Monday, May 01, 2006

a red hat - close up on prose poetry

k: i’m sort of bored, and while i could read a book or write another poem, i think instead i’ll write to you about my feelings on prose-poetry. i am not going to do research or any of that, just…

i resisted the prose-form of poetry for such a long time. i was adamant that it wasn’t poetry. i sounded much like you did today in your comment. part of my first course on poetry at university was that one with noah, where he completely exploded my vision of poetry. we read tender buttons by Gertrude stein—she is the queen of the prose poem, though some would disagree with that statement, she’s who i think of when someone brings up prose-poetry—and i completely didn’t get it. okay, it’s poetry, but it’s more like paragraphs. then i read part of an interview with stein about what she was doing in tender buttons. the way she spoke of the words and sounds… she spoke like a poet. so i reread tender buttons and began, slowly, to understand.

here’s a section. my favorite section actually. it’s the section that, when i reread it, i began to get tender buttons and everything stein was trying to do...

A RED HAT. A dark grey, a very dark grey, a quite dark grey is monstrous ordinarily, it is so monstrous because there is no red in it. If red is in everything it is not necessary. Is that not an argument for any use of it and even so is there any place that is better, is there any place that has so much stretched out.
i don’t know if it works out of context with the book. it kills me that the whole thing is available online (like wessex poems is) but if you want, you can read it all here… (it really … i feel like it’s a terrible waste to give all of these poems to someone for free, i don’t mean, for you to have them for free, but for me to give them to you, to not have to go out and get the book for you… it’s websites like this that (while really rather wonderful) are contributing to the ever growing fear of the disposal of books. it actually makes my heart hurt to see all of tender buttons free online. it’s a crying shame. (i think i need a closing parenthetical here)…)

i side tracked, sorry. that’s an entirely different email topic.

for a while i thought that prose poetry was just a cheap way out of getting a poem right (i feel like, with fish into six writing it in prose form means that i didn’t do the form-form (the verse) poem well enough and the easiest way of fixing it is to put it into prose poem (and it works for the poem, too, which makes it even harder to resist)).

in the new yorker (i’ve actually been reading it lately, can you tell?) there’s an interview thingy with an artist who at one point says that drawing hands and faces were too hard so he’d draw people with shot off hands and paint blood on their face so he wouldn’t have to draw the features. and he says it in such a cocky, proud, arrogant awful way!! i honestly believe that, before you can go breaking the rules you have to know and understand them first. HOWEVER, if you are doing it for your own pleasure, dabbling, having a bit of fun, do whatever you want, but don’t pretend, like this guy was, that you’re some super hot-shot mover and shaker with all the bits and pieces of some modern Michelangelo, because frankly, you’re not.

prose poetry is equivocal to
this in that it may not take a genius to draw/paint, but i don’t think i could do it. it takes a bit of gift, a bit of practice, and eye for color and a knowledge of color. you can slap together a string of words and call it a prose poem. you can’t go ignoring syntax and grammar without understanding that you are ignoring it for your poem to work—if you do you are transparent to other poets. am i making sense?

what stein is doing, to go back to stein and to explain to you what there is to “get” out of her poems, is to form the surroundings of an object, a food, or a room. have you seen schindlers’ list? you know how the red coat is the only thing with colour? or the flames on the ceremonial candles or the gold ring?

those objects are the only objects in color to give them an over-powering emphasis. what stein is doing in “a red hat” is to paint the picture of everything surrounding this hat because, like she says, what’s so spectacular about a red hat if everything around you is red? now, if everything around you is grey and brown, a red hat is stunning. i think her choice of form is perfect for this. for what she is trying to achieve with her words—to put the poem in prose, to disallow it verse form, is to emphasize the point that she is not describing the red hat, but it’s surroundings. the red hat itself would make the poem into a verse. describing just why the red hat is so brilliant and beautiful is paralleled by the use of prose as a way of getting the reader to think more about verse form, the regular. what stein does is create the antithesis of the verse form of poetry.

i guess the main reason why a prose poem works for me—outside of stein’s revolutionary used of the form—is because it is a different kind of meditative poetry. it is an abstraction of poetry and an abstraction of traditional prose. there are certain elements which help to make a prose poem work. for example, short two-word sentences and punctuating vernacular. a line of soft sound words that ends in a lash. harsh s sounds or a z sound are always a nice ending to a breath. what i think is so profound about prose poetry is that it relies on the language to dictate to the reader where to breath and when to hold on. full stops (by that i mean periods) are useful, i rather enjoy seeing brackets in prose poetry, and other long punctuation like dashes and semi colons also aid. the key though, is the language and the poets ability to anticipate the readers’ understanding and capability to understand the language. there’s a lot of encoding and decoding that’s going on below the surface. really, when read by the poet, let’s say, one in the audience should not be able to tell the difference between a poem in form-form and a poem in prose-form.

you could easily argue that prose-poetry and flash fiction are exactly the same thing. i won’t stop you from that. names are fun, but they’re just names. poet-theorists are merely taxonomists of the written genres (it is as make believe as the internet—millions of people believe in this massive entity that isn’t even real); every day we define our favorite terms differently. it’s useless but i love it.

so there is a time and a place for prose, at least in one instance. personally i prefer not to write in prose poetry because i feel, unless a function of the content of the poem, that it is a cheap way of writing. brian writes a lot of prose poetry; however, brian, when he uses line breaks, uses them very wisely, very well and i do not worry that he could not have written any one of his prose poems in verse form.

i do enjoy reading prose poetry when it is entertaining—when it is funny or quirky. serious prose poetry, without justification, is awful. this is in part why i cannot wrap my head around lyn hejinian. though i own two of her books, i cannot understand nor appreciate nor enjoy her work—though i try constantly to do so.

there’s my schtick on prose poetry. i hope you gained something from it, or that it will at least give way to a really juicy debate. ^_^

a: Morning, dear:

I read both of your e-mails (umm ahmad & prose poetry) last night before I went out. The evening was nice, although it seems that I always feel old and not fun when I go out with single gay guys (even though one of them was older than me). I think it is the state of coupledom; do you feel that way around your single friends? And I was so tried from the day; it's the first time we bike to Center City this season, and I am so out of shape I was aching all over! In any case, back to your e-mails, I appreciate the fact that you just write, without the research; that I can do for myself. And as much as I appreciate your passion for Gertruge Stein and the Red Hat, I felt the same way as I did reading the Red Wheelbarrow: shrug! I could feel your passion in both cases, but I couldn't share it. And I am glad I read both e-mails at the same time, because I found what I thought to be a better example of prose poetry:

and you know now that some day, and i hope not too far from now, we will have the chance to shrink the globe down to the size of a dining room table somewhere in your tumultuous city. perhaps someday, too, you'll come visit my humble paradise, and i'll take you to my favourite beach so you can hear what silence sounds like.

I hope I don't make you uncomfortable everytime I do this (set you against your gods, so to speak). And that is not to say that everything you write is of the same level of excellence (nobody's writing is). But that is to say that I see it as part of my "duty" first of all to humanize these gods (for they were human, too) and to remind you of your worth (even if you might see is as biased). See, you did make your point clear, how you see prose poetry, and I appreciate your sensitivity to sounds and punctuation and form... But ultimately I don't think I share that sensitivity, or certainly not the same degree. For me these are tools; poetry is never about the punctuation and the sounds. If what you have to say holds no value, then no matter how much you dress it up, and add hisses and dashes, and break it and clump it, it will still have no value. And the contrary is true. For me the form of poetry is a form of distillation, of simplifying in order to make impact. And it is a thing of balance (as everything else in life?) That is why, no matter how evocative a red wheelbarrow is, or pseudo-philosophical a red hat is, for me they don't hold as much water as the vastness of the world, the distances between us, and the human confronting the sound of silence. Mind you, the sound itself is worthless to me, which is why I can't relate to most of the poetry about nature and I found it strange when you mentioned nature as a tenet of my writing; for me I think it is about the human experience in defining nature, and things, and time... A stone aging moves nothing in me, but a woman aging is what life and art are about.

I hope I didn't disappoint you in that I don't share your passion for certain things (but I am sure you don't expect it for everything, as I don't expect anyone to share my passion for Dalida). And that is not to say that I do not apreciate highly poetic prose (that is ultimately what I adore about "The Hours" and Harold Brodkey's Profane Friendship and Dale Peck's Martin and John). But that is to say that I appreciate the poetry within their prose, even when it is so distilled that it is in every sentence. Though I don't see that in the form, as much as in the sentence structure and especially in what they're saying. I don't think, no matter how good a poet you are, say something about shit and make it sound touching or moving or profound (I just though of shit as it seems the worst poetry I have read or heard was about that; though I have heard an excellent poem about hernia!).

But aside from all that, I have realized what is so precious about you: that you are not limited by yourself. You think of others (I guess it is that same degree of empathy that make your robot poems work so well). And believe me, most people (I know) aren't like that. And that is not to say that they are evil (the best example is the one I live with: his self is his port hole to the universe; everything is filtered and tinted with it. That is not to say that he is an evil person, but that is to say that he is a self-centered one.) And I think that is also why you find such ease in writing about others: other people and other things. Because you are capable of thinking of them on their own terms. And I think that is what makes you such a good poet, and good person. I don't think I am that way; I am (as established by my mother's letter) more self-centered. But that is not to say that I am self-limited. I think what works in my poetry is that through this port hole of myself I am capable of going deep enough to reach at the core of the experience that makes it human, and therefore gets beyond that limiting factor (I can imagining anyone bristling at the self-indulgence of that statement!). I guess all I am trying to say is: I was so touched by your letter to Ahmad...


Daniel said...

If I can jump in with a thought about prose-poetry (that's what the comments are for, right?)...

Prose poems are a perfectly legitimate way of writing. But they aren't poetry as such. This sort of boundary drawing around literary genres may be a bit academic but that doesn't make it any less real. Poems follow different rules than prose poems.

I think lots of the tension comes from peoples' tendency to "rank" prose poetry over and against traditional poetry, as if the two are somehow in competition. To my mind this is like arguing whether fiction is better or worse than poetry.

But they're distinct genres. For sure.

katy said...

comments of all sorts are welcome, and thank you daniel, for reading and replying to our ramblings!

i do not agree, unfortunatly, that prose-poetry is a distinct genre of writing. i think, more, it is a distinct genre of poetry (like sonnets are seperate from epics are seperate from slam poems are seperate from waka are seperate from imigism are seperate from a free verse poem about a pair of sneakers hanging from an electrical wire above a street).

i do agree, however, that the idea of ranking one form of poetry over another is somehow rediculous as all these differnt genres of poetry are made up of their own particulars, have their own standards and their own audiences.

i cannot say that horror films are better than romantic comedies. i cannot say that this novel is better than this collection of poems. i cannot say that this emo song is better than this country song.

they are too different to make generalized comparisons.

what we can do, though, as individuals, is give each our own preference, its own weight in our experience. and from there we can debate and argue and stretch each others' minds to possibilities beyond what we had originally thought.

Brian Boutwell said...

You should read Charles Simic's The World Doesn't End.

I'm not too familiar with Stein other than she was as experimentalist and played games more than actually telling stories.

To me Simic plays his games but still can tell a crystalline story.

I, should, read more Stein to make sure she does do more than play with the genesis of language/meaning.

Well I guess it's like Ron's Tjanting...interesting but boring. :) Sorry Ron.