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Saturday, 8 September 2007

The Prose Poem

A rather unusual email in my website box this week. Unique, I could say. From Portugal. A whole string of questions, from "What about a regular column on 'Little Known Facts of Poetry'?" (more appropriate for the blog, perhaps?) to, am I an expert on either ghazals (pronounced guzzles) or prose poetry and could I tell him..... in a frenzy of excitement at having had such an email to my website, I turned at once to answer it, only to wilt at the number of points raised. Then a better idea occurred: post the reply on the blog, thereby providing me with a ready-made subject and guaranteeing at least one additional visitor. (My Portuguese friend is comfortable with this.)

First of all, no, I am not an expert on either ghazals or prose poetry.... Well, thinking about it, I guess I know as much about ghazals as about other forms of poetry (interpret that as you will!), but all I will say for now is that a couple of blogs back (Two Poets) I wrote of Khalvati's latest book which contains some excellent examples. There are also plenty on the web, though many of these would not be regarded as 'true' ghazals. I may write more on them in the future.

Of prose poetry I probably know less, but never having been one to let ignorance stand in the way of an opinion, I will have a go. According to some authorities, the genre we know as prose poetry was invented by Baudelaire, though others maintain that it goes back to the ancient Hebrews and that The King James Bible is full of examples. Others believe that it is not a genre at all. These divide into two camps, one maintaining that it belongs to poetry by virtue of the way it uses language, and because of its (often) metaphorical nature. The other believes it to be a branch of prose through its reliance (usually) on narrative and its pursuit (usually) of some form of objective truth. I have seen it argued that prose poetry is really literary prose by another name, and that it shares with poetry a more thorough-going use of rhythm, euphony, fragmentation and so forth. It is the lack of recurring metric patterns that identifies it as prose. In Aristotle's famous dictum: It must neither possess meter nor be without rhythm. Additionally, some have pointed to the absence of line breaks as evidence of its place in the prose camp. This last point strikes me as being wholly trivial. What we can say, I think, is that at its best, prose poetry demonstrates the power of poetry in its use of compression, rhyme, assonance and those layers of meaning and nuance which take on such importance in our journey to understand what is being said.

So, if prose poetry looks like prose, it nevertheless reads - and sounds - like poetry, and it stays with us the way that poetry does. But of course, there are degrees. Most good prose (apart from purely technical, "plain" prose) has elements of poetry, which is why, no doubt, my Portuguese friend*asks how it is possible to tell "whether a piece of prose-looking writing is just prose or actually is a bit of prose poetry" (sic). At what point, I suppose he is asking, does it cross over? How many boxes must be ticked for it to qualify? It is like asking at what point, as you add red to mauve, does it become purple? It depends. On the viewer. On the colours around it. On the light. Or perhaps we should take our cue from the Modern painters and say, It is prose poetry because I say it is!

I will conclude with two examples. First, the final passage of Baudelaire's "Be Drunk".

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."

My other example is "Hysteria" by T.S.Eliot

S she laughed I was aware of becoming involved
in her laughter and being part of it, until her
teeth were only accidental stars with a talent
for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps,
inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally
in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by
the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter
with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading
a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty
green iron table, saying: "If the lady and
gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden,
if the lady and gentleman wish to take their
tea in the garden ..." I decided that if the
shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of
the fragments of the afternoon might be collected,
and I concentrated my attention with careful
subtlety to this end.

Or click here for an interesting read on the influence of William Wordsworth on the prose poem.

* I do not know that my emailer is Portuguese, only that the email came from Portugal.

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