Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Prose Poem

The Prose Poem: “Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels.”

~Peter Johnson, Editor The Prose Poem: An International Journal

Prose poems lack the line breaks associated with poetry but maintain a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. The prose poem can range in length from a few lines to several pages long, and it may explore a limitless array of styles and subjects.

I attended a workshop in October 2010, Outside the Box: Memoir, the Prose Poem, and Flash Fiction led by the past Sonoma County Poet Laureate, Terry Ehret.  While I can’t reproduce this excellent workshop for you here, I’ll try to comment on what I took away with me.

Terry Ehret  tells us that there is a form of poetry that uses:

Imagery

Metaphor

Rhythmic patterns and repetition

Dream imagery—what she calls “dragon smoke”

and is written in a block of prose.

Thinking back to a discussion  on June 9, 2011 in my writing class, we determined that poetry is comprised of: imagery, metaphor including simile and comparison, rhythm, sound, emotion, message, and specific formatting. A prose poem, we determined is imagery, metaphor, rhythm, emotion, message, story arc, in prose format.

Looks like we’re right on track.  Terry suggested that when you are writing and you’ve got a poem that doesn’t have natural line breaks, try writing it as prose. Or  you might want to write only a vignette and therefore leave out the characterization and plot and turn out a prose poem.

I love Terry’s collection of quotes on “what is a prose poem,” especially the Robert Bly quote:

“Its mood is calm, more like a quiet lake than a sea. The fact that the critics have not yet laid out formal standards for the prose poem is a blessing…. When relaxed and aware of no rigid patterns, the mind sometimes gracefully allows itself to play with something equally graceful in nature, and the elegance of the prose poems appears in that play.”

History (from Poets.org)

The form is most often traced to nineteenth-century French symbolist writers. The advent of the form in the work of Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire marked a significant departure from the strict separation between the genres of prose and poetry at the time. A fine example of the form is Baudelaire’s Be Drunk which concludes:

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of  your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

The form quickly spread to innovative literary circles in other coutries: Rainer Maria Rilke and Franz Kafka in Germany; Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz in Latin America; and William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein in the United States. Each group of writers adapted the form and developed their own rules and restrictions, ultimately expanding the definitions of the prose poem.

Among contemporary American writers, the form is widely popular and can be found in work by poets from a diverse range of movements and styles, including James Wright, Russell Edson, and Charles Simic. Campbell McGrath’s winding and descriptive “The Prose Poem” is a recent example of the form; it begins:

On the map it is precise and rectilinear as a chessboard, though driving past you would hardly notice it, this boundary line or ragged margin, a shallow swale that cups a simple trickle of water, less rill than rivulet, more gully than dell, a tangled ditch grown up throughout with a fearsome assortment of wildflowers and bracken.

There are several anthologies devoted to the prose poem, including Traffic: New and Selected Prose Poems and Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present, as well as the study of the form in The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre all available on Amazon.com.

 *****

 Try it:                    Topic         As the Solstice Passes

(or pick your own topic)

Terry Ehret

Terry Ehret former Sonoma County Poet Laureate

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Stripping the Veil—The Modernists

Poetry strips the veil of familiarity from things. ~Shelley

What is poetry? Poetry can be “prosey” (think of prose poems) and prose can be “poetic.” There’s an enormous range of mood and approach within each. So?

Definitions are as numerous as poets. I can think of several things to say to describe poetry, but in the end, poetry is words. Robert Frost defined poetry as “what gets lost in translation.” John Hall Wheelock put it well, “A poem will result when the genius of a language—its words, their sound and their sense—offers the genius of a poet an opportunity to perform a miracle. That masterpiece of coincidence, that achieved miracle, the poem, with its unique syllabic patterns, its unique consonantal and vowel music, its seemingly inevitable cadences (partly the result of skill, partly the result of sheer good luck), is not translatable.”

Some claim poetry is a way of knowing. Language is human’s greatest achievement. We can use words to symbolize, or stand in for, complex experience. A poem is a “constellation of such symbols, representing a poet’s rediscovery of some phase of reality.” (Wheelock) It’s a rediscovery because as we become familiar with things we lose sight of them; we take what we know and experience for granted. Poetry, like any of the arts, is a revelation. It gives the poet’s world back to the poet. Poetry reveals what we know to ourselves. However, poems often require imagination and familiarity with the conventions of the art to be understood. In fact, to some poets, the more obscure and erudite the poem, the better. They want to keep the reader in the dark. It isn’t surprising that poetry often has a bad rap. Goethe’s advice, “Don’t tell it to anyone except the initiated, because the multitude will only jeer at you.” More than obscure, modern poetry has been accused of being cerebral, and empty of feeling. Wordsworth might define poetry as “emotion recollected in anxiety with distaste.”

Poetry might be considered a form of communication, or better, communion within a universal fellowship. The poem doesn’t come as a desire to communicate, but is what happens when a poet rediscovers some part of her lost reality, because it has “been overlaid by the veil of familiarity.” (Shelley) The poem is part of the rediscovery—through it the poet learns what she has forgotten. You might say the poet is talking to herself, established communication with herself, and through that with others. “What was subject has become object. What was on the inside is now on the outside.” (Wheelock)

Poetry changed radically over the last century. T.S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s work began a revolution. They shifted focus from the  Romanticism of Coleridge and Wordsworth. Perception began to overtake emotion in poetry. Poetry shifted to a more observational style with less searching for meaning. Mid-century poetry has been described as analytic, precise, and emotionally uninvolved, rather a scientific method. Poetry left the realm of common knowledge and imagery and moved into a private system of reference, essentially: classical references have given way to intensely personal experience. This isn’t surprising as not all readers and poets share the same background of knowledge anymore, but some lament the loss of feeling. Elizabeth Jennings puts it, “We only move it through the mind…/Perhaps the deeper tragedy/ Is then the inability/ To change a thought into emotion.”

We’ve all heard the many opinions of modern verse. One complaint, it’s lost its music. Free verse can be “disjointed, episodic, and staccato.” (Wheelock) But look at the world that is producing modern poetry. If poetry has become more objective recording and less feeling, it has also become more accessible with the use of common speech.

Wallace Stegner nailed Modernist poetry in his:

“Of Modern Poetry”

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed

To something else. Its past was a souvenir.
It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one. The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.

The Modernists changed the definition of poetry for better or worse. The next post will look at  the further evolution of poetry: Postmodernism.

T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot

(Don’t hesitate to comment with your definition!)

Adapted from What is Poetry?, John Hall Wheelock, 1963, Charles Scribner’s and Sons

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Changing Goals and Emotions

The 4 kinds of characters:

  1. Those who never change, nor does their motivation (Stephanie Plum & James Bond)
  2. Those who don’t change  but their motivations change:  this character’s beliefs and personality don’t change, but what he wants changes as a result of the story events.  Heroes and villains.
  3. Those who change throughout the story although their motivation does not change: this character’s personality and overriding beliefs change regardless of the attainment of his goals. The single goal gives the work unity and comprehensibility while satisfying the reader with a comment on life. The character may get what he wants, but may be dissatisfied.
  4. Those who change along with their motivation: this character /plot is the most complex as his personality and beliefs are changes AND his desire changes as well. Aim toward this style: a progressive motivation (changing desire) and a character with internal changes.

Show motivations by:

-internal monolog

-dictated by another: detective novels

-dialog

-dialog between characters talking about the character in question

-the character’s action (try 2-3 attempts to attain the desire)

The key to juggling motivation and change is to dramatize it! Write in scenes.

Prompt: Write a short scene about the worst visitor who ever darkened your character’s doorway. How is the interaction between the host and guest going to change the host’s personality and desires? Dramatize it. (From Wood, The Pocket Muse)

Adapted from: Alice LaPlant, The Making of a Story, A Norton Guide to Creative Writing 2007, Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, Writers Digest Books, 2005, Robert Olen Butler, From Where We Dream, Grove Press, 2005

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