WORKS DISCUSSED: The Art of the Poetic Line by James Longenbach, St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2008 and The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice, edited by Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek, Brookline, MA: Rose Metal Press, 2010.
The older I get, the more obvious some patterns of human response become. My neural webs—much like the worldwide one, another web taking up a lot of real estate in the foreground of my thoughts—make connections between my observations, my perceptions and experience, and thrust those recognitions forward in the mind-queue where they, more often than not, meet up with others of a similar bent. The connections mingle and multiply, and the dynamics repeat themselves, until fractals begin to look like cleanly sliced pieces of cake. And so I see, too, that this connecting and compounding has many correspondences with the small-world paradigm, otherwise known as the human web, manifested so aptly in Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon on the internet and which appears to be a spin-off of John Guare’s play, Six Degrees of Separation, which no doubt had its genesis in the 1929 short story “Chains” by the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy, who Wikipedia identifies as the “first proponent of the six degrees of separation concept.” And these three manners of web—the neural, the world wide, and the human—call forth, almost against my will, a linguistic connection to yet another, much less complex, but still apropos, system of webbing: the one which exists between the toes of ducks.
And having none of these exactly in hand, I am nevertheless web-rich. And I can feel another association forming. So now, along with these two books on the nature of line and no-line in poetry, James Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line and Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek’s Field Guide to Prose Poetry—the first a paradoxically tiny but encyclopedic compendium of techniques for poetic lineation and the second, a selection of personal essays on non-lineated or prose poetry—the anecdote of my own, but long-gone, duck seems both apt and felicitous. And then, the duck having been added to the mix, my mother must follow close behind.
My mother is ninety-nine and lives alone, three thousand miles from where I reside. She still lives in the same house I’m about to tell you about, and we have no other family to speak of. So, obviously, I keep waiting for the call from a stranger. I’ve gotten plenty of calls, but, so far, not the call. As time moves on, the expectation becomes more charged with certainty, and the certainty more charged with resignation. The anticipation has been, in a way, renting out a large part of my conscious mind for over twenty years; it has, in fact, earned tenure, while I have not, and, under different circumstances this would be tragic, but with the long-now of the current state of affairs, frankly, the horrification factor is losing its edge. All that she will allow to be done for her has been done. She’s made her choices by default; she will not budge. It’s not that she’s senile; she’s not. She’s stubborn and angry and will stick to her life-choice guns until no life exists for the choices to determine. I know that sounds hard-hearted, but the being-held-in-suspension has worn down my ability to feel. She must feel it herself, though I suspect that in her case she experiences it as a sense of abandonment and terror. She has always been the metaphorical long-haul trucker in the shiny, new eighteen-wheeler with mud flaps and a bottomless tank of fuel. And though she is somewhat diminished, she’s still holding on to that trucker attitude and she’s rolling her eighteen wheels in neutral and on her own terms downhill toward eternity.
The poor duck, the actual duck, on the other hand, came into my life late one afternoon, did its brief, surprising work, and exited the morning afterward. Ma was fifty-two or three back then. Almost a decade younger than I am now and, for all intents and purposes, a single mother of one. She still worked full-time at the county courthouse as a PBX operator and she maintained her brittle thread of sanity by steady, predictable patterns of behavior and boatloads of cultivated aloneness disguised as self-denial.
I was in the very early throes of high school. We had just moved from an apartment on the other side of town to the almost equally as small two-bedroom, one-bath house on Hillview Avenue, nearer the high school and the courthouse. The bathroom, with a footprint just slightly larger than that of the bathtub conjoined with a phone booth, was just through the archway from the living room and on the right. It opened into what could only be called a small fainting room, though surely it was not a fainting room because the house was a bungalow, one old, stucco story but neither dignified nor old enough to have a genuine fainting room. Ma, when we first moved in, had ordered, extravagantly, an olive green nylon, multilevel loop, wall-to-wall carpet for every room except the kitchen and bathroom. And below the archway was a lumpy carpet seam right where, for some odd architectural reason, the hardwood floor dropped down on the living room side a full three-quarters of an inch. In the living room, the old maroon sofa, covered in a gristly, rayon frisé that engraved its fibrous, paisley-like pattern on your cheek as soon as you fell asleep there, was pushed back against the ecru drapes which, when drawn, nearly covered the picture window. There were two mismatched chairs on the other outside wall, perpendicular to the sofa. One was a low, masculine piece, my mother, sometime in a past so distant it was before my remembering, had reupholstered in a peony-leaf green fabric, nubby, but patternless. By this point, though, the chair had faded and was softened by age and use. Its arms were very low along the seat cushion, straight and upholstered, and ended with what looked a little like curled fists carved in dark wood. The chair had been my father’s—Ma’d thrown him out for the last time close to a decade before, but held on to the chair. The other chair Ma’d picked up at the local auction house, an almost delicate wingback covered in a pinwale corduroy somewhere between pink and red, with a medallion of iris quilted into the center of its back. It had been uncomfortable when she brought it home, eighty percent of the chair poking precariously out of the trunk of her little white Opel Kadett, tied in with some small-gauge hemp twine that someone at the auction house must have given her, and it had not gotten more comfortable with age. Ma tended to sit sideways on the sofa, feet up on the seat cushions as though it were a chaise and her head propped between the sofa back and curtain-covered wall on a pillow she’d bring out from her bedroom.
The house was small enough that when I sat at the end of the sofa next to the front door, I could see a sliver of bathroom on the tub side; a narrow strip of porcelain, aluminum runner, and glass enclosure. But if I sat in the green chair, I could see a slightly larger slice of the same scene. There was never anything much to see in that sliver and slice, but I was constantly aware of it because such proximity reinforced the notion of being entirely too close, of having no privacy, no place to go to get away. Of needing to shut the door. But even with the bathroom door closed, anyone could hear every jostle, breath, and displacement that transpired in that bright and claustrophobic room (someone long before we moved in had installed a primitive skylight with chicken wire in the glass high above the small sink whose scaly pipes Ma had concealed with a tiny Formica sink-surround from Sears). The toilet was tucked into a just-barely-toilet-sized rectangular alcove to the right of the sink and flimsy wire shelves were suspended between two peeling, fake-chrome poles, one on each side of the tank, which stretched loosely from floor to ceiling. They always held the same inventory: a box of tissues, Ma’s liniments and emulsions, a compact of pale face powder, the long plastic tube of black mascara, a small cut-glass dish that seemed always to have three mostly used bright red lipsticks, plus a couple of hair brushes and a rat-tailed comb, my pimple creams, PhisoHex, and multiple mouthwashes. There was also a white china poodle whose poofy fur parts had obviously been extruded from a garlic press and who was chained delicately to two little poodles of exactly the same design. The mother poodle tended to fall over because her little china feet could get no steady purchase on the widely spaced wire shelves, though her doppelganger appendages were able to straddle a single wire and, more often than her, remain upright. Still, most of the time all three dogs were on their sides, apparently dead or sleeping, in the bathroom glare. The most interesting part, for the rare visitor, was that when you hunkered down on the toilet, all that paraphernalia on the shelves behind your head shifted a bit in an unsettling way, and your knees bumped the vanity. The longer your thigh bones, the wider you had to spread your knees to settle on the toilet seat. The combination tub/shower with its glass wall and sliding glass door was along the wall on the other side; that was your vista. You could almost reach over the sink and touch it.
Perhaps now is a good time to introduce the concept of the practical joke. Wikipedia: “A practical joke (also known as a prank or gag) is a mischievous trick played on a person, especially one that causes the victim to experience embarrassment, indignity, or discomfort. . . . The term ‘practical’ refers to the fact that the joke consists of someone doing something (a practice) instead of a verbal or written joke.” There’s a footnote on prank that led me to, “Other forms of pranks involve unusual applications of everyday items like covering a room with Post-It Notes.” By these definitions, then, it was the hybrid practical prank that I was about to court.
The afternoon of the event, my friend Holly showed up with a mallard duck decoy. I cannot for the life of me remember why she dropped by or why she had the duck or for what reason she brought it with her into the house. But the moment I saw that marvelous, awful duck, I knew what I was going to do. I asked if I could keep it overnight. Holly was reluctant. It wasn’t her duck, she told me. “One night,” I assured her. I’d bring it over to her place the next day. Honest. “What could I possibly do to the duck?” I asked her, reaching over and tapping on its hollow head with a couple of fingers. Swayed by my powerful yet specious argument, Holly handed it over and left shortly afterward. The duck was amazingly weighty for a rubber duck, but its green head and oddly yellowed bill were heavy with promise as well. Its sturdy rubber body was a nice speckly gray, its breast a little darker. It was at least life-size. It was magnificent.
Leaving the seat down, I placed him gently in the toilet bowl facing forward. It was a brilliant fit—he was neither floating freely nor wedged in tightly. It was as though that duck had been created for that particular commode. His regal, hollow, rubber head rose greenly above the white wooden seat with the clean, white porcelain bowl below, its water sloshing as though in his wake. His splendid bill with its apparently lifelike-from-a-distance speckly yellow-orange-greeny color slid smoothly across the seat front, poking just over the outer edge. It settled into the curve there so beautifully it was as though that particular seat had been molded for that particular bill and had been waiting for this meeting all its wooden life.
I was already laughing.
The plan hinged on my mother’s predictability. Every weekday evening between 5:20 and 5:30, she would unlock the old front door with its two Schlage deadbolts, push it noisily open, and, keys still jangling in her hand, toss whatever coat or sweater she had, her gloves, and her purse onto the wing chair to her left. She’d look my way if I were in the living room reading or watching TV, a sort of weary hello would drop from her mouth, and she’d stand there a moment, as though she were relieved to be home, but her tired eyes would be scanning the room—and looking around the corners too, I would have sworn—assessing which of my chores had not been done or had been done perfunctorily. Did she smell baked chicken? Was the smell of warm laundry in the air? Had I vacuumed? I could see her counting off my, admittedly, few chores, her mind clicking away like an abacus. If my infractions appeared large on a particular day, her sigh would be deep and heavy, her shoulders would droop even lower, and she’d begin the inquisition; if they were small, she’d sigh as though my uselessness were just one more disappointment in a lifetime of disappointments. But, always, after that, she’d head straight for the bathroom where she would take a five-minute freshen-herself-up, flush, open the door, and make that sharp left back into the living room where she’d gather up her coat, hang it in the small closet on the one, broad-shouldered wooden hanger we owned, then come back, pick up her purse, gloves, and keys and walk slowly back to her bedroom. Not bothering to close her door, she’d flop heavily onto the edge of her bed and kick off her heels. It would take approximately another five minutes for her to change from her work clothes into some other, less-good dress, slip on some low shoes, and head into the kitchen to conjure dinner.
Because I knew I could count on that pattern, I sat in the green chair that evening, the floor lamp shade angled perfectly over my open book so she wouldn’t tell me I was ruining my eyes. And I waited. I couldn’t read; I was too wound up. I kept looking out the front window, laughing to myself—Wait! Was that her car? I’d nearly vacuumed the green out of the carpet and had dusted the TV screen because I knew that a dusty screen was a dead giveaway. The chicken smelled the way chicken smells when it has another fifteen minutes to go and the fat is sizzling in the pan. I was a perfect child. This was going to be great.
I’m not really sure what I expected. I don’t think I even thought that far ahead. But I certainly had expectations because my heart was beating like a hammer in my chest and I was looking forward to the night being different, to having a little fun for a change. Half of me probably acknowledged she’d catch a glimpse of the duck when she first walked into the bathroom and call out to me, “What the hell is a duck doing in the toilet?” and I’d have to restrain myself from answering, “The backstroke.” But even that would have been sufficiently different, a change of some sort, if only momentary. And maybe a quarter of me thought she’d be startled by that green head looking her way and that she’d laugh and say affectionately, “Oh, Renée. You’re such a nut,” lift the duck from the toilet, giving it a little shake so it didn’t drip on the oval, rubber-backed, shag rug, and set it in the bathtub to dry off—and not mention it again—but, still, the night would be better for that instant of genuine warmth. The other quarter of me, I’m sure, knew there was a real possibility she wouldn’t notice the duck at all, she’d defile it, and I’d have to do some unpleasant duck-scrubbing before I saw Holly the next day. But in my mindless anticipation, the whole set-up just seemed funny to me: my zombie Ma, predictable, oblivious, and a big duck waiting in the toilet. How could that not be funny?
So when Ma finally turned the second key in the lock and pushed the door open, I was nonchalantly coiled up in Dad’s chair “reading” a thick book with smallish print and yellowed pages, a library book wrapped in those old covers that felt painted on and were almost always a solid, saturated color except for the title and author and Dewey Decimal System number stamped deeply in white or black onto the spine. I know it was a big book because I only took out big books. They were like anchors in another world. Ma tossed down her coat and purse and keys, gave me a look that said I’m doing the best I can, and walked past me and past the bathroom and turned right into her bedroom.
It was unthinkable! She never varied unless she thought I’d been in some way particularly abhorrent and wasn’t in sight and then she might stop in the living room and do that deep-in-her-throat-controlled-fury thing that everything with ears and within walking distance of town could hear and she’d keep it up until I would come running to get my direct earful. But I was right there; she looked right at me. I was curled in Dad’s chair waiting. And waiting. My face can only have been a rictus of stifled anticipation and confusion. She’d gone into her bedroom! She shouted to me from back there. Had I peeled the potatoes? And from my perfect spot in the living room I answered, “Yes.” And still she didn’t come out. “Good,” she said after a moment. “Throw them in the water. I’ll be out in a minute.”
And I thought—more of a thought-scream than a thought-thought—“No! I can’t! I’ll miss it!” But I unwound myself from the chair and ran into the kitchen, overfilled the tri-corner Silver Seal pot with cold water, turned on the burner, put the pot on, threw both potatoes, whole, into the water, checked to make sure the splash hadn’t doused the flame, and dashed back to my chair, pulled my feet up again, and picked up the book. Ma was just coming out of her bedroom. She turned into the bathroom and pulled the door closed behind her.
And nothing happened.
I straightened myself out. I moved literally to the edge of my seat—and I waited and waited and waited—and finally I gave up. Something in me acknowledged that in the not-too-distant future I’d be scrubbing a decoy—and then the bowels of acoustic hell blew out. A scream, the likes of which surely must never have been heard before, cut right through my disappointment. I could hear the crashing of cheap, thin metal. Then a cabinet door flew open and struck the wall with a crack! I could hear a shower of breakage and then what only could have been the sound of Ma’s new sink-surround being pulled away from the wall. There was a horrible human groan. And before I could even process what came next, the bathroom door flew open. Ma, the wide, dark top of a nylon stocking flapping around each foot, her big white panties pooled around her ankles, her skirt and slip bunched up like a useless life preserver around her waist, was seemingly flung from the bathroom and into the fainting room wall from which she ricocheted onto the closet door. And then, in a terrible ballet of confluences, she stepped with one foot on the opposite foot’s nylon stocking, hit that seam in the carpet that covered that three-quarter-inch drop, and she was lost. She took one off-balance step toward the living room, her shin struck the coffee table and she fell, belly against the Formica coffee table top and her face full-flat into the center sofa cushion. Her arms, which looked broken, were sticking out like . . . broken arms. And she just stayed there, her pale white behind in the air, shaking, now, as though those flailing buttocks themselves were trying to catch their breath. And my mother—in that position—cried for what seemed like a very long time.
When I was able to close my mouth, I knew there was nothing in the world I could do about what was coming. I started to laugh. I was crying at the same time. When Ma finally raised her head and moved, and I saw that her arms were not broken after all, I knew she was going to kill me, but, still, I couldn’t stop. The tears were rolling down my cheeks, over my jaw, down past my clavicle, and into my bra. I tried to stop, and I’d manage for a gasp’s worth, but the pressure would build—the pressure of surprise and terror both—and I’d break out again, the laughter and the bawling having merged into a kind of a howl. I tried to speak. “Oh, Ma . . .” but my words were unintelligible. The pay-off of a lifetime, and nowhere to look and nothing to say. It was brilliant and awful. It was hilarious. It was horrible. It overshot anything I could have imagined, and every time I moved to help her to her feet and came close to her bare ass sticking up and the soles of her feet trailing those ruined hose, I thought I was going to disintegrate from the mixture of horror and astonishment. I was going to laugh so hard that I was going to die before she could kill me.
It had played out like this: Ma hadn’t noticed the duck until she had pulled up, and pushed down, the usual articles of clothing, and she’d been lowering herself onto the seat when she caught, somehow, a glimpse of that green head and bright eye between her legs. She told me years later, still not laughing, her body had acted independently, had simply shot up and away. I could see it all: her reptile brain shouting Flee! Flee! She’d been a billiard ball speeding across green, level felt. She’d been physics and geometry. Every abrupt contact sent her helplessly shooting off in another direction until she focused her eyes and will just long enough to reach out and turn the doorknob. After a similar scenario in the fainting room, she’d taken her awkward rest where she had. And when she’d finally righted herself, and shaken off my hysterical attempts to help her, she’d said only one thing and she said it with a deadly calm: “Renée, you’re a goddamned asshole.” Beyond that, she didn’t speak to me for a very long time.
And so, my hypothesis: that much of what we experience in human intercourse depends on a particular triad of psychological states experienced in cause-and-effect order: recognition, expectation, and reaction to variation.
And poetry is a human intercourse—created by one and experienced by another.
* * *
There is much in common in The Art of the Poetic Line and Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice—and the observations of how both lineation and its absence work on the reader—with the story of my mother and the duck. The shared matters have to do with the recognition of a pattern, the expectation, in its nuanced or not-so-nuanced forms, of continuation; and the resultant payoff set into action by the catalyst of variation.
No one I know enjoys being bored. Readers of poems recognize a pattern and then develop an expectation—unconsciously, in all likelihood, but set in place all the same. The pattern is, then, somehow altered (line “ending,” syntaxes, etc.) and, the reader’s expectation unmet, her attention is ratcheted up and the triad set in motion again.
If you are the one who is the maker, who has experienced the blind “aha!” that precedes the setting in place of the plan, the setting up of the catalyst, you are the manipulator: let’s call her the daughter in the anecdote above. The instant the daughter saw that duck, the game was afoot. Or, that might be the poet who suddenly has a lyric impulse. Neither plan nor poem need be articulated before or during the “aha.” The “aha” is preverbal, a sort of understanding-but-not-yet-having-the-words-to-articulate-the-understanding-with moment. Articulation is a later step. On the other hand, if you are the one on which the plan has been foisted or the one to which, in some manner, the poem has been passed, you’re either Ma or the reader. You are the manipulatees. And of course, since reading and writing are different expressions of the same activity, both parties, the manipulator as well as the manipulatee, can experience surprise.
Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line, is more than just the little (5″x7″, 128 pages) book it appears to be. It’s concise, yes, and though the font is a reasonable size, the book is almost airlessly packed with intelligent observation on the nature and possibilities of the poetic line. It’s straightforward, absolutely clear, bursting with information that will scoop up and hold the attention of a smart poet, want-to-be poet, or dedicated poetry reader.
The first sentence in Logenbach’s preface is this: “Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines.” I’d never heard it stated that way before. And I thought, uh-oh, a formalist in my hand. But then came this near the end of that same paragraph: “We wouldn’t be attracted to the notion of prose poetry if it didn’t feel exciting to abandon the decorum of lines.” First of all, his use of the word decorum near the end of that sentence lights up, in retrospect, the words exciting and abandon that come earlier, making those two ideas look suddenly young and dangerous. With that first paragraph he has defined the parameters of his volume. In my second reading, I was better able to see the character, or at least the persona, of the man who wrote the book. His precision and efficiency—he lacks all prissiness and/or snobbishness—is ideal for the almost endless mutability of the reasoned line. I liked him.
Logenbach divides his book into three sections: 1) “how the power of lineation arises from the relationship between the lines and the syntax of a particular poem”; 2) how “the power especially of free-verse lineation depends on the interaction of different kinds of line endings within the same poem”; and 3) how the “relationship of lineated poems to prose” might be considered. This ambitious triumvirate sets the reader up for the decorum and thoroughness that is a hallmark of the book itself and Longenbach’s many, and utterly crucial for the writer of poetry, observations on line.
The basic point he makes again and again in context after context is that “line has no identity except in relation to the other elements in the poem.” He is not being prescriptive, but descriptive; he is articulating what he sees and how it appears to function. And what he sees in “all accomplished poetry,” is tension “between pattern and variation.”
Longenbach is a great teacher, sagacious in his statements and restatements. An example from section one:
If rhyme is jettisoned from a poem, what tactic must flex its muscles in order to keep the poetic contraption in the air? Meter. And if meter is foresworn? Line. And if line is abandoned? Syntax. And if syntax is abandoned? Diction. Sometimes it will be necessary for a poet to remember every tool in the kit; at other times it will be equally crucial to forget them, though nothing can be forgotten if it has not first been remembered.
I’m a sucker for a fabulous teacher, so how could I not be charmed by a man who has put into context now, and expanded precisely on, the “power of lineation” statement set up in his preface? Here’s a great excerpt from section one, “Line and Syntax,” regarding line breaks in free verse:
Deciding where the line should end in a free-verse poem might initially seem more mysterious than in a metered or syllabic poem, but in fact it is not: whether or not the line ending is determined by an arbitrary constraint, the line ending won’t have a powerful function unless we hear it playing off the syntax in relationship to other line endings.
And this from section two, “Ending the Line”:
The purpose—the thrill—of a free verse prosody lies in the ability to shape the movement of a poem through the strategic use of different kinds of line endings. The line’s control of intonation creates the expectation for meaningfulness, allowing a poem’s language to wander from its more workaday organizational tasks.
And: “The drama of lineation lies in the simultaneous making and breaking of our expectations for pattern.”
Isn’t that fabulous? Isn’t that true of what keeps us going in poetry—and elsewhere? The finessed and utterly necessary surprise?
In section three, “Poem and Prose,” he says:
We are used to thinking of prose poetry as writing that sacrifices lineation in order to partake more readily of certain aspects of prose: our attention shifts from line to sentence, and syntax must hold our attention without the additional direction of line (or meter or rhyme).
And then coming full circle:
The effect of our more typical notion of a prose poem depends on the deletion of lineation from the formal decorum of poetry, and the absence of the line would not be interesting if we did not feel the possibility of its presence.
You should read The Art of the Poetic Line; it’s a remarkable book. The speaker has convinced me that he is a gentleman and a scholar in the very best sense. Poetry—and the line—is the deep and only subject of his book—and this within a series of books that has often, albeit delightfully so, given the author’s personality its head. His is a well-packed, weighty, and generous addition to the literature dedicated to the craft of poetry.
A different nature of book altogether, The Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice, announces itself as a book of modest ambition: “[Our] book is here to reveal a small window on the vast and potentially limitless universe of prose poetry,” and the editors mourn the fact that the term the prose poem “has come to define a small, justified block of writing wherein ‘weird shit happens.’” As do I. The “weird shit” imperative, though, must be emanating from writers who haven’t read broadly enough to be aware of the gorgeous lyric and meditational, not to mention narrative, non-weird-shit prose poems out there, so I’m already convinced Rose Metal Press’s objective is a commendable one. They go on:
But the question remains, what exactly is a prose poem? There is no one correct answer. There are no two correct answers. In fact, there might not even be an accurate enough question with which to wrangle. The best we can do is call it something instead of calling it something else.
I have to disagree, though, that the question might not be sufficiently accurate: though there may be no “correct” answers, the question is plenty accurate. The fact that it cannot be answered definitively is its answer.
The book’s contributors were asked “to speak about the impact of the prose poem on their personal lives and aesthetics,” the editors having decided early on that they didn’t want some kind of “be-all-end-all pronouncement on the genre’s shape and prominence, but rather to add more voices to an ongoing conversation about what the prose poem can be and do and say.” The book includes thirty-four personal essays, then, on the prose poem, “all written by current practitioners and teachers of the form” and an example of a prose poem from each.
The highlight for me, however, the most fascinating and telling part of the book, is in the Introduction:
The story of the voting for the 1978 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry has been told many times, but it bears repeating here to illustrate said suspicion. Two members of the three-member committee voted to award that year’s prize to Mark Strand for his book of short prose musing on death, entitled The Monument. The third committee member, Louis Simpson, opposed the selection and ultimately kept Strand from receiving the prize. Simpson objected to Strand’s collection on the grounds that it was composed of prose pieces, not lineated ones. Simpson argued that the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry was to honor excellence in verse writing, and after taking his argument to the higher-ups, the committee’s selection of Strand was overturned.
I had never heard this story or if I had I’d forgotten it. But it took place only thirty-two years ago! Granted, that’s a lifetime for some, but it explains a lot as well as anchors this sub-genre, though I’d prefer to call it a hybrid form, in America’s literary history with a heck of a hoot. It’s both awful—poor Mark Strand! poor majority of the committee!—and, still, awfully funny. The dividing line for Simpson between poetry and prose was a critical demarcation—one worth fighting for—and despite the fact that the majority, both his peers, were ready for the merger, he won! And then, twelve years later, in 1990, Charles Simic’s book of “mostly prose poems” won the Pulitzer Prize.
Things have changed. And they have not changed. As the editors at Rose Metal point out, the conversation continues. And to muddy the waters even further, the first piece in the book is entitled, “Prose Poem Essay on the Prose Poem”—a short piece by the poet Bob Hicok, known best for his wildly compressed, and mostly very funny, lineated narratives. “Certain questions,” he says about two-thirds of the way through “are answered best with a shrug: why write until the carriage returns? Cause it’s a pumpkin and I want pie,” which at first sounded to me like the “weird shit” the editors mentioned earlier. But, because I know Hicok’s work and his searingly dry wit, I lingered, and of course he’s punning on the carriage that comes for Cinderella, zapped by her fairy godmother from a pumpkin, which will, once again, become pumpkin, and the carriage on a typewriter. But what’s he saying, really? Simply, you do what you need to do to get the results you want. That’s pretty nifty, actually. A nice compression, a bit of color, no imperative. The piece is sharp and goofy, and in its way definitive. “Once upon a time there was a little bit of plot and a lotta bit of letting go of plot,” it begins. It’s a piece full of silliness and significance: it is an ars poetica for the hybrid form. “For instance:” Hicok says, “[T]here was this guy I knew in this room of needing someone to look out the window and feel how the field of a prose poem grows, how like an acre it spreads across the page with the sense that we need more land to let language have its say. I like that. It’s an impulse I recognize, but can’t consistently harness.”
And there are other well-spoken passages in the collection—many of which use simile well to make their point, and many, too, which touch on the same territory as Longenbach, but with a great deal more air. In prose poetry, Maurice Kilwein Guevara says:
The line break is not available as an organizational unit so the writer depends instead on the sentence and the paragraph. It seems to me, for this reason, that some of the most interesting prose poems are constructed as complex electrical circuits with breakers and relays that create multiple patterns of energy and surprise in the gaps between the sentences and the paragraphs. In this sense, a well-made prose poem, when it carefully uses words and when it strategically does not, dramatizes the velocity of a human imagination at work and at play and in the buzzing conversation with itself.
Less literal precision, certainly, looser, but look: a fantastic trope! The prose poem “constructed as complex electrical circuits with breakers and relays that create multiple patterns of energy and surprise”! I love it, and I believe it. I can feel that; I don’t have to think about it. And that sort of connective, metaphorical recognition is something that Longenbach, both his feet firmly on the ground of observation, does not provide. But after that initial glow, I’ve got questions. How is Kilwein Guevara’s description of a prose poem any different from a lineated poem that exhibits velocity and imagination? A Bob Hicok poem, for instance. Hicok’s work is bursting with velocity and imagination. Or what about one of James Richardson’s marvelous, unlineated “Ten Second Essays”? You’ll find a velocity and imagination there as well. So I’m confused. I seem to know something more than I did about the prose poem, or know it differently, but, oddly, I’m not exactly certain what that knowledge might be.
I can see what I’m doing—and in a way it’s not fair, and in another way it makes my point very well. The Field Guide to Prose Poetry is a book that had no greater ambition than to capture some insights and articulations by practitioners about what is admittedly a permeable, uncodified form. It is a sampling of tastes and experiences, and some of them quite interesting. Yet these writers do know what a prose poem is, even though many of their articulations are a bit swampy.
One piece that stood out in particular, though, was “Out of My Prose Poem Past” by David Lazar. In it he discusses his tastes in the context of his editorship at Hotel Amerika. “I tend to look for work,” he says, “[T]hat stretches my sense of what a prose poem can do, rhetorically, and I’m biased toward a sense of musicality except when the rhetoric is sharp and purposive. I like wit and distress to the point of extremis.” He knows what he’s looking for, and that’s a bit of solid ground to stand on, which is a relief, in a book that is basically about a not-knowing.
The book’s title misled me, set up an expectation and, mostly, left that expectation unfulfilled; there’s more musing than guiding happening here. So I go back to trope, which seems more real than this proposed field. This time to Tung-Hui Hu’s “It’s Not in Cleveland, But I’m Getting Closer”: “[A] good prose poem makes its own envelope. It wraps and secrets words inside a block of text, rather than unfolding meaning outwards onto the page (the Latin implicare rather than explicare).”
That’s good. It takes the justified margins and incorporates them into the image. Nice. I see it; I understand. And yet I have those crossover questions again: doesn’t a good lineated poem also make its own envelope—if not in a rectangular visual resemblance, then in some other fashion? Figuratively? A poem is a vessel after all. And doesn’t a good lineated poem also, and literally, secret words? Doesn’t it unfold meaning outwards? I agree these are excellent criteria for a poem, but they apply to both prose and lineated forms. They are in no way singular to the prose poem.
But for this little segment from Mary Ann Samyn’s “‘Close to You’: The Prose Poem: Some Observations,” I do not have such questions, “Perhaps this is the difference: in my lined poems, I expect to have to wait, exposed, out in the open; in my prose poems, I push a button and the elevator opens and then I go up or down, depending.”
Or did not. Because now I have gone back to reread an earlier snippet from the same essay:
It is not my process that differs; it’s the push and pull of language. Magnets are a useful metaphor. In many of my lined poems, there is a strong sense of each line existing independently and, indeed, repelling, to some extent, the other lines. In my prose poems, the attraction is much stronger. The cohesive force holds the prose poem together and accounts for its blockiness. Yet, there is something happening sentence to sentence.
I believed the first quote was speaking about her process, different for lined poems than from prose poems, but this earlier segment posits an a priori no. And again, metaphor is working for me better than the prose at its face value. She is saying there’s a different force to each, to lineated language and to prose. I recognize this, I do. Though I would not have come to the word force by myself, I understand this. I’m glad she said that. It’s a true thing—and stable. I can stand there.
I wrestled with this book more than I might have, I think, because I read it immediately after Logenbach’s solid-ground descriptions and evidences, his sturdy informations. Context and positioning being such makers of experience, both books were redeemed—though in fairness they should not have needed redemption—by adjusting my wrong-sighted gaze, by trying to experience both books in the spirit in which they were offered, not the personal context in which I first tried to receive them. The Rose Metal Press Field Guide is a book that, without really asking them, raises interesting questions: Can you write in an undefined form? How much does comfort have to do with form? Can you bear up under that much liberty? Can you write well enough, intuitively enough, to travel that particular field with guides who can only suggest where you might be and might be going, but cannot get you there? The Field Guide is more a book of faith than a source of information. A book of recognitions rather than of comprehensions. It’s a different kind of resource.
And since I’ve been stewing about all these connections connecting (webs, jokes—practical and otherwise, the place of anecdotes in reviews, of secondary sources, of poetry both lineated and un-, and the recognition of the brittleness and utter importance of the role of expectation in poetry, prose, and life), I’ve come to the conclusion that my triad of brain-states and their interrelated dynamics are more than just present. I think they’re basic.
The world has become a wider place since the duck, and even webbier. And so, because I can, and out of curiosity and a bit of sentimentality, I google mallard decoy. And as with just about everything else, the variety of decoys available surprises me. It’s kind of terrifying and kind of funny. You can purchase various species in “cast poly resin,” molded plastic, inflatable plastic, parachute material, and doubtless others I won’t bother to find and catalog; you can buy them with weighted keels (what’s a keel?), flocked heads, mechanical wings or feet or bills, remote controls (some that don’t even need batteries). You can purchase a “feeder duck butt motion decoy,” which is the back half of a faux mallard that wiggles in the water as though its head were submerged instead of missing, and is indistinguishable, evidently, from a live mallard butt action that takes place while its front half is feeding under water. You can buy a “landing motion duck decoy,” or one with windmill-like wings that paddle like his feet, if he had feet, might. You can buy “drake mallard breast feathers intack” (sic), the “Expedite Quiver Duck Butt Mallard Drake Decoy,” the “Higdon Floating Flasher Mallard Drake 6 Volt HDI-51057,” or even a “Very Early Flap-o-matic Drake Mallard Duck Decoy OP.” I’m rather partial to the idea of the Flap-o-matic. You can invest in beautifully carved and painted duck objets d‘art not ever meant to touch water; you can buy practical carved or molded wooden ducks with either painted or glass eyes. But my duck, the duck of my acquaintance, is a collectible now, listed under “Sports Memorabilia.” It’s the “Tuffy-Dux,” thirteen-and-a-half-inch rubber mallard drake duck decoy. The one listed tonight at goantiques.com “could use a little cleaning,” “has a few cracks here and there,” but would be “a very nice display piece.” It’s in “Decent Used Condition” and hails from the mid-1900s, which is a comforting connection because so do I. There’s a small, poor picture of the thing: the grayish body, the darker breast, the green head looking forward from which extends a yellowish life-sized bill. It is the duck. It could be the very same duck.
But Ma, alas, is no longer the very same Ma. Now, at nearly a hundred and still full of piss and malice, when I telephone to tell her about this review I’m writing about these books on poetry and how our duck experience connected everything—because I believe she’ll think it’s funny and laugh about this thing we shared so long ago—she calls me an asshole again and tells me I’m making it up. If she doesn’t remember it, it never happened. It’s that simple. And I suppose simple is good at her stage of life. Yet, once again, the outcome is not what I anticipated. I am surprised and saddened that, while the rest of the world, and me with it, is opening up by cyber-proxy and experience, Ma’s world is shutting down, getting smaller all the time. And I see now just how much and how often I have been adjusting my gaze so that I might understand more of the world. I have been engaged, and that engagement, in a life that includes books about poems and in poems themselves, is also a good thing. And because I know that when the impulse for a poem—prose or otherwise—comes over me, I will not know how it will end until I come to its end. And that it would be less exciting if I did know. I am still capable of being surprised despite knowing surprise is on its way. It’s the sequence—recognition, expectation, and response to variation—that keeps me from sleeping my life away and that makes poetry such a magical—nearly inexhaustible—opportunity for variation and response, be there line or be there no line at all.
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Renee Ashley is the author of five volumes of poetry: Because I Am the Shore I Want to Be the Sea; Salt (Brittingham Prize in Poetry, University of Wisconsin Press); The Various Reasons of Light; The Revisionist’s Dream; and Basic Heart (winner of the 2008 X.J.Kennedy Poetry Prize), as well as a novel, Someplace Like This; and two chapbooks, The Museum of Lost Wings and The Verbs of Desiring. She served for seven years as Poetry Editor of The Literary Review. Ashley teaches Poetry in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
This essay first appeared in The Rogue Idea (TLR, Winter 2011)