Michael Harlow has recently been awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement. Last year his poetry collection Nothing For It But To Sing won the Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry (OUP). He has been awarded the Beatson Prize for poetry, and in 2014 the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for Distinguished Contribution to Poetry in NZ. He has published eleven books of poetry, two of which have been shortlisted for the National Book Awards. He lives in Central Otago (NZ) and works as a writer, editor, and Jungian therapist.
THE PROSE POEM, THE PROSE THAT IS IN POETRY
Thinking about the ‘prose that is in poetry’, the Greek Nobel Prize winning
poet George Seferis suggested that “It would be very useful if our poets learned
to use prose for poetic purposes.” (1)
Historically, the prose-poem/the poème en prose is a development out of the advent of the Modernist movement—as a response and challenge to what then was current poetic practice. It arose out of the radical need to not only challenge but to subvert certain verse traditions and conventions. Poetry in some form or another is always getting up to some kind of subversion. And the creation of the prose-poem form played a leading and very dynamic role in changing how we think about poetry (and prose); and what it can do to tell us something of what it means to be so mysterious to ourselves and each other, and the world out there and the world within. Co-incidentally an Oedipal moment in the progress of the arts through the century. A propitious time for the poème en prose to establish itself as a genre; and as we see a genre that in its flexibility has accommodated change and new directions. In essence, a way of bringing prose and poetry together in a shared spatial field of composition; a microcosmos or ‘little world’ of it own, as part of a larger world of language doing its stuff: if you like, shining a light in the world’s ear.
Aloysius Bertrand, who is generally credited with being the pioneer-father of the poème en prose, wanted to establish “a new genre of prose” Taking up the charge, Baudelaire in his Le Spleen de Paris called for the creation of “petites poèmes en prose”.
Which of us in his ambitious moments, has not dreamed
of the miracle of poetic prose, musical, without rhyme and
without rhythm, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt
itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations
of the psyche, the pricking of consciousness? (2)
This ‘undulations of the psyche, the pricking of consciousness’ insight is central to the vision and practice that gave rise to the prose-poem: that of ‘making strange’, also, the clarion and action call of the Russian Formalist poets of the 1920s, Klebnikov et al. It is celebrating the strangeness that is in the familiar. And when taken to extremes, as it was then and so it is on occasion these days, then we see the ‘familiar’ begin to disappear. Rimbaud the great Symbolist poet and a key figure in the development of the poème en prose, made this call:
It is a matter of arriving at the unknown by the derangement
of all the senses… It is wrong to say: I think. It should be said:
I am being thought…. (3)
Along with Bertrand and Baudeliaire and other French Symbolist poets including, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Max Jacob, Valery et al, the Surrealists were cranking up their Surréalisme programme, a time also of the Dada explosion. It was also propitiously at a time when Psycho-Analysis was being discovered by Freud, Jung and others. It was this growing awareness of the Unconscious as a major force in the development of personality that was so important and taken up by these early advocates of the prose-poem form. The belief in the unconscious as a great matrix and source of a world beneath the surface of appearances. A belief in the unconscious/subconscious as a great, rich, and even formidable source of language. An acceptance of the ‘imperatives of the unconscious’ was and is a keynote conviction in the literary world, and the creative arts in general. Note—the French psychoanalyst Lacan’s succinct declaration: La langue est comme l’inconscient, ‘Language is like the unconscious’. The archetypal act of the making the invisible, visible. What in effect the imagination is doing all the time.
It is in the service of the prose-poem that language can through dream and fantasy, reverie and the (natural) associational fluency of the imagination, create texts in which the reality of the imagination and the imagination of reality flourish.
The prose-poem: a ‘genre of poetry’ in which prose, specifically the prose sentence carries the narrative, in alliance with most of the tropes of poetry available to
- The use of myth, metaphor and symbol, their intense use we find in poetry; an equally intense use of images that fly to each other in sometimes astonishing and strange and curious ways; the ‘leaping’ effect of discontinuity in the narrative drive; the lyric impulse, sometimes in musical passages, in which the language of poetry is made to sing–in various compositional modes, where repetition of phrase or image or single word can not only be a rhythmic device, but can also provide an overall musical and tone-colour effect; and the use sometimes of rhyme, embedded in the text, cross-rhyme, half-or-near rhyme, the flux of assonance and consonance…
And of course, brevity: length, and spatial constraints—a change in scale is a change in meaning however subtle or not, or elusive. In contemporary use of the form, it seems that a page or less, sometimes even just a few carefully wrought sentences. I am thinking particularly of Lydia Davis and Anne Carson and Russell Edson. Or it may be a prose poem of two, even three pages—all or any of which seem to generally observe a definitional limit (needless to say, there are always going to be exceptions). I tend to think spatially and durationally rather than word-count, as in much flash fiction. Anything longer than two or three pages, in terms of duration, and you move into the sustained narrative of straight prose–which can vitiate the concentration of energy and concise language play we find in lyric poetry.
The short form is a useful and essential constraint on the continuous drift of prose narrative; and it exerts a kind of creative pressure, the pressure of concision, on the language–that enables one to exploit the more intense focus on image and metaphor and the like. On way to enable the prose poem to ‘sing’ the sound-of-sense, that is not only satisfying to the ear but also enhances the ‘thoughtfulness’ the text is trying to convey. In addition to being entertaining in some way, the poéme en prose ought to be as thoughtful as it can—the effect of which is to deepen the poem’s reach.
The flat or largely atonal text, deliberately so in some cases (John Ashbery is a paramount example) is another specimen jostling for space in the prose-poem field. And it may be and I think it is, that there’s too much of the wrong kind of jostling going on. The loss of musical meaning.
It is particularly worth noting that in prose, the prose sentence seeks or rather chases time, and movement through time; and the way it cuts through time gives it, if composed by ear as well as by eye, a rhythm of its own, and a kind of prose music. Reading Janet Frame, or Katherine Mansfield, or Fiona Kidman, just for example, you can hear the sound-of-sense that lyrically composed prose can make. Poetry by its nature, and its formal structures rather contains time in a kind of helix-spiral way; this ‘containment’ is one of the things that can animate, and breathe life into the language of lyric poetry. The alliance or more suggestively the liaison between these two forms and the tension between the two is yet another defining trait of the short form. That is also to say that the prose-poem becomes and is a ‘personality’ at play.
One of the qualities that is another marker of what the prose-poem can get up to is a sense of, and an enactment of play—and there are many ways to play as any language learner knows. There is a kind of curious playfulness involved, sometimes a kind of zany, bizarre humour, not to exclude sometimes a kind of fanciful play of wit. Whether this kind of play or playfulness directly rises out of the impulse of the unconscious, it is the dominant factor in acquiring a language. And it may well have something do with the fact that when one dislocates ordinary expectations, ‘plays’ around with the absurdist connections between object and persons (Russell Edson is maestro here); or pushes ambiguity to the edge—then, there is great potential for humour and wit, and laughter; even if it is that quiet kind of laughter that doesn’t need a wide smile or a hoot.
In this respect, it is worth remembering that Freud, the re-discoverer of the Unconscious, in addition to his great opus The Interpretation of Dreams—sometimes referred to as one of the great canonical poems—also wrote his equally extraordinary book about jokes and puns, slips of the tongue and the pen, ‘screen’ memories, bungled actions and intentions (‘I didn’t mean to say what I meant to say’). A book and at the same time something of a ‘best seller’, entitled rather unimaginatively The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. The prose poem generally turns out to be fertile ground for this kind of playing with language.
When thinking about and reading prose-poems, or composing them it’s quite noticeable that there is a conscious use of the vernacular. The demotic register, incorporating the conversational and the speech of everyday use, although it can and often does have a lyric lift to it. A lyric sensibility that does much to keep the ‘music’ of everday speech in play. It’s the sound of words that is for me as reader and writer that matters greatly. This is where the clarity of thought and feeling can best shine through. If the language is not alive enough and making things happen, with the occasional quick surprise, then the poem is most likely moribund on the page and in the ear.
The prose-poems that deliberately set out to exploit cliché, and the worn-down and relentlessy predictable, with confections of over-cooked whimsy, can work to effect and can even be wackily charming, and have their place. That said, it’s a place short lived.
When I think about prose, I think of the sentence. When I think about poetry, I think of the line. For me, it is the fundamental distinction between the two forms of saying. Any detailed discussion of the differences would need to be an extended one. Suffice to say—to cop a cliché for the moment, in brief: where is this poetry line, and line break in the prose-poem going to be? And the question is invariably going to arise: where and how in a prose-poem is one sentence-line going to end and the following one begin?
And does it really matter? The predominate and easy argument is for an arbitrary approach, even if one is working on the principle of the ‘variably invariable line’– trusting one’s intuitive sense that arises out of how the text appears to be unfolding. As a composer-writer, I don’t have any agonising worries about this kind of measuring. When composing, one is always measuring one thing or another in any case. However, I do think that it’s very useful to think about line length that is governed or influenced by the push of thought and feeling generating its own pattern of flow and break. A syntax of thought and feeling; and one way of deciding what’s going to happen at the end of one sentence-line, and the beginning of the other—key places in any form of writing: what are we asking the languge to do in these places when we make the prose-poem discover what it is we are trying to say?
A grace note recalled from one of the venerable Church Fathers, who was also a putative poet on the side: credo quia absurdum est, ‘I believe because it is absurd’.
N O T E S
1 A Poet’s Journal, George Seferis ( Belknap Press, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1974)
2 The Prose Poem, Edited with an Introduction by Michael Benedikt (Dell Publishing Co, Laurel: New York, 1976)
3 Rimbaud, ‘Letter to George Izambard, 13 May 1871’, in Rimbaud, Complete Works, Selected Letters, Translation, Introduction and Notes by Wallace Fowlie (University of Chicago 1967).
‘Il s’agit d’arriver a l’inconnu par le dérèglement de tous les sens
… C’est faux de die: Je pense. On devrait dire: On me pense…