Friday, June 17, 2005

Poetry Thought o' the Day

“From the beginning, some of the most exciting, overwhelming moments in the modernist tradition have come when a poet breaks through into the kind of prose freedom and prose inclusiveness which I have tried to suggest.” Robert Pinsky, from The Situation of Poetry.

This interests me because my own poetry definitely has some qualities of prose, for better or worse. I tend to write long poems with long lines and long convoluted sentences chock full of detail, and reading them may require some of the patience you need to sit down and read a novel (even though they’re not that long!). Hopefully they also offer some of the pleasures and richnesses and intricacies of a novel.

My sense is that people have very different tastes on the prose/poetry issue. People who don’t like my poems (yes, there are some!) may prefer poetry that’s at the far end of the spectrum from prose, while I like poetry that’s very lyrical but still has something in common with Anna Karenina and The Maltese Falcon and even Winnie-the-Pooh. I suspect everyone could rate the poetry they most love on a scale of 1 to 10 depending on how far it is from prose.

6 comments:

Diane K. Martin said...

What! A post that's actually about poetry? (Thanks.)

I'm not big on rating, but I was interested in your post, Robert, and couldn't help thinking of Shawn PIttard's June 2 observations on TGAP comparing poems that start as prose to ones that don't... Did you tell me that you often start with prose and then move into lines? My poems almost always start in lines, though I may change the lineation.

I love your work, every detail and nuance, but, in the world at large I do like poems where the lines seem essential to moving the poem into another dimension. I don't know what I really mean, but I'm thinking of the work of William Matthews, maybe Charles Wright too. The margarita I just had is preventing me from thinking of anyone else right now.

I do love the syntax of the sentence very much though.

Diane K. Martin said...
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Robert said...

This sounds silly, but I guess when I think about prose and poetry, I’m not really thinking about lines and line breaks. I’m thinking more that I want poems to have that quality of entertainment that people associate more with novels—“a good read.” I like poems that create a world that you can enter and even escape into (and maybe a haiku can do that as well as an epic).

I do think people can get too obsessed with the line. I might even make the radical statement that I don’t think line breaks by themselves are ever enough to make or “break” a poem. If you take the line breaks out of a poem and print it as prose, it should still be interesting or else there’s a problem with the poem.

I like Charles Wright too, and I love William Matthews, and I agree they’re masters of the line, but still I think their poems would pass that test. Here’s a stanza from Charles Wright printed as prose:

All afternoon the clouds have been sliding toward us out of the Blue Ridge. All afternoon the leaves have scuttled across the sidewalk and driveway, clicking their clattery claws. And now the evening is over us, small slices of silence running under a dark rain, wrapped in a larger.

Well, I was going to compare that with the wonderful original stanza, but Blogger won't let me indent the lines. Just as well--you get the idea. The handling of lines is wonderful, but it's not bad as prose, either!

Diane K. Martin said...

Going out on a limb here. IMHO, line breaks by themselves can make or break the poem--at least this make the difference between a great poem or a merely good one or a good one and a mediocre poem.

I can't, I'm not capable of saying how that happens. I think Bob Hass talks about this pretty well in "One Body:Some Notes on Form" in TWENTIETH CENTURY PLEASURES, though I might quarrel with his examples.

I'm also sorry to bring up Charles Wright because I'm too new to his work to use it to prove anything. But I'm more intimate with the Matthews (hmmm). Here's some of "Mood Indigo" by Matthews, as much as I can reasonably type--first in a paragraph and then, if Blogger will let me, lineated:

From the porch; from the hayrick where her prickled brothers hid and chortled and slurped into their young pink lungs the ash-blond dusty air that lay above the bales like low clouds; and from the squeak and suck of the well-pump and from the glove of rust it implied on her hand; from the dress parade of clothes in her mothproofed closet; from her tiny Philco with its cracked speaker and Sunday litany (Nick Carter, The Shadow, The Green Hornet, Sky King); from the loosening bud of her body, from hunger, as they say, and from reading; from the finger she used to dial her own number, from the dark loam of the harrowed fields and from the very sky; it came from everywhere. Which is to say it was always there and that it came from nowhere....



///Diane here: that was only the first 5 stanzas, lineated, hopefully, below:

From the porch; from the hayrick where her prickled
brothers hid and chortled and slurped into their young pink
lungs the ash-blond dusty air that lay above the bales

like low clouds; and from the squeak and suck
of the well-pump and from the glove of rust it implied
on her hand; from the dress parade of clothes

in her mothproofed closet; from her tiny Philco
with its cracked speaker and Sunday litany
(Nick Carter, The Shadow, The Green Hornet, Sky King);

from the loosening bud of her body, from hunger,
as they say, and from reading; from the finger
she used to dial her own number, from the dark

loam of the harrowed fields and from the very sky;
it came from everywhere. Which is to say it was
always there and that it came from nowhere....

///Someone tell me how or what it is, but these two bits--the same words--are so different to me, and the second version is vastly superior.

Robert said...

I love that poem. Of course I agree the lineation adds something, but maybe it's a matter of taste. I wouldn't say it's "vastly" superior. But even if it is, my point is just that it's still a pretty damn good piece of writing as prose. In certain moods I might even prefer to read it as prose--it has a sort of powerful Faulknerian quality.

But maybe my point is more about making poems than breaking them. For example, it's a beautiful afternoon. I might drive up to Point Reyes and see if there are still any wildflowers in bloom, maybe go as far as the lighthouse. Now I'm sure that poor magazine editors get a lot of poems like:

It's a beautiful
afternoon. I might drive
up to Point Reyes
and see if there are
still
any wildflowers in bloom,
maybe go as far as
the lighthouse.

It's still not a poem, just my boring prose.

Patry Francis said...

I like a poem that tells a story, too. There are, of course, exceptions.