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Some essential principles surrounding the prose poem and the choice to write in it


I was invited to have a dialog with Don Zirilli (you may remember him as Posthumous) about the relationship between free verse and the prose poem at the Now Culture blog--Now Culture is an online journal Don co-edits. I knew some things about prose poetry but not so much about the context in which vers libre came about. this is my second post on the blog after my initial intro about the prose poem--these seem to me like some essentials surrounding the evolution of poetry--my next post will summarize pertinent comments by poets and critics in a dateline fashion. It's really been eye-opening to me to trace the movement in this way--you get a big picture...hope you all find this interesting...for example a lot of how we write poetry (the rhythms we write in) has to do with the nature and origins of our specific language--after the norman invasion, anglo saxon poetry changed with the introduction and melding which became english--also the purposes for poetry have changed it as well, which ends up with what we have today. it's the first time I ever really put that two and two together. Dobyns suggests that the iambic line has never been a perfect fit, thus the need for substitutions, and the free verse, etc. Interesting to think about.



Some essential principles surrounding the prose poem and the choice to write in it



“I hardly know of any poet who's understood what it's all about and who's known how to sacrifice his ambitions as an author to the prose poem's formal constitution. Dimension counts for nothing in the beauty of a work, its situation and its style are everything. The prose poem must have despite the rules which style it, a free and vital way of expressing itself.” Max Jacob from his Preface to The Dice Cup (1916)

As Jacob points out, essentially choosing to write in the prose poem format is a stylistic choice, not a formal choice, or a choice of lack of form versus form. Structurally, it is a choice of the paragraph over the line as as unit. It is a choice, for any variety of possible reasons, against being restricted by the line, linebreak, enjambment and this is ultimately a stylistic choice.

Secondly, “In any case, in the sixteenth century meter became less rigid...[in the 19th century] Meter was no longer thought to have a primary function apart from content. What developed instead was the theory that content chose meter, that certain meters were appropriate for certain subjects and that to write an elegy in dactylic hexameter, for instance, would be scandalous. This idea is important to the development of free verse. It ties form directly to content, and it allows form to be controlled by the needs of content. It can be argued that when the first metrical substitution was made, free verse became inevitable.” from the essay, “Notes on Free Verse,” Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry, Stephen Dobyns. I think we take this principle for granted now that stylistically form should reinforce or mirror content, but it wasn't always so. Beginning with Romanticism (Wordsworth and Coleridge, and Whitman), as the number of subjects opened up from merely epic, ballad, ode, elegy and sonnets about religion, love and death, by the nineteenth century and on into the 20th poets began to encompass the more mundane; the personal lyric, meditation and reflection, the prose poem became more of a possibility as a stylistic choice and poetic extreme for satire, fable/parable or common, low experience after the leveling of the class system.

Lastly the printing press, and the shift from a primarily auditory and rhythmic reception of the poem to it's look on the page was another hugely influential movement for poetry toward prose and away from the use of rhythm and rhyme as the predominant stylistic tools. Not only were rhythm and rhyme not needed as a mnemonic tool but by de-emphasizing these as the major tools it was discovered that greater subtlety through a variety of other poetic tools became possible via a written text versus a heard only text. Regular rhythm, order, symmetry and repetition set up expectations and anticipation and added texture to a poem, but by startling, defeating expectation, and adding surprise to the mix added tension and becoming one of the key elements of free verse and the prose poem.

Now in the 21 century, one of the biggest challenges a poet faces is whether to write structurally for the look on the page or for how it should be read aloud. Poetry is more commonly read than heard these days—that is apart from popular music, so the central question is whether to cater to the ear or the eye. With a movement away from formal verse or closed forms to open forms, few poets now do both. The formal poem looks on the page more similarly the way it should be read, and ironically, so does a prose poem, than does free verse. To quote Dobyns from his essay, “Notes on Free Verse,” again “We have four types of meter: quantitative, syllabic, accentual and accentual-syllabic. It is not necessary for a poem to employ traditional meters, but it must have a rhythm; otherwise it moves into the province of prose. Why a poem requires rhythm is a much larger question. Most simply it can be said that rhythm is a texturing of language, but it is also argued that rhythm imitates and echoes the rhythms of the heart and lungs, creating a physiological link between the reader and poem. For now let us define a poem as a rhythmically ordered noise of indeterminate duration; it is a rhythmically sculptured sound. Furthermore, this aural quality directly influences the poem's meaning. The fact that the poem is a sound—that it is meant to be heard—gives rhythm an importance that it doesn't have in prose.” But, what if poems aren't heard, or necessarily meant to be read aloud? What if they are meant to be seen, or are by default, seen only?

In close, Don, let's take a look at this prose poem by Marie Howe that I posted earlier:

Part of Eve's Discussion, by Marie Howe

It was like the moment when a bird decides not to eat from your hand,
and flies, just before it flies, the moment the rivers seem to still
and stop because a storm is coming, but there is no storm, as when
a hundred starlings lift and bank together before they wheel and drop,
very much like the moment, driving on bad ice, when it occurs to you
your car could spin, just before it slowly begins to spin, like
the moment just before you forgot what it was you were about to say,
it was like that, and after that, it was still like that, only
all the time.

You said: “The Marie Howe example is free verse without linebreaks, which of course raises the question, why does free vers have linebreaks? I'm not sure.”

I'd be interested in hearing why you would make the claim this is free verse--(one definition of prose poetry, perhaps the main one, is that prose poetry is free verse without linebreaks), but what you meant was that it should or could have linebreaks, right? Let's look at why it might be a prose poem, and why I think it works better in paragraph form, or how the form mirrors the content in this case. Howe is talking about the Fall, the biblical notion of falling from a state of perfection to a lesser state, fractured, tainted, a seemingly chaotic state. This is her metaphor and her allusion established by the title. Through the introduction of the car anachronistically spinning on ice she manages to encompass or imply the passage of time from the state of perfection to the biting of the apple and loss of innocence and bliss and her “discussion,” or looking ahead, to bring it full circle to the our's, and the speaker's present. The poem is in one long rambling digressive and seemingly nonsyntactic sentence—it may be (I'm not sure) grammatical but strikes one as not due to the discursive nature. By choosing to do away with the line as a unit in the context of a poem, stylistically, it reinforces the breakdown of order, offers it post-modern feel of disorientation, extemporaneous speech, and elements of digression and anachronism introduce chaos as much as the bite into any forbidden fruit. Lastly the number of these stylistic effects, as much as any content in such a brief space and the intertextuality of the biblical metaphor make it as much or more poem than prose—a hybrid. Being a hybrid, a paragraph, is its own metaphor like rebar reinforcing the theme. Now, I'm curious—why break this into lines?
May/18/2009, 2:09 pm Link to this post Send Email to dmehl808   Send PM to dmehl808
 
Katlin Profile
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Re: Some essential principles surrounding the prose poem and the choice to write in it


Hi Dave,

I have a question about the Howe poem. The way it looks on the screen it does not look like a prose poem to me, in that it doesn't look like a paragraph. It looks like a poem with very long lines. Here's how it would look as a prose poem in paragraph form:

"It was like the moment when a bird decides not to eat from your hand, and flies, just before it flies, the moment the rivers seem to still and stop because a storm is coming, but there is no storm, as when a hundred starlings lift and bank together before they wheel and drop, very much like the moment, driving on bad ice, when it occurs to you your car could spin, just before it slowly begins to spin, like the moment just before you forgot what it was you were about to say, it was like that, and after that, it was still like that, only all the time."

I think the poem reads "faster" and is less effective in paragraph form. I realize the screen width here may be wider than the width of a poetry book. Still, if Howe wanted the poem to be in paragraph form, I believe the righthand margins would be much more justified than in the version of the poem you posted. Lines 2, 6 and 8, in particular, would not have line breaks where they do if the poem was in a true paragraph format. At least that's my take.

Will be back to expand on Dunn's notion of the bodily aspect of rhythm (I have his book of essays as well and really like it).
May/20/2009, 3:50 pm Link to this post Send Email to Katlin   Send PM to Katlin
 
dmehl808 Profile
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Re: Some essential principles surrounding the prose poem and the choice to write in it


good point Katlin--in the poetry book of hers I have, her lines extend to the margin of the page, but everywhere else they look like long lines but not paragraph, so it makes me wonder what she intended. The enjambment of the piece looks as if they were broken on the words they were broken on rather than arbitrary. Some prose poems are broken into lines emoticon James Tate for example. The form is crazy because it refuses to be classified. Don is already calling me to the carpet for this saying that free verse pretends to be poetry and prose poems pretend to be prose. let's see how long it takes for me to find myself out of my depth. like, now heh heh.
May/20/2009, 5:56 pm Link to this post Send Email to dmehl808   Send PM to dmehl808
 


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