Melissa Kwasny | February 2005
“Where the boundary between prose and poetry lies, I shall never be able to understand… Poetry is verse: prose is not verse. Or else poetry is everything with the exception of business documents and school text books.” 1
What is a poem and what is prose? Writers have been concerned with defining them since antiquity. (Fictio in Latin and Poiesis in Greek both mean “a thing made.” 2) Yet all of us can tell a poem from something else, or can we? In younger grades, students will be apt to answer this question by saying that a poem rhymes; when older, perhaps that it is metered or has a kind of sound patterning. Yet, we know that many poems, at least since Walt Whitman published his Leaves of Grass in 1855, are written in open form or “free verse,” which has no rhyme scheme or traditional rhythm. Some might say that a poem employs figurative language such as metaphor and personification, yet we can find many instances of these devises in novels and short stories, and what do we do with William Carlos Williams’s famous “Red Wheelbarrow,” which employs none of these devises?
“Verse and Prose,” the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics states, “are two of the three terms central to any discussion of, and distinctions about, the nature and modes of verbal art. The third is poetry, which is the most difficult—and crucial—concept of the three.” 3 We have poetry written in verse (i.e. language given rhythmic order and set into lines), poetry not written in verse, prose written in verse such as doggerel or aphorisms, and prose not written in verse. 4 Yet, what do we do with a prose poem or a novel written in lined fragments, such as Carole Maso’s Ava? And how do we explain the phenomenon of “poetic prose” or even define a letter that appears in a novel, or a sequence of letters such as the poet Ranier Maria Rilke’s Letters on Cezanne?
In Medieval times, almost all literary genres were versified. 5 But what does literary mean here? Sometimes a work would be written in verse and then paraphrased in prose for the less educated people. The saints lives were written in meter. Drama in the Enlightenment included both blank verse and prose. And in Homer’s time, poems weren’t written down but sung to a particular beat, though they didn’t rhyme. Yet, it is not until romanticism and modernism that we felt the need to distinguish between the two forms, perhaps because it was then that they began most to blur. If poetry does not have a recognizable form, if it is not written in a different language, what is it that will distinguish it from prose and from the increasingly popular novels of the 19th century?
“I write in metre because I am about to use a language different than that of prose,” 6 writes Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the early 1800s. “Prose and poetry use the same words, the same syntax, the same form, the same sounds and tones but differently co-ordinated and differently aroused,” writes the French poet Paul Valery, at a time when the French meter was being loosened by poets Rimbaud and Mallarme. Gertrude Stein, in an essay entitled “Poetry and Grammar,” published in 1935, declares that the difference lies in parts of speech, with poetry being that form which is “essentially the discovery, the love, the passion for the name of anything.” 7
We compartmentalize. One writes poetry or fiction or nonfiction. Yet, isn’t the craft we apply to prose—plot structure, story, fictiveness, dialogue, monologue, character, setting—equally important to the writing of a narrative or prose poem? Aren’t the techniques of poetry—free association, figurative language, speech rhythms, sound patternings, heightened language, emotional intensity—found in most modern prose? Can we really divide their functions and effects in two?
field of action
The fiction I enjoy most tends to be packed with journal entries, recipes, letters, poems—in addition to, or to the detriment of, a traditional narrative. Much of the poetry I love employs storyline, character, and techniques to keep the language moving forward. I love the cross-breeds, the hybrids: Lesley Marmon Silko’s Storyteller with its lined stories, Rilke’s fictional journal The Notebooks of Malte Briggs, W.G. Sebald’s autobiographical prose with the photographs and drawings he’s found in secondhand shops pasted in. Are the boundaries, perhaps, more fluid than we think?
This spring, as the Visiting Writer at the University of Wyoming, I had the opportunity to develop a class which I entitled “Border Crossings.” For it, I designed a series of lessons/writing exercises which used as its models works that fell in between our traditional dichotomies of poetry and prose: the prose poem, the linked vignette, the parable, the literary letter, to name a few. Although these lessons were meant originally for an undergraduate writing workshop, I have found them easily adaptable to other teaching situations. The following lessons seem most applicable to that level, and hence, I present them here.
I. The Prose Poem
Which of us has not, in his ambitious days, dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple and choppy enough to fit the soul’s lyrical movements, the undulations of reverie, the jolts of consciousness?
Charles Baudelaire, Preface to LaPresse, 1882
A prose poem is a poem written without recognizable rhythmic patterning and no line breaks. It will appear as a paragraph, or a series of paragraphs, on the page. There are, of course, qualities which distinguish it from a prose paragraph: brevity, rhythmic and figural repetition, and a sustained and compact intensity. There will be vivid description, as in a narrative poem. There is often surprise, insight, and a kind of epiphany. One thinks of Carolyn Forche’s “The General,” about a dinner party with an El Salvadorean general, or Robert Hass’s “A Story About the Body” with its image of a blue bowl full of rose petals and dead bees. The world’s first book of prose poems, Gaspard de la Nuit by Aloysius Bertrand, was published in France in 1842. In subsequent years, the form was popularized by poets such as Arthur Rimbaud in his Illuminations (1872-6) and Charles Baudelaire in the poems which appeared under the English title Paris Spleen.
Paris Spelen is a series of poems written in one, two, and three or more paragraph form, documenting Baudelaire’s wanderings and meetings in the streets of Paris in the mid-1800s. Students love these poems with their vivid depictions of characters and scenes on the streets of a large 19 th-century city and their sense of irony—Baudelaire considered himself a flaneur, or a detached and somewhat cynical observer of modern life, a role many of my students find akin to their own.
In a lovely garden where the autumnal sun seemed to linger with pleasure, under a sky, already noticeably tinged with green, in which the golden clouds sailed like cruising continents, four beautiful children, four boys, tired probably of their games, were talking.
One of them said: “Yesterday I was taken to the theatre. There are great sad palaces, and behind them you can see the sky and the sea; there are men and women, very serious and sad too, and much more beautiful and beautifully dressed than any you have ever seen, who speak to each other in sing-song voices… You’re frightened and you want to cry, but somehow you are happy, too…” 8
I tell my students: become a flaneur in your town, a man/woman of the crowd, yet apart from them; an objective observer. Find a person or situation that seems to you to convey, in a kind of symbolic sense, something about our modern life. Use vivid, precise details. Use at least one very contemporary reference or detail. You can exaggerate and invent, of course. Title the prose poem with an abstraction which will point to a reading of the poem as an allegory (you can do this after you write it), a title such as Grief, Love, Suffering, War, Poverty, Modern Life.
Here is a poem by Donna Obermiller, a student in Wyoming, modeled on the previous one by Baudelaire:
On the porch of a coffee shop in Laramie where the gazebo overlooks the parking lot, under a sky threatening spring rain, four handsome young women sat, tired of school. A natural red head among them said: “Yesterday I saw Mystic River. The plot was sad and layered. I was shocked at the scope of the tragedy. I mean what would you do if a member of your family had committed an unspeakable crime?”
One of the four girls who had not really been listening cocked her rinsed lavender and black locks and asked, “Do you see anything in my Amethyst ring because my boyfriend was telling me if I align it right then the cosmos forms conjunctions and energy vortexes.” “What are you talking about?” was the reply of the others. “Vortexes,” she said in a tone of complete sincerity.
“I think you should drop that spacey guy!” said a third, a girl who displayed a curious electric energy. “Do you know that I’ve been kissing Doc in the prop room on top of the costume petticoats during lunch?” She stopped, but her eyes were wide and glazed as the coffee shop lights danced in them.
Finally, the fourth girl who sported a very short crew cut stated, “Guys don’t pay any attention to me since I’m small and brown and boyish and I don’t shave my legs. I’d like to renounce the world or discover it, dress up like a man and travel around. I feel like a circus clown. Hard lives have shaped circus performers into people whose souls are trapped behind the dirty and sparkling façade of the three-ring and the road,” she mused philosophically.
Judging by the blank stares of the three companions, I decided that this young stranger was already one of the “misunderstood.” I looked at her curiously: she had sensitivity and seriousness to her, to which I felt myself drawn as to someone vaguely familiar. Heavy rains broke in on the downtown landscape. Destiny swept along the small town windshields. Teenagers on the brink of adulthood ran for cars and waited safely inside their shiny wet vehicles for the clearing.
II. The Prose Poem as Linked Vignette
Baudelaire wrote the prose poems in Paris Spleen around a central theme, that of Paris and the birth of a modern sensibility. When Gertrude Stein wrote Tender Buttons in 1914, she was interested less in irony than the fun of playing with words. Granted, Stein is not an easy read for some, but I have found that students love her once they realize they are freed from the idea that everything we read has to make sense—that sound makes its own sense. And when everything they write doesn’t have to make sense, naturally students feel liberated!
A cool red rose and a pink cut pink, a collapse and a sold hole, a little less hot. 9
The prose poems in Tender Buttons are arranged according to subject: objects, food, rooms. One can think of them as still lives, portraits not of people, but of things. She was trying for a style akin to the abstract painters of her time—such as Picasso—using words as abstract, words as pigments or thicknesses of paint. While the individual elements of her sentences are familiar, their significance as a whole often escapes us.
A Carafe, That is a Blind Glass
A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing.
Although not conventional poems—and certainly not a conventional piece of prose—Tender Buttons retains, despite a sense of disconnectedness, a cohesion through its formal elements: a love of refrain and rhyme, a search for rhythm and balance, a delight in the sound of words for their own sake.
I made up a list of some of my favorite Stein titles, or, if my students were reading the entire book, I might have them do this.
End of Summer
A Substance in a Cushion
A Red Stamp
I ask students to select at least five titles and write a prose poem, a la Stein, for each of them. They could try to make these prose poems carry a narrative thread, loosely the way Stein did (all poems were about food, for instance), or more conventionally, either by having the same character or setting appear in each one. They could also choose to follow the Stein model and link the vignettes only by form, i.e. the play with language and syntax. Here is an example by student Colin Moon:
A rare spice of life, he guesses. Something extravagant, he supposes. Something blue, he wishes. Something terrible, it comes without warning, it comes when he showers, it comes with ice cream or just the blues. He knows it.
A Red Stamp
It’s like this: her friends fit into certain situations. He asks about Marla, she says, would you put pickles on a sundae? He supposes that, no, he would not.
A fairy tale: he knows her, she knows him. The first date is based around literature and the second date is based around music. In the evenings its coffee and in the mornings its juice. No direct explanation of which kind, not orange juice, not apple juice.
Another student decided to go hunting for different titles. I suggested finding a book with interesting chapter headings, (one of my favorites is The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer, which has chapter titles that include “The Influences of the Sexes on Vegetation” and “The Magical Control of Rain.”) One student, Bruce Huhtala, decided to pilfer some of the titles Wallace Stevens kept for future use in his notebooks. Here is one of them:
Music at the World’s End
Harmony by millions. The wail fills the atmosphere. Fear of the end is matched only by fascination with what comes next. All eyes wide and unfocused and all minds shoved roughly to insanity. It is firewood for the furnace of this monstrous instrument, until each body falls exhausted onto the red-golden grass.
III. The Parable
The parable is a story that uses figurative language, most specifically the poetic techniques of personification and symbol. In parables, things exist in mythic time: animals speak to us, forces of nature take human form, objects—the tin drum, the letter, the basket—and places—the cottonwood tree, the city over the hill, the mountain—are invested with meaning beyond their mere objective presence. One thinks of Yellow Woman and Coyote in the Native American stories of Leslie Marmon Silko, or old European folks tales where the main characters are the north wind, the wolf, the poisoned apple, or the dancing shoes. Parables explain how things originate, why events happen, how people come to be where, and who they are. They are poetic narratives or narrative poetries with one important difference: the story has a lesson to impart, however obscure it might be.
Long time ago/in the beginning/there were no white people in this world/there was nothing European. And the world might have gone on like that/except for one thing:/ witchery.
— Leslie Marmon Silko 10
A parable is the story of a magic encounter. The characters in a parable are more than aware that the images they see, smell, taste, hear, or feel have a mythic and invisible life full of meaning behind them. I ask my students to choose an abstraction, a force of nature, an object, or a place (mountain, city, country even) and write a poem or story in which these forces are personified and symbolized. They could think in terms of traditional parable language: The Queen of, the King of, the Prince or Princess, The Chief of, The Jester. Because a personification, per se, is the giving of something abstract or nonhuman human characteristics, I ask students to think about what makes someone human:
- Gender (of course, especially in our gendered language. Is the moon male or female?)
- Appearance (how old is Spring? What color eyes does the Queen of Rivers have?)
- Actions (does Life crawl toward you or dance? Does Truth bear gifts? Which ones?)
- Clothes (what colors and fabrics would the devil dress him(her?) self in?
- Friends, family
- Mode of transportation
- What they do in their spare time.
The parable could also be an encounter with two or more abstractions. What happens when Coyote, the Trickster meets Death? What about Psyche, the Soul, and Eros? One student had Truth reading Rilke in the original German; one had Spring doing her laundry, and when Death arrived, she displayed her bright red fingernails and fried sausage for breakfast. Here are a few examples from Jenn Kemp, a student who took her titles from the abstractions by which the main cards of the Tarot deck are titled:
Amanda leans across the smoky bar, and grabs the ash tray that sits next to the melting ice remains of my vodka-red bulls. Beautiful, but she won’t own it. Her green eyes flash when she sees me looking at her; she’s got power in her eyes. Her pink mouth surrounds the tip of a cigarette, she sucks deeply in. Beautiful, but she can’t own it. As we got ready to go out, I insisted that she borrow my hot pink t-shirt. The one with the words “Makeout Bandit” printed across the chest. We smile at each other, like girlfriends do across a crowded bar. We know the hours it took to apply our eye-liner and prepare ourselves for seeing the one guy we don’t want to see, which means we will inevitably see him. We smile, we know so much about each other. I want her to own it.
I should not be here with you. I hate that pesky voice in my head. Logic, we’ll call it. After all, I’ve spent the last three months telling everyone how much I hate you. I shouldn’t be here, under these flickering yellow florescent lights. I shouldn’t watch you, on the bathroom counter, sitting almost in the wet and drip-drip-dripping sink. I lean against the wall, watching your mouth make the words, not sure of what they are saying. Doesn’t matter. I breathe deep, even the plastic lemon scent of urinal cake doesn’t deter me. I cannot listen to that rational way deep back in my head voice when you are sitting in front of me.
What are you doing with him? And here of all places?…Girls like you don’t do things like this.
V. The Letter
Who does not love reading letters? Even in this age of e-mail “notes” and rapid business phone calls, one prizes the rare handwritten letter that some of us are lucky enough to receive in the post, and most of us would rather spend the time reading the literary letters of poets and writers than to actually read their work. Why? There is a sense of intimacy in a letter, the sense of eves-dropping on a relationship, the suspense of waiting for something secret and untoward to be revealed. Then, there is the casualness, the sense that the artist has let down his or her guard, letting the mind—not the outline—pace the prose. One thinks of John Keats’s letters, most of them a hodgepodge of gossip, complaints about illness and social obligation, drafts of poems, and out of nowhere a line such as this: “That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” 11 Or Emily Dickinson’s delightfully quirky and mystical letters in which she will state, for instance, “If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her; if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase, and the approbation of my dog would forsake me then. My barefoot rank is better.” 12 One thinks of the perpetual popularity of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo or Vaclav Havel’s letters from prison to his wife Helga.
The letter demands the techniques of other good writing—vivid description and imagery and thematic construction—but adds direct address, immediacy of time and setting, and the development of the character not only of the addressee but of the writer, who becomes a character in him or herself. For this exercise, I selected Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters on Cezanne, a series of letters the poet wrote to his wife, the sculptor Clara Westoff, which became a day by day accounting of his visits to the memorial exhibition of Cezanne’s work at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1907. The letters are a mapping of what Rilke discovered about art during his progressive trips to see the paintings, as well as a day to day accounting of how his perceptions are heightened and changed through this experience:
…Never have I been so touched and almost gripped by the sight of heather as the other day, when I found these three branches in your dear letter. Since then they are lying in my Book of Images, penetrating it with their strong and serious smell, which is really just the fragrance of autumn earth. 13
Rilke goes on for pages, describing the heather’s sight and smell—“tar and turpentine and Ceylon tea”—but, over the course of many letters, begins to change his way of seeing and hearing objects the more he looks at the work of Cezanne: “And then for a long time nothing, and suddenly one has the right eyes…” 14
Students are asked to write three letters in a sequence. I ask them to keep the style of the author consistent, even if they are writing as a persona, to make sure the letters are sequential and dated, perhaps even noting place written, to make sure the letters are vivid and use sensory detail, that they name a specific addressee in the salutation, and that they imply the presence of the addressee by comments made in the letter itself (i.e. In your last letter, you sent…)
- A series of letters to someone in which you respond to someone else’s artwork, literature, or music. The series should be a developing exploration of what you learn from your response.
- A series of letters in which you describe your particular and idiosyncratic take on life in your hometown ( Tunisia, New York City, Bangladesh) to someone who has never been here.
- A series of letters that serve as a kind of travel diary of a particular time and place.
- Take on a persona of a person in history at a particular period in time (Einstein, a pioneer woman in Wyoming, the dancer Nijinski in his insane asylum, Gertrude Stein’s cook), and write to someone about your life.
- Create a character in a special predicament (someone on death row, a soldier in Iraq, Miss America).
- Formulate your letters as a kind of argument with someone specific. The addressee’s views should be well-known or, if not, made clear in the letters.
Here are a few letters from student Beth Wiley who entitled her series “Plodding: A struggling student’s letters to Gerard Manley Hopkins”:
Did you think to yourself as you wrote “in thy sight / Storm flakes were scroll-leaved flowers, lily showers – sweet / heaven was astrew in them” ha, ha! That ought to stump all future scholars. . .
Learned the meaning of “pied.” Am intrigued. Still determined not to get caught up in you.
I can see similarities between us. I am starting to pick up your poems more often even when other homework sits glowering at me from the dusty corner. I found myself studying your picture and wondering if the black and white could do you justice. I was startled by this thought and am oddly concerned that your poems have started to sweep about in my dreams.
I believe in divine insanity. Don’t judge too soon—let me explain. But, I cannot be direct. As you have had your dance with language, allow me to attempt my tango.
We each pray to a God that we believe present. We pray and we try to reconcile great joy with the overwhelmingness of law. And we cope, we grope, we grapple-game-play-strive with art. With timid strokes of greyshading a poor outline of the everything around me. The joyful crash of color on a blank canvas. And, yes, yes, ah yes, the gleaming ink of words upon a page. Still my art evades me, appears with death pallor, uninspiration, anti-art. Is it because I strive without that Heraclitean fire burning within me? Has my own fire waned and is it waiting as an ember “to gash, gold-vermillion”?
I see the Fire moving everywhere. He is in the orange, pink, and red cactus that greet me when I step weary in my office in the crumpled snow in front of my apartment in the child rudely insulting me in the spotted words of your inconstant poetry in Saint Patrick and Luther with deep salt sea and sola gratia, but I cannot maintain seeing with your eyes.
You stare. More than that word means; you look and look and study and catch and hold and ponder and look and look until your eyes seem to have a blue, pure flame that flickers of hard sludge-through-critique-opium words, words, words that shoot from your heated hand screaming “as kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame”; you woo my mouth to form “With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.”
You could not be sane to write these words. You could not be crazy; you could not be you; you could not be someone else. You could only be sparked, pricked, charged, caught, in a something larger current—
—forgive my treading on your toes—this music steps too fast
Melissa Kwasny is the editor of Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry 1800-1950( Wesleyan University Press 2004), as well as the author of a book of poetry,The Archival Birds(Bear Star Press 2000). She is currently Richard Hugo Visiting Writer at the University of Montana.
- From the “Diary of Tolstoy,” quoted in the long version of the poem “Poetry” by Marianne Moore.
- The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics , ed. Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993) 1346.
- Ibid., 936
- Ibid., 1346
- Ibid., 1349
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. John Calvin Metcalf (New York: Macmillan, 1926) 236.
- Gertrude Stein, “Poetry and Grammar,” Toward the Open Field, ed. Melissa Kwasny ( Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2004) 303.
- Charles Baudelaire, ParisSpleen, (New York: New Directions, 1970) 68.
- Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, (Mineola: Dover, 1997) 14.
- Leslie Marmon Silko, Storyteller (New York: Arcade, 1981,) 130.
- John Keats, Letters of John Keats, ed. Robert Gittings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970) 70.
- Emily Dickinson, The Selected Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Robert N. Linscott ( New York: Doubleday) 9.
- Rainier Maria Rilke, Letters on Cezanne, (New York: Fromm, 1985) 9.
- Ibid., 43.