EP&M Online Essay

A Thought or Two About Prose Poetry


Joan Malerba-Foran

I pointed toward Buddy, my dog, and asked my two-year-old granddaughter if he was a cow. She said no. “But Megan,” I teased, “he’s black and white like a cow. He has four legs, two ears, a tail, and he’s eating grass.” She watched Buddy gnawing on a strand of grass then answered, “But he doesn’t give milk.” I nodded. “That’s only one thing. He still has everything else.” She pointed to where the udders should be and replied, “But Nonie, that’s the most important thing. That’s the cow part.”

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.

My point is that with prose poetry, I find that the “cow part” of a poem is missing, for what I enjoy most about a good poem is the inability to paraphrase it—the failure of a prose-like description to reproduce anything that approaches the poem’s elegance. A good example of what I mean is in Mark Van Doren’s Introduction to Poetry: Commentaries on Thirty Poems. Van Doren takes Dickinson’s poem, “I Had Not Minded Walls,” and then paraphrases it. The contrast is jarring, revealing her genius to distill language until it is indivisible from her being. First, the beginning of the poem:

I had not minded walls
Were Universe one rock,
And far I heard his silver call
The other side the block.
I’d tunnel through until my groove
Pushed sudden through to his
Then my face take recompense—
The looking in his eyes.
Van Doren comments, “…[Emily] is concealing as much as she can, consistently with the fact that she speaks at all. She writes so tersely, and wraps her message so tightly, that we shall miss it unless we listen close.”

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.
The terror is removed, the sensation of being encased gone—the prose-flow cushioning against the suffocation of words chiseled into a poetic structure. In the poem, the unwritten “if” cleaves through to the center into the ending. A master at omission, Emily never uses the word that defines pure terror—if—but makes us confront the possibility of it in the chambers of our minds, where we are utterly alone. She has her nerve!
In a comparison of prose poetry to what appears to be its nearest relative, free verse, I must state that line breaks in free verse are not irrelevant, and that misunderstanding seems to be what binds these two forms in many people’s (including poets’) minds. But the lines breaks are critical for a variety of reasons. First, they signal the reader to prepare for a poem, which requires different reading skills from prose reading. This may account for much of the resistance on the part of “general readers” who say that they feel stupid when reading a poem and, disliking that feeling, shovel blame onto the poet with the accusation, “Why don’t poets just say what they mean?” Second, breaks require some analysis to figure out their placement in relation to the whole. In metered verse it’s count-off-your-steps and turn, but free verse demands an oral reading for both the structure and the music of the language to unfold; again, a bit more work. Third, form and free verse are not opposites any more than brothers and sisters are opposites. They belong to the same family but possess their own traits. By approaching them as if they are strangers sharing a linguistic background, one then connects prose poetry to free verse under (again) the erroneous assumption that free verse is formless, with willy-nilly line breaks mimicking real poetry.

A poorly written poem limps along with or without line breaks as the main excuse for its failure. I have seen many free verse poems that I thought would sound better if written in prose, but that was the fault of the poet not recognizing the voice of that particular piece. My own rule of thumb is that a good poem will not sound better if rewritten in prose, and that is a criterion I use when I can’t get a poem to sound right. If it comes to life after I paraphrase it, then I must either abandon the poem completely or rework it as a short story or essay.

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.

                                                                  Joan Malerba-Foran

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