The conversation coincided with a problem that I’d been mulling over for a good while: Did I like prose poetry? Megan injected the last bit of sense I needed and I shouldn’t have been surprised (no one handles that quintessential economy of Yankee wisdom like a two-year-old). I’d spent the summer reading a fair amount of prose poetry. The language was lovely, but I rarely had a sense of satisfaction or completion. If this was poetry, then I was experiencing it in a slant manner—more like stepping into a mist than a downpour, and a downpour was the sensation I most connected with reading a good poem. I was unfulfilled by the lack of form, not of talent.
Please consider that last remark only a comment and not a full-fledged, registered complaint. I try not to complain because while I like writing words, I dislike eating them. You see, I have a tendency toward “poetic-uppity-ness.” In an effort to remain more open, I periodically center myself by imagining what my reaction would have been to the initial publication of Leaves of Grass. There’s not a doubt in my mind that I’d have screamed “Fraud!” loud enough to rattle storm windows on a first reading of truly free verse. And I would’ve been wrong. (Randall Jarrell put it best when he stated that Whitman’s headstone should simply read: Walt Whitman—he had his nerve!) But back to the problem of liking prose poetry. What I was really trying to decide was if I liked the idea of prose poetry, and my answer is that I don’t. Now wait! Remember that I wouldn’t have liked free verse when it first appeared.
I had not minded wallsWere Universe one rock,And far I heard his silver callThe other side the block.I’d tunnel through until my groovePushed sudden through to hisThen my face take recompense—The looking in his eyes.
That is precisely what I love about Dickinson’s work—how she makes me bend down and place my ear against the poem. Van Doren says: “[She] uses line, stanza, and rhyme to give what she is saying velocity and terror…or softness and joy.” He then paraphrases those two verses. Admittedly, he is not writing prose poetry but her poem “in prose.” So? That’s nearly my point. Look at the paraphrase:
I would not have minded walls between me and the man I love. If the universe itself were one great wall, as thick as it was high, and built of solid rock; and if, far around on the other side of the obstruction, I heard his silver voice calling to me (or, simply, heard it and knew it was his) then I would cheerfully tunnel through to where he was. He would have started too; tunnels are built from both ends, and meet in the middle; suddenly, therefore, the last bit of rock between us would be gone, and I would have my reward. My reward, because the effort was chiefly mine. My tunnel reached his. Then the reward—the opportunity to look into his eyes.
But let’s look at a larger issue, which is where poetry is headed and why I do not like the idea of prose poetry. If the next logical step from free verse is prose poetry, we do poetry a grave disservice. Making the next step logical is laziness, no matter how well it is done. The “next thing” must spring from the ashes of formal and free like a Phoenix, slap its wet wings together, and send out a thunderclap loud enough to threaten the artist in us all. Poetry, no matter how much it depends on craft, is the place of genius—those who most nearly approach using language in an original way. Prose poetry is not the place where genius will be found in any measure, at least not since Baudelaire.
As Robert Louis Stevenson
wrote, “There is but one art, to omit.” While prose poetry does omit, it
has a built-in comfort level. The more words, the more crevices to hide
within. My preference is for the poem that has been held over the fire,
every speck that hides the center burned away. Many prose poems are fine
examples of writing, but I’m left wanting the experience of entering a
poem: the mild confusion followed by a kind of euphoria. My granddaughter
had the solution for me the day that we were watching Buddy. In all her
twenty-four months of wisdom, she shook her head and said, “Nonie, you’re
silly. You don’t get milk from a dog.” She’s right—and you can’t milk a
prose poem, either.