Poetry in Prose

This article is about what poetry in prose means to me. As a writer of poetry and prose as well as poetry in prose, I could hardly proceed without a strong sense of what I am seeking in a prose poem.

This is not for anyone looking for a definition of prose poetry. It is doubtful that a definition could be found that could achieve a broad consensus. For example, some of the guidelines for journals of prose poetry would exclude Baudelaire. They call for brief poems in a single block of text while Baudelaire’s prose poems could go on for two pages or more and included paragraph breaks. Why a prose poem can’t include paragraph breaks is beyond me, but in the minds of these editors, apparently, a prose poem should be a single, concise, highly focused view of the poetic object. A more complex view would seem to veer, in their implicit assessment, toward fiction or expository prose, and something like Baudelaire’s The Bad Glazier would no doubt strike them as an example of flash fiction. I must admit that it looks more like fiction than poetry to me, however it just might be that the prose poem came about in the first place because of the desire to meander a little bit, and I wonder if these editors are expressing the contemporary bias for extreme brevity. Stories get shorter and prose poems must be even shorter. I’m not insensitive to this aesthetic, but I still think interesting things can be done with line breaks between blocks of text in a single prose poem. Besides, John Ashbery is still the best exemplar of prose poetry in the world today, and some of his best prose poems are his longest.

I read a lot of poems—on blogs, online journals and in books—dozens every month. Quite often I’ll read a poem and say to myself, this isn’t a poem at all, it’s prose. On the other hand, I’ve read entire novels (The Road, The Temptation of St. Antony, In Watermelon Sugar, Ill Seen Ill Said) that I have no problem characterizing as poems. In the former case the text’s lineation serves no formal purpose, while the language itself fails to convince me of its poetic potency. In the latter case the poetic language is strong without need of formal lineation. And yet, on a case-by-case basis, I make distinctions between prose that is poetic and prose that is poetry.

Generally speaking, prose aims either for clarity or for explication. We find fault with prose writers who are too difficult to understand. We say, ‘He could have said the same thing in simpler words.’ Even a writer like Heidegger is aiming toward explication. His difficulty is a combination of complex ideas and his belief in the supremacy of uncommon words like Dasein and the convoluted locutions necessary to deploy them. But, generally speaking, prose aims for the most direct path to conveying information (unless one is an obscurantist, but we don’t care about them).

What about fiction writers like Joyce or Pynchon? The reader can decide if Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow are poems or not. For me, they are certainly poetic, but not poems, or if they are they’re poor examples of poems. This may only be my own bias speaking, but it seems to me a poem is either highly focused or completely diffuse.* Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow are neither one nor the other. They contain a narrative skeleton upon which or around which is draped an elaborate display of linguistic play. Such play can be poetic, but for me it does not necessarily constitute poetry any more than counting beats and measuring lines automatically results in poetry. The object as a whole does not add up. I cannot tell you what the poetic object of either of these novels is.

On the contrary, a novel like Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar feels like a complete and whole poetic object. The poetic language is consistently wed throughout with the narrative drive. The two work in perfect concert toward the single goal of creating this poetic object: the Watermelon Sugar world. Cormac McCarthy does the same thing in The Road. Each word and each comma seems chiseled out of stone for the sole purpose of creating the world of The Road. I call these worlds poems. Other fiction writers, of course, create vivid worlds, but the difference between a poem world and a prose world is the difference between language that seeks clarity above all and that which seeks a perfect union with world, such that one could not use different words or a different arrangement of words to achieve it. I couldn’t move any series of words around in In Watermelon Sugar or any comma in The Road and have quite the same object. Or put it this way, I would not want to change anything. Call it style. I choose to call it poetry.

We will not make the mistake of issuing the opposite claim for poetry, that it aims for opacity, even though this is indeed the charge most often leveled against it by prose writers and readers. Since prose is generally interested above all in the most direct and clear course, poetry may be perceived as a mode of writing that is easily distracted by peripheral matters. Poetry not only stops to smell the roses, but smelling the roses may be the whole point. To be sure, clarity is important to poetry, but a poem’s clarity has to do with a perfect marriage between form and content. Novels may indeed be poetic and may pay close attention to structural properties, but these are secondary issues in place to facilitate the flow of prose (or in the case of Pynchon take the reader on a wild ride). In poetry the formal properties of language are, on the contrary, of primary importance, together with the poetic object, the content of the poem.

When I am writing a poem, I am paying very close attention not only to every word and every piece of punctuation, but even to syllables, sounds and to the rhythms in individual words and the combinations of words. This is true whether the poem is in prose or lineated. If the latter, each line is justified by its discrete integrity. If such justification is lacking, then adjustments need to be made. This does not mean that the right word will be sacrificed for the sake of form, but that in some cases the right way, in terms of form, must be found to use the right word. Language is malleable enough to find a great variety of ways of saying essentially the same thing. It sometimes happens that after sitting on a verse poem for some time I decide that the lines aren’t justified, that the poem would read better as prose. That is how many (but not all) of my prose poems are written: they are failed verse poems. And this may be why I am less often pleased with my prose poems than with my verse poems.

When I began writing poems that pleased me, at about the age of eighteen, I found that lines of very few words suited me most, resulting in poems in long narrow columns, Creeley-like. When I discovered John Ashbery, about ten years later, I challenged myself to lengthen my lines, and to this day I find myself asking, can I make these lines longer? But of course the longer the line the harder it is to control (some of Ashbery’s lineated poems feel very prose-like to me) and generally I go for relatively short lines. And the longer the lines the closer one gets to prose. If one’s lines are so long that the margins of a normal page can’t hold them, then one might reasonably ask if one hadn’t better be writing prose.

*An example of a diffuse prose poem would be Ashbery’s Flowchart, in which the language itself becomes the poetic object.

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5 Responses to Poetry in Prose

  1. I’m not going back to edit, but I could have added a paragraph clarifying that a poem is not just something that sounds good. Changes need to be made if the language is not perfectly wedded to the poetic object, no matter how beautiful the language or how much in love with it the poet is. The integrity of the poem is in the marriage, not simply beautiful language.

  2. hedgewitch says:

    An exceptionally focused and, I think, fair explication of what makes a piece of writing work and live within its form, or fail. I’m often disappointed by both extremes–extreme length and complexity, and extreme brevity and simplicity–without genuine content in each, real fire, something that speaks from beneath the words, following either approach is not enough. I love your insight on, and totally agree about Brautigan–not for one moment are his longer works anything but poem worlds, intricate and self-contained but with that spark that makes them become in turn a new part, or newly-realized part, of one’s own world. Whichever way one goes, there must be more than process. Enjoyed this much, Mark–lots to think about.

  3. angela says:

    It was as I suspected…I’ve never written a poem! I am not versed enough in verse to begin…
    Seriously, a wonderful write that has me a bit paranoid to post anything that may spew forth words. Would you call free flow a poem? If there is no conscious marriage of form to object then perhaps no…Sigh- 4 hours of sleep last night, so will read again with mind attached. Do agree about The Road- why I loved it so much… Seems I need to find Brautigan.

    • Oh, you’re funny. Especially about being paranoid. Surely you jest. As you know, I’m not versed either, in the academic sense. And I’m sharing my path to poetry here, knowing there are many others. I understand that you share a lot of “free-flow” for your own reasons. Sometimes I don’t know what to think about it and other times I like it quite a lot. It depends on what you’ve written. Please don’t think I critique everything you write.

      For my purposes – that is, in terms of what I want to do with a poem – “free-flow” writing, extemporaneous or automatic writing can be a part of the process but not an end in itself. I’m just not interested in doing that. I’m very conservative in that way, and have more in common with a poet like Hart Crane than with more experimental poets. I’m also interested in hybrid writing, but that’s another subject. I tend to think that automatic writing is its own genre.

  4. Brendan says:

    Man after my heart. Pynchon loved the word “interface” in Gravity’s Rainbow, not as much as “paranoia” but enough to get the feeling that prose and poetry share a shore that’s constantly inverting. There is vatic prose and didactic poetry, no doubt. As you know I’ve toyed a lot with narrative poetry — Stephen Dobyns is exquisite at it, fer sure — something about poetry’s line and meter than can keep a story chugging along. I’ve never been comfortable with fiction in prose, though the essay has been a great canvas. Sometimes though, compression packs poetry with an unequalled power, more power sometimes than the verses could get at. (Hart Crane here, for me.) Joyce, Melville, McCarthy, Pynchon, Murakami, Faulkner — all these fiction writers are closet poets. Great writing here.

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