Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Of Moose and Mold

I know that prose poems are a tired subject, but I’ve been thinking about them because I decided to include one of my poems on the Amazon listing of my book and made a mistake when I uploaded it so it came out as a prose poem and, well, I decided I liked it better that way.

I am one of those people who gets excited when I see a prose poem. It just looks more interesting than its broken-line cousins. I realize this is an irrational response, though no less rational than a spontaneous negative response. A prose poem seems to say, “I have a story to tell” or “I have something to say,” while verse says, “Here is a thing I have made.” And if the prose poem does not have a story to tell, so much the better! I love how the narrative or expository expectations of prose are undercut by the sheer lyricism of the piece itself, e.g., Karen Volkman’s “A Light Says Why.” I’m also attracted by the urgency of prose. If you’re writing a suicide note, you don’t worry about line breaks.

In connection with the sense of urgency, I’ve been thinking about my need to write. It’s almost a cliché that a true poet writes out of an inner need (as opposed to cranking out another poem to keep a teaching job). I have some doubts, though, about writing out of compulsion. Sure, in a way I feel I need to write in order to “fulfill my destiny,” but probably 99% of people go through life quite happily without ever “fulfilling their destiny,” so you can’t exactly call it a need. More importantly, are the best poems written out of necessity? Legal briefs to save a convict on Death Row may be, but “Sunday Morning”?

Like science, poetry comes out of an intense focus on things that do not seem to warrant our attention. Who feels an inner need to study some mold growing on a dish in the sink? Yet that’s how penicillin was discovered. Elizabeth Bishop may have felt compelled to write about the suicide of her lover. She probably did not feel compelled to write about a moose or a filling station or Robinson Crusoe. But by working against her compulsion and, instead of writing about her obsession, writing about an armadillo and a baby rabbit, her passion came through all the more loud and clear:

and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft!—a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.

Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!

That clenched fist is so much more powerful when seen in the context of Bishop’s almost scientific observation of the scene, her wonderful “short-eared.” When you will yourself to write what you don’t need to write, isn’t that when your compulsion most nakedly shows through?


Diane K. Martin said...

Fair warning: I'm going to quibble... I don't think urgency, need, compulsion, and obsession are equivalents and it feels as if you are saying they are.

Also, you ask who feels an inner need to study mold. etc.? But Fleming was looking for something to kill bacteria, so the mold found his obsession.

But mostly I want to quibble with the ability for any of us to know others' needs/compulsions/obsessions--as much as I wonder about our ability to discern who is a true poet.

But yours is a much more interesting post than mine have been!

Robert said...

Well, one thing I’m saying is ... some people worry about whether or not they’re a real poet, and there are always plenty of other people standing around ready to tell them they’re not. One of the more popular reasons is that “You’re not a real poet because you don’t feel like your heart is going to explode out of your chest and rip a hole the size of a toaster in your ribcage if you don’t write a poem today.” All I’m saying is ... fuck anyone who says you're not a poet. Just write.

Diane K. Martin said...

Hell, I don't disagree with you a bit there!

Julie Carter said...

I definitely agree that prose poems have a sense of urgency, of tumbling, rolling on, that lineated poetry doesn't have as natively. Interesting post.

louise said...

Technical question here: how were you able to add that information your self? I'd love to be able to add some stuff to my listing--

Robert said...

Hi, Louise, I’ve used the “Book Content Update Form” from the Amazon Publisher Guide and, yes, it’s been very useful! You might want to ask your publisher, but I’ve just filled in my own name and address as the “contact person” and it’s worked fine. Email me if you have questions.