Between Poetry and Prose: A Critical Ballet in Three Scenes
Construire un poème qui ne contienne que poésie est impossible.
une pièce ne contient que poésie, elle n’est pas
construite; elle n’est pas une poème.
―Paul Valéry, Tel Quel
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
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:
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,
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
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.
“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 . . . .
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
(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.
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
—Even now, I can see the World
wheeling on its axis . . . I
shout at it—
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, —
I am incurable . . . I did not
for I wanted it to
. . . 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
but that he did not dare to carry
so far as to neglect the Creation of the World. . . . .
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.
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.