Tuesday, September 18, 2012


"...the failure of the poem to reach the objective right margin of the page is for me one of the almost definitional ways poetry makes absence felt as a presence." (Ben Lerner)

"[Poetry is] lineated. It’s just that. A three-hour class on what is a prose poem is? A waste of time. That doesn’t mean it can’t be prose, or that prose can’t be poetry—but for all practical, speaking purposes, it’s right-flush margin or it’s lineated. It’s so simple. What is all this postmodern complicated bullshit?" (Mary Ruefle, HT Andrew Shields)

It can't be lineation. I'm not sure what Ben Lerner means by "the objective right margin" (the edge of the page? i.e., not the imaginary line where the text "returns" to the left margin.) In any case, there are too many examples of poetry, as distinct from prose, that does not depend on lineation. (At least lineation conceived of as a line return that stops short of the right margin.)

There's a difference between what Tony Tost did in Invisible Bride and what he did in Johnny Cash's American Recordings. And also a difference between the non-lineated passages of Ben Lerner's Angle of Yaw and what he did in Leaving the Atocha Station. That difference is the prose/poetry distinction, though all these works have right-flush margins.

Or here's an easy case: the introduction to Waldrop's Curves to the Apple vs. the actual pieces in The Reproduction of Profiles. Again, all right-flush margins but no question about what is prose and what is poetry. Much of Kate Greenstreet's "56 Days" has right-flush margins and is clearly poetry, not prose. Or compare Lisa Robertson's Seven Walks with Nilling: all the margins are flush but the former is poetry the latter is not. (The distinction is probably most subtle and most interesting in Nilling's "Time in the Codex" and "Lastingness", which might easily be confused with prose poems if it did not say "prose essays" on the cover.)

More and more I think Robertson is right that poetry is writing that "innovates its receivers". Prose is writing that does not. (This is also what Merleau-Ponty probably meant when he talked about "founding a new universality" with a "poetry of human relations".)

Another great example: Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations vs. Heidegger's Being and Time. Wittgenstein himself said philosophy should be written like poetry. And I think if we take a moment to seriously consider the "implied reader" in those two books, one of them is clearly being innovated while the other is merely being "convened", if you will, i.e., addressed as conventional academic subject.

The difference between poetry and prose is one thing. The difference between poetry and philosophy is another. As a contrast to prose, real philosophy is on the same side page as poetry. That's an important clue to what poetry is.


Andrew Shields said...

As you knows, I'm on Ruefle's side here, despite my confession that the "prose poem" problematizes the distinction between prose and verse (and Ruefle's reference to "postmodern ... bullshit" is clearly illegitimate, given Baudelaire's "Petits poèmes en prose").

Your examples reinforce the problematic side of the distinction; such marginal cases (pun intended and enjoyed) highlight that there is *more* to it than just prose vs. verse.

But whatever you come up with that incorporates the marginal cases and the much larger numbers of clear cases of poetry or prose still needs to explain why and how the distinction between poetry and prose is usually realized as a difference between lineation and paragraphing.

That is, the marginal cases problematize the clear distinction between the exemplary cases, but a theory that restates the clear distinction still needs to explain the role of the exemplary cases.

Figuratively speaking, if you're going to propose a Relativity Theory, it must, as Einstein's is, still be consistent with Newtonian physics in most cases.

Thomas said...

I completely agree with this approach.

Or, to extend the analogy to quantum mechanics: we must find the "quanta" that, normally and for the most part, form the "lines" of poems, but that under some cases (at "high levels of energy") also produce strophes without producing lines.

(It is interesting to note that WCWilliams "The Poem as a Field of Action" invokes Einstein to construct a kind of "relativity of measure". A prosody that can break away from "classical" ("Newtonian") models.)

Writing a poem without line breaks is in a sense more "difficult". (And perhaps writing prose *with* lines breaks is comparably difficult.) "Beauty is difficult." The so-called "prose poem" (a contradiction in terms I do not intend to keep using) is just looking for a particular kind of beauty, trying to solve a particular difficulty. It is a difficulty that introducing a line-break at a particular point would simply (the poet suspects) side-step.

Andrew Shields said...

Two things to add:

1) I first came up with the idea of defining poetry as verse in a different context. Many poets insist on distinguishing between poems and song lyrics. By defining both as verse, I satisfied my own sense that song lyrics must be considered poems, even if many of them are actually very bad poems. My solution also nicely clarified the distinction between prose and poetry as a distinction between paragraphs and verse. As a fan of Baudelaire, I was immediately aware of the problem of poems written in prose.

It's interesting to me that my effacement of one distinction (songs and poems) led me to insist on another (verse and prose).

2) I have occasionally used an exercise where I give workshoppers two poems laid out as prose and ask them to lineate them. One by Philip Levine, the other by Charles Simic. The joke is that the Simic is a prose poem. And once, a workshopper actually said that he would not put any line breaks in, but only a stanza break between two prose stanzas. And he put the break right where Simic broke his text into two prose paragraphs. So at least that man had a sense of what makes for right margins. :-)

Thomas said...

For the record, I think there is an essential connection between poetry and verse. As critics of poetry we have to have an eye for the versification in a work, even where there is no lineation.

The "prose poem" is not a non-verse poem. It just "turns" its phrases with greater subtlety (or perhaps just differently).

Another thought occurred to me. In WCW's Paterson, there is poetry and prose. It would be interesting to read these passages as sometimes "innovating" and sometimes "convening" the receiver. That is, there are moments while reading Paterson when the subjectivity is being transformed and other moments which it merely being, as it were, informed.