On the Prosing of Poetry

How Contemporary American Poets Are Denaturing the Poem

Prufrock's Peach

A rebuttal by Fred Moramarco, Editor of "Poetry International"


- Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry
, James Dickey

- The Best American Poetry of 1999,
  Guest Editor, Robert Bly

- The Prose Poem and the Ideology of
, Michel Delville

- Charles Simic, Kim Addonizio excerpts from   Poetry International

Reputations of The Tongue, William Logan

hy poetry? Or, to put it another way, why not say it in prose? Because the need to saysomething profound, or new, or significant, or deeply personal, compels us to find a better way of saying it than through prose, our everyday language. Just as the lover turns to uncharacteristic orations and flowery phrases because he senses the inadequacy of everyday speech in the face of new and profound emotion, so our toasts, elegies, special occasion speeches—all of these turn us into poets of the moment as we sense that the vehicle of expression needs to be worthy of its significant subject matter. Nowhere so much as in poetry is the need to communicate something significant, complex or profound coupled so fiercely with the need to communicate it exactly, such that the hearer understands it even to the point of experiencing the original event or emotion him or herself. We turn to poetry—either in poetic forms or in the heightening of prose with poetic devices—when the matter to be expressed threatens to burst the bounds of prose.

This has long been the case. Before writing was invented, poetry was used to mark special occasions and strong emotions and to burn the necessary stories—the myths and truths of a

Joan Houlihan is a poet-essayist who lives in Boston. Her work has appeared in such publications as Gettysburg Review and Spoon River Poetry Review. A mini-chapbook of Joan's work is available online at:
Web Del Sol.

culture—into the memories of the people. Mnemonic devices such as sound, rhythm, and heightened, pictorial language, economy of expression (“epigrammatic” speech that encodes many meanings in as few words as possible) and assonance, consonance, alliteration, parallelism, were the branding irons used for the task. As well, these devices were incantatory, stirring primal responses to their sound and rhythm, and creating an atmosphere for the sacred and magical. Although spoken, poetry was not common; it was instead, a singular kind of speech, reserved for relaying important or sacred events, ensuring that such events would be remembered almost in a physical way, in the body’s deep response to sound, rhythm and imagery. Speaking poetically served a purpose. Speaking prosaically also served a purpose—to negotiate everyday reality, to speak of those things which were common to all and not worthy of long remembrance—to speak of the world in transit.

Our ability to write did not erase the distinction. It took contemporary American poets, writing in deliberately flat prose about insignificant personal events and feelings; and editors, publishers and critics dubbing such anecdotes and everyday journal entries “poems,” to erase the distinction. We have reached the point we are being asked to believe that a text block, chopped randomly into flat, declarative lines, is a poem. We are told to kneel and stare at this specimen of dead lines laid out in its little coffin on the page, and declare it alive. What do we say?

Although the distinction between prose and poetry as separate genres had already been challenged

We are told to kneel and stare at this specimen of dead lines laid out in its little coffin on the page, and declare it alive. What do we say?

in Europe by the appearance of the "prose poem"*, in America the distinction was seriouslyblurred when William Carlos Williams began a new turn in American poetry, a reliance on flat, declarative sentences, the “common speech” of man, and a subsequent eschewing of heightened language and the poetic devices associated with poetry—in short, a turn toward prose—and noteven, in many cases, a prose poetic enough to meet the standards of good prose (which includes heightened language and poetic devices to maintain interest):

    This is Just to Say

    I have eaten
    the plums
    that were in
    the icebox

    and which
    you were probably
    for breakfast

    Forgive me
    they were delicious
    so sweet
    and so cold.

As James Dickey puts it: “How many beginning writers took Williams as their model: were encouraged to writebecause..Well, if that’s poetry, I believe I might be able to write it too!”* And how many people, some forty yearslater, now look to our Best of American Poetry collections at the millennium’s end and, seeing what’s there, makethe same exclamation?

    She was twenty-five when they settled in our town.
    When they moved from the city into their colonial
    They unpacked wedding china and silver from boxes
    Labeled Tiffany, Bergdorf Goodman, and K-Mart.
    Both men and women leaned like peonies
    Toward the luster and power of her unlimited
    Determining smile. They brought with them a small son
    And she bore two daughters in five years.
    She dressed her children in primary colors
    So that they resembled child models in a catalog,
    Yet they played with such charm they made childhood
    Seem happy. Her handsome husband adored her.

    Smile, Donald Hall

This “poem” goes on for a total of 106 lines in a block of text separated into paragraphs. In all of these lines, itis only the fifth line (“Both men and women leaned like peonies.. etc.”) that could reasonably be classified as“poetry” simply because it uses poetic devices—simile (like peonies), internal rhyme (leaned, peonies) consonance(luster, power) and repetition of sounds (unlimited, determining). The rest of the “poem” has been denatured of itspoetry. It seems almost deliberate, this boiling off of the images and sounds to leave a monotonous recitation of onebland moment after another.

From the same collection:

    The guy picked me up north of Santa Fe
    Where the red hills, dotted with pinon,
    Loop down from the divide into mesas and plain.
    I was standing out there
    --just me, my pack, and the gila monsters—
    when he hauled his Buick off the road
    in a sputter of cinders and dust
    and got out, a gray-bearded, 6-foot, 300-pounder,
    who stretched and said, “Do you want to drive?”

    Story, John Balaban

Unlike Hall’s poem, which contains one line of poetry, this poem contains zero lines of poetry. Here is what Balabansays about his “poem”:

"A true story. Almost a found poem."

...the greater mystery is why anyone would choose to think of this anecdote as a poem at all...when it is clearly an anecdote truncated into lines.

What could this mean? That Balaban titled it “Story” in an ironical, self-conscious way, to make a comment on the state of poetry, much as Warhol’s soup cans made a statement on art? That, just as the soup cans were “found” to be art objects, so this anecdote is included in a collection of poetry because it was “found” to be a .. what? A poem? But he says it’s “almost” a poem. Mysterious as all of this is, the greater mystery is why anyone would choose to think of this anecdote as a poem at all, as implied by its inclusion in The Best American Poetry collection, when it is clearly an anecdote truncated into lines.

Another best poem of 1999 is an anecdote from the poet's teaching experience:

    Once when I was teaching “Dover Beach”
    To a class of freshmen, a young woman
    Raised her hand and said, “I’m confused
    About this ‘Sea of Faith.’” “Well,” I said,
    “let’s talk about it. We probably need
    to talk a bit about figurative language.
    What confuses you about it?”
    “I mean, is it a real sea?” she asked.
    “You mean, is it a real body of water
    that you could point to on a map
    or visit on a vacation?”
    “Yes,” she said. “Is it a real sea?”
    Oh Christ, I thought, is this where we are?
    Next year I’ll be teaching them the alphabet
    And how to sound words out.

    Sea of Faith, John Brehm

This goes on in the same vein for another page. As with Balaban’s Story, you read through this tedious personalanecdote unable to believe it is as devoid of meaning, humor or point as itappears, and with nothing in the language, line after line, to redeem it. Its conclusion is sophomoric:

    ..I wishedit was true, wished there really was a Sea of Faith
    that you could wade out into,
    dive under its blue and magic waters,
    hold your breath, swim like a fish
    down to the bottom, and then emerge again
    able to believe in everything, faithful
    and unafraid to ask even the simplest of questions,
    happy to have them simply answered.

“Swim like a fish”? Yes, the only poetic device. Enough to make you want to drink like a fish. A simple question Ihave is: why is this called a poem? Another is: why is it included in a collection of best poems?Perhaps the most extreme case of stripping the poem of all its identifying characteristics is Robert Creeley’s anorexic anecdote Mitch:

    Mitch was a classmate
    later married extraordinary poet
    and so our families were friends
    when we were young
    and lived in New York, New Hampshire, France.

In a kind of shorthand, Creeley shoots off one thought fragment after another, blurting them out breathlessly as ifto a jogging mate. As William Logan points out:

"In Creeley we never get a memorable image, a thing seen precisely, a sentence carried as far as thinking will takeit. He has eliminated most of the texture of verse, of the pleasurable massing of words. He has at times lost hisvery taste for sentences and dissolved into the tedium of diary jotting or the Dictaphone."*

Thus, by a grand renaming of things—dubbing these pieces “poems”— The Best American Poetry of 1999 has seemingly setout to singlehandedly eradicate what’s left of the distinction between prose and poetry. And although a large portionof this collection is composed of anecdotal prose pieces truncated into lines from poets such as: Jacobik, Kizer,Koertge, Levine, Rich, Thiel, and the poets cited here, it is in Robert Bly’s introduction to this collection that wefind something even more disheartening: he warns us against the computer, its “cool and empty language” and claimsthat it’s “as if some worldwide force were trying to free us all from literary style, and is succeeding.”* Ifso, then the proof of the “force’s” success is in the pages of his collection, not on someone’s computer screen.

As Bly also says in the introduction:

"Many contemporary writers persuade themselves it is good not to have inwardness, not to have intensity, not to engagelayers of meaning, not to have pungent phrasings.."

But have the writers persuaded us, the readers? Are we persuaded that these are poems with inwardness, intensity,layers of meaning and so on? Are we persuaded that these are the best by a poet/editor paranoid enough to believethat there is a worldwide force emanating from the computer that will destroy literary style?

How we got here—to a lack of distinction between poetry and prose—by way of William Carlos Williams, and continuing on through hundreds and hundreds of imitators and

Poets continue to write chopped-up prose and call it poetry, making it the model for newer poets, who thencontinue the cycle.

hundreds and hundreds of imitators of imitators, all long ignorant of their origin is not now so important, as the question: how do we start making the distinction again between poetry and prose? Poets continue to write chopped-up prose and call it poetry, making it the model for newer poets, who then continue the cycle. And, the more we accept that established poets will throw down their journal entries and jottings, their to-do lists and mind doodles, and that editors will publish these, dubbing them, not only poems, but accomplished and brilliant poems, the less able, we, as readers, are to protest. Because we are being told this is a poem by those who “know”—the poet, the editor, the critic and the teacher.

To rebel against the denaturing of poetry into prose, and not just into prose, but in many cases, into badly written anduninteresting prose, seems futile when such renowned poets as Simic can write:*

    I never gave them a thought. Years had gone by,
    Many years. I had plenty of other things
    To mull over. This morning I was in the dentist's chair
    When his new assistant walked in
    Pretending not to recognize me in the slightest
    As I opened my mouth obediently...

    Prison Guards Silhouetted Against the Sky, Charles Simic

The poet tells himself it’s a poem. He tells his editor it’s a poem (or perhaps the reverse). His editor tells the publisher it’s a poem. Then, they all tell us it’s a poem—never has thestory of the emperor’s new clothes been so meaningful as in American poetry today. Perhaps the most depressingmanifestation of the look-ma-no-poetry-in-my-poem! phenomenon is in the actual deterioration of prose itself into thebadly written, boring and humorless anecdote:*

    A man walks into a bar. You think that's some kind of joke?
    Actually he runs in, to get out of the freezing weather.
    Who cares, you say. Nobody you know. You've got your own troubles, could use
    a drink yourself.
    You get your coat, a long scarf.
    You trudge to the corner over the scraped sidewalk, slip and fall down hard
    on the ice. Actually a banana peel, but who's looking?
    Only a priest, a rabbi, and a lawyer you vaguely recognize—
    didn't she help with the divorce? Never mind, the marriage
    is over, good riddance. You're thinking now
    you'd better have a double...

    HA, Kim Addonizio

To reclaim poetry: Where to begin? When to begin? We begin by defining the poem, and we begin now, by defining its effect on us, by its manifestation in us, the trusting and ready to appreciate reader—not in a theory of what poetry should be. We must become poetry empiricists—trusting the knowledge of our own senses and good sense. By its effectwe shall know it. For example, in The Best American Poetry of 1999 is a poem by Dorriane Laux that is not in any traditional poetic form, is written in prose-like sentences, and tells a story—yet it is a poem, and, along with those by Yusef Kimunyakaa and Richard Wilbur, among the best in the collection:

    The Shipfitter's Wife

    I loved him most
    when he came home from work,
    his fingers still curled from fitting pipe,
    his denim shirt ringed with sweat
    and smelling of salt, the drying weeds
    of the ocean. I’d go to where he sat
    on the edge of the bed, his forehead
    anointed with grease, his cracked hands
    jammed between his thighs, and unlace
    the steel-toed boots, stroke his ankles
    and calves, the pads and bones of his feet.
    Then I’d open his clothes and take
    the whole day inside me—the ship’s
    gray sides, the miles of copper pipe,
    the voice of the foreman clanging
    off the hull’s silver ribs. Spark of lead
    kissing metal. The clamp, the winch,
    the white fire of the torch, the whistle,
    and the long drive home.

    The Shipfitter’s Wife, Dorriane Laux

A simple story that the poet leads us into, layer by layer, with a masterful accretion of detail built around objective imagery, tension in sentence structure and the final astonishing and

The techniques in this poem are invisible. It delivers its effect before we know whathit us.

satisfying conjunction of opposites—outer and inner, work and rest, conflict and peace, man and woman, the demands of the world and the demands of love–-in a description of how the outer world, the man himself, is taken in, absorbed tenderly by the woman, and all of this is made deftly and brilliantly into a metaphor for the coming together of this couple in lovemaking. There is much internal rhyme and imagery as well as layers of meaning and significance, while each line earns its place in the overall structure. The techniques in this poem are invisible. It delivers its effect before we know what hit us.

There’s no doubt that it is important and necessary to declare the nakedness of the contemporary American poem, to reject the notion that a poet, renowned or not, can perpetrate this continuing fraud of passing off their amateurish or unfinished prose jottings as poems. The machinery of publication must have vigilant and knowledgeable editors, unafraid to publish excellent, unknown poets or to reject inferior poems from established poets—even their friends.Before they can presume to make another year-end collection of the best contemporary American poems, they should be sure they have poems to collect.

                                                                                          [copyright 2000, Joan Houlihan]

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