Thursday, March 08, 2007

I Wanna Be Experimental! (and write prose-poems)

Here's an issue that sticks out: the contextual assumptions brought to the table, when you read a piece of writing, whether you intend to critique it, or review it, or just read it for pleasure, vary with the apparent form of the writing. In other words, people bring expectations to what they read.

Yes, this is another tactic of mine towards regarding prose-poems.

One entire issue of critical reading that goes oft unspoken, even though other aspects have been talked to death, is the hidden assumptions one brings to a piece, depending on the context one finds it in. Those contextual assumptions are exactly why critiquing prose-poems has often produced such unsatisfying results.

Thus, the rules of critique would be different for a prose-poem, than for a "standard" poem.

In Neruda's Book of Questions, every poem is a numbered quatrain, and every poem is nothing but questions. No answers are ever given. The book contains more question marks in poetry than any other, including Medieval riddle books, such as the Exeter Riddle Book.

To state it yet differently, when people begin to read something labeled Prose, they bring a certain set of expectations to it. If they begin to read something labeled Poetry, they bring an overlapping yet completely different set of expectations to the reading experience. One job of experimental poetry is to explode assumptions, clichés, and expectations. Indeed, by definition an experiment is a foray into the unknown, in which the explorer essays or attempts to discover structure where it had not been known before. Uncharted territories, left blank on all the maps.

The prose-poem can demolish all those expectations. Indeed, that was its historical mission: to explode the rules of convention.

The essay is a form of creative non-fiction that can veer into poetic prose without warning, where suddenly something didactic and venal becomes exalted, vivid, personal, and sets off depth-charges in the self. An "essay" is literally an attempt. I think of E.B. White's oft-anthologized personal essay Once More to the Lake, which begins in nostalgic reminiscence and continues through several other moods to arrive, in its last sentence, at an implosion of the sudden awareness of one's own limitations, one's own mortality—and suddenly everything else that has gone before falls away, and what sticks in your memory is that last vivid bomb of a paragraph.

It's not uncommon to read critical assessments of prose-poems that completely miss the point. If the critical reader is biased towards prose, they tend to assume the prose-poem is a short-short story, or flash fiction, or some related prose genre; they tend to want to see narrative form, linear structure, and grammatical correctness. (Correct prose grammar, that is.) If the critical reader runs across a label saying "this is Poetry," they bring a different set of rules to their assessment, including but not limited to: looking for internal rhythm, musicality, even meter and rhyme, imagery, and a "poetic" style. This can also mean that "correct prose grammar" is not expected, and more unusual syntactical structures, including but not limited to what Ron Silliman called "the new sentence" are permitted, even encouraged.

Lately, most of what I've been writing have been prose-poems, or haibun, or more experimental journal-writing forms. Some of these pieces are narrative, most are not; some begin with the illusion of a narrative voice, but quickly move in other directions. They look like prose on the page, because there are long sections with no enjambed line-breaks, and no obvious metrical form reinforced by the visual regularity of even-length metrical lines. (One wonders how often an average reader would recognize a metrical poem without the obvious visual cue of metrically-enjambed line-breaks.) But the voices of these writings are not prose, and especially not "purist" prose, but poetry. Indeed, one useful method for writing prose-poems is to set about writing in your usual poetic voice, but keep extending the length of the lines till they wrap around; eventually, the urge to always break the line, to enjamb out of habit or structural form, fades away, and one is free to write "long lines" that look like paragraphs. Whitman went far in this direction, and his self-conscious pupil Ginsberg did as well.

I find it nearly impossible to get useful critique of my prose-poems. Half the time the response from those habitually more formalist poets is to try to shoehorn the piece into a known form that they are more comfortable with, such as a sonnet, or longer elegiac form. It's as though there were filters over their eyes, which allow them only to see things that fit into their preconceptions, and prevent them from seeing what is actually there. Readers coming from the prose direction are often no better, with comments along the lines of: What the hell kind of PROSE is this? Oh wait, it's a prose-poem? Well, why didn't you post it over in one of the POETRY forums, rather than this PROSE forum? For instance, I once ventured to ask where to post prose-poems for critique, and was advised to post them in the prose section, where they were either ignored, or completely misunderstood, as exemplified above; the exercise was a waste of time, and I got no useful critique whatsoever from that experience. I'm better off on my own. And face it, a lot of experienced poets, whose thoughtful critique would truly benefit the writer of prose-poems, rarely venture into a designated prose arena. So, it's no wonder that prose-poems, when posted in prose forums, tend to sink like stones.

Experience makes me doubt that anyone not already familiar and comfortable with the prose-poem as a formal entity, no matter how they conceptualize it, will be unable to give any sort of useful feedback to the author. Some will veer away from the very attempt, shyly trying to evade the topic because they feel incompetent to venture an opinion. The fact that such folk don't suffer from the conceptual filters of preconception would in fact make them ideal candidates for giving thoughtful and useful critique—but the cultural hegemony of The Expert has held sway for so long, now, that even enthusiastic amateurs often doubt their own experience, simply because they have not been granted the sanctioned aura of The Expert. As if a little piece of parchment with fraktur lettering or Italianate cursive calligraphy on it was a more important credential than having read and written gobs of poems. If you want good, honest critique, far better to go to the dedicated amateurs, than the Poetry Professionals.

Therefore, if one were to seek out a haven for the prose-poem, far better to seek out a designated "experimental writing" forum than a designated prose forum, or even a dedicated poetry forum. Far fewer expectations are brought to the table, one imagines. As I said earlier, contextual assumptions are exactly why critiquing prose-poems has often produced such unsatisfying results. At least in an experimental writing forum, the mindset that is present, the expectation that is present, is to have no expectations, to be open to possibilities and examples of form, syntax, style, and structure you maybe never thought of before. This is mindset that one can learn, and perhaps ought to: be open to whatever you experience, without expectations or filters. The practice begins with noticing the judgments born of context, and continues by shedding those judgments with the awareness that you would do better to see what's really there, rather than what you think is there.

So, despite being relegated to the tainted and sneered-at ghetto of being an "experimental writer," with a smaller, more nebulous audience being accepted as a necessary fact of life, there is perhaps much more freedom to be found in an arena where fewer contextual expectations are brought to the experience of reading, and one can be a "writer" instead of a "prose writer" or "poetry writer." Dropping expectations is what "experimentation" is all about, after all.

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Blogger Headphones said...

I just stumbled across your blog, and as someone who writes mainly writes the nebulous "prose-poem" I found your comments about the reader's expectations to be very insightful. I have recently been thinking about the same thing, though the critique aspect was something that I hadn't thought before. If you have any prose poems that need critiquing, I'd love to help out. thanks

4:45 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


There are numerous prose-poems all over this blog, and also over on my main website, in the Writing section.

Feel free to dive in and wade around.

5:41 PM  

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