September 8, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

The Juice is Loose

Scott Knickerbocker’s essay in KR Online, a compelling and thorough examination of “organic formalism” in John Witte’s poetry, has had me thinking this weekend about how form in poetry relates to prose. Here’s an excerpt from his essay:

“Much contemporary poetry resembles merely lineated prose, as if poets today are either suspicious of or intimidated by the restraints of form. Although one need not employ meter or rhyme to be formally rigorous, much free verse in the latter twentieth century has, as Robert Hass puts it, “lost its edge” (70). Even Ezra Pound, one of the instigators of the free verse movement, expressed reservations about the “dilution” and “general floppiness” to which much American free verse had already descended by the 1920s (qtd. in Carpenter 349).”

For years I was resistant to formal poetry, unable to lose myself in it. To me, the most rigorous form was fiction. Where other poets threw themselves against the wall of a pantoum, I flung myself against the wall of plot, trying to build a story that could sustain itself (and oh, a reader) across twenty pages. Every time I thought I had a good plot going it would collapse into a poem.

That poetry might resemble prose is not typically offered as a compliment. In my high school, when we had to knuckle down and understand poetry, our “Sound & Sense” anthology illustrated the difference between prose and poetry using simplistic drawings of groceries: poetry was a can of orange juice concentrate, prose its diluted, ready-to-drink quart-sized brother. With poetry, you had to do a little work, adding water, stirring, but it was the wiser, less expensive purchase. If you were in a hurry, and didn’t want to do any work, and were a chump willing to pay twice as much, well, the quart of prose was for you, the writers of my textbook seemed to feel. As a poet who always buys her OJ by the quart, I have to protest that I think it tastes better that way. I think prose often tastes better too. I disagree with the idea that poetry is more concentrated than prose; I believe they are two distinct machines who do distinct work. Prose wears what Frost calls “the sound of sense” in a way that I find easier to use as a model for my poems, though I find myself intimidated by the logical demands of prose. I wonder why so few writers can swing both ways–the writers I’ve read who try both fiction and poetry usually only succeed at one. Raymond Carver’s poetry makes me miss his fiction, and Sylvia Plath’s stories feel like too-tight shoes. And Nabakov considered himself a poet first, though no one else did. During one of my many attempts at prose-writing, I picked up a copy of “The Poet’s Story,” an anthology of (mostly overtightened) short stories by poets, but it served only to underscore my belief in the impossibility of sliding easily from poetry to fiction.

Although plenty of poets do write wonderful nonfiction (and I remember a presenter at AWP a few years ago who argued that creative nonfiction’s lyrical moves are more closely related to poetry than to fiction), fiction seems to be where most poets who try it sputter out. I can only guess, as a failed fictioneer myself, that this is because the arc of fiction–or, dear God, plot–must be built from too big a sea of possibilities, whereas nonfiction gives poets a tether, an actual series of events to work with, or against, like the formal structures we use, or the four corners of a single page. Without such a tether I think poets, for whom it’s a special occasion to write “continued“, easily get lost in the snow of so many blank pages.

So I was thrilled to also come across what feels like a successful hybrid of prose and poetry this weekend: not prose poetry, which to me feels like poetry that is in the form of prose, but haibun, a gorgeous Japanese hybrid form I stumbled across recently in Carolyn Kizer‘s collected works: “A Month in Summer,” a long poem broken into days with stretches of prose interspersed with modified haiku. (By the way, here‘s a little student-made homage to one of the sections on YouTube.) The prose and poetry fit together beautifully. I didn’t love this particular poem, but as an introduction to the haibun form it was revelatory. It also made me want to go back to Anne Carson’s “Glass, Irony, and God,” which I had trouble climbing through the first time and which employs a similar poetry-in-prose form. Basically it’s the quart of fresh-squeezed, not-from-concentrate OJ.