which, let’s face it, are more gracefully negotiated by great wielders of fiction than by syllable counters for whom the urge to “poeticize” outweighs a more primitive desire to see the imagination’s larder restocked with nourishing narratabilities and other materia prosaica.


Next month: Mr. Rother returns with Part III of his essay, "Between Poetry and Prose." To read Part 1, click here


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