Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Prose-Poetry: Practically Perfect, As Is

There's a secret to writing prose-poems that I'm going to reveal right now:

When you set down to write a poem, and you get into that mindset you use to write a poem, just let the lines become so long that they wrap around. Basically, the only thing you're giving up from writing a "pure" poem is enjambment: everything else stays the same.

That's it: that's the whole secret.

When I write a poem, I do my best to always start from what one might call haiku mind: one gets oneself into an almost-meditative place, a place of inner quiet where any outer noises just falls away into silence. The world becomes vivid, and one notices details and patterns and juxtapositions of images that one might normally overlook. Sometimes I sit quietly, eyes closed, and wait till I settle down, calm down, sink and cool. When I open my eyes, the world seems incredibly vivid and bright, everything as crystal-clear as an October sky.

A lot of my best writing is done right before bed, or right after I wake up, before I do anything else for the day, when I am still in that twilight mind between waking and sleeping, before the logical-rational mind kicks in, and I have to put clothes on and address the mundane tasks of food and shelter. This method has worked for me for several years. I can also get into this mindset on long drives across the open countryside. Music can also put me there, especially classical music, ancient and modern: John Dowland, Henryk Gorecki, John Cage, Bach, Jan Garbarek.

My poetry tends to be compressed and haiku-like. Even my prose style tends to be poetic. But because we're seeking to write a prose-poem, we have the leeway within the form to use several different styles of prose as we choose, from grammatically-correct full sentences, to sentence fragments, to poetic syntax, internal rhyme, to making each sentence into a strict haiku; and many other options. In other words, we can look at prose-poetry as a broadened palette of choices, rather than a constraining one. Whatever style works to convey the poem's moment is fair game.

When I write a haibun, which is essentially dense poetic prose interlaced with haiku, this is also what I do. Haibun can be thought of as prose-poems-with-haiku.

I'm at the point-of-experience in my own prose-poem writing where I no longer feel the tidal pull of required enjambment: that is, I can write the poetic stream without feeling the necessity to break it into lines. (I also write enjambed poetry, too; this isn't an either/or situation, but a both/and process. Prose-poems by their very definition are both/and rather than either/or, conceptually speaking.) Each piece I write tends to organically structure itself as it goes, and I often just follow where it feels like it's going; as in Japanese zuihitsu style writing, one "follows the brush" through apparently random compositions that link up on a higher conceptual level. Sometimes, the fox leads you into enjambed lines, sometimes the flower leads you into a haiku, sometimes the colors of the sunset lead you into prose-poems.

Structure in prose-poems may be more complex than we imagine, on first glance.

A related style of prose is what Amy Lowell termed polyphonic prose. I found this entry in the Encyclopedia Brittanica: a freely rhythmical form of prose that employs characteristic devices of verse other than strict metre (such as alliteration, assonance, or rhyme). The form was developed in the early 20th century by Amy Lowell, who demonstrated its techniques in her book Can Grande's Castle(1918). Gertrude Stein also generated some exquisite prose-poetry, although she called it something other.

I don't like the word "polyphonic" in Lowell's usage, being the musician that I am, because polyphony in music is a word referring to melodic structure, two or more voices in counterpoint, and interwoven harmonies and melodies. I don't see any of the musicality of the original meaning in the encyclopedia definition above, and I suspect Ms. Lowell may not have beenexpert in music when she borrowed the word.

In prose-poems pretty much all rhymes are internal rhymes, since one doesn't have end-rhymes in a non-lined text. Alliteration, poetical syntax, assonance, those all work the same as in enjambed poems. The sheer sound of the words to me is interesting in prose-poems, as, to my ear, a lot of contemporary poetry sounds just like prose anyway, when read aloud—proving the point that a lot of published poetry these days is just poetical prose arranged in semi-arbitrary lines on the page. Since so much contemporary poetry sounds like prose, why arrange it on the page? (No doubt the neo-formalist zealots will try to justify their position on this point; nonetheless, one must ask questions of poets about their typography, since published poetry does have a visual element.) Why not leave it on the page as prose? I'm hardly the first to have this insight, and one sees several "name" poets occasionally exploring this same idea, whenever they publish prose-poems.

So, what makes it a prose-poem? I think it's the heightened speech, the condensed phrase, the musical phrase, the poetic image—which, if it appeared in a paragraph in a novel, we would call "poetic prose." (The "Sirens" chapter in Joyce's Ulysses is some of the most musical prose in recent memory, and it is structured musically, with an overture, and an actual use of polyphony in thematic content. "Bronze by gold . . .") There is a thin and permeable borderline separating "poetic prose" and "prose-poem," yet one element of poetry that makes a piece a prose-poem is that the language is exalted, heightened, has the same grip on you as a good poem does. That immersion into another world, that complete absorption into the mystery of the poem.

As an exercise, one might take an enjambed poem and make it a long paragraph. The pauses in recitation can be marked by punctuation. These stop us, slow us down. So, if one reason to enjamb some lines is purely about breath-marks and pauses, there are other ways to notate those. I use the word "notate" deliberately, as it refers to the process of a composer putting down musical notes onto a page. One can notate a poem's performance, using the tools of writing such as punctuation, very much the same way a composer uses rests to indicate pauses, breaths, and so forth. Try the exercise of writing out your piece as long paragraphs, and notate your performance indications this way.

This is also an interesting litmus test for what makes a poem a poem. If a poem can be arranged on the page as a paragraph without essentially changing it, and if it reads now more like prose than like a poem, perhaps it never was a poem to begin with. As much as I often criticize the Language Poets for being interested in surface over depth, at least most language-poems would pass this litmus test: even arranged in paragraphs, they sound more like poetry than like prose.

One could short-line-enjamb a successful prose-poem ifo ne wanted to, but it doesn't intrinsically need to be short-lined to sound like a poem. Why do we always assume that poetry must be enjambed? Habit of style? Habit of format? To make it look like everything else we've done to which we might say, "This is a poem"? I don't require an answer, but I find the questions interesting.

Here is a prose-poem of mine, originally written in 1985, revised somewhat in 2005:

into the light

I should be climbing the mountain, climbing into the cold thin light and whipping air, staring into the volcano’s heart, the glowing stone and rising vapor, should be moving to birth the new life, clean and strong and free; be above the world, bathing like an eagle in the sun, an unbroken cry relieved by fast-moving white clouds, breaking out of the chrysalis of waiting, rising from the earth to fly into the sunlight, the day breaks, you shatter into a million lives: an embryo, a child, a boy running in the dayshine streaming in an open window, dark wood of the interior, the young man lost in dreams, the old man dreaming of what is lost, the man in the middle an infinite row of changed faces, masks set outward into the heart of light. I should be climbing the mountain, mounting breathlessly ever higher and brighter; to never reach the peaks, to stand and speak the first word of living; to always climb, until my bones are bleached and stonelike in the flesh-ripping wind and sun. In the cold and the heavy light, to break free of past and present and future, to exist only as a break in the wind, a point of flame on the side of the mountain, a quiver in the mind of the stone, a wave in the downflowing stream. I should be the tree tossing in the wind, the green soul of leaves with silver highlights like water in the sunlight; the bear fishing in the icy mountain river, turning and lifting its head to sniff the air and stare towards the high peak, and leave its familiar range, and climb; the leopard frozen on the mountain ridge, the edge of the light, how it got there no one knows, or why. A tatter of wind in the sunlight, walking up the mountainside. I go up the mountain. I go up the mountain. I go singing up the mountain. I go singing up the mountain. I go up the mountain.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

this looks very interesting and obviously well considered. just browsing at mo but will save to favourites and come back to you.

3:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your explanation of prose poetry is enlightening to the enhancing of my own works. Also, thank you for the reference to Can Grande's Castle. I have begun to read it on Google books and it proves quite interesting.


8:33 PM  

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