Friday, April 20, 2012

Prose Poems

I don't have a problem with so-called free verse, as long as that verse has some sort of basic rhythm (not necessarily a traditional metre), some sense of the use of words that isn't the way we'd put them together in ordinary speech or prose, some feel that there is a structure, even if we can't necessarily put our finger on it immediately.

But I dislike free verse that's so free that if you got rid of the short lines and turned it into a piece of prose it wouldn't make the slightest difference.  Which is why Robert Bly's prose poems (such as The Starfish) make sense: he doesn't do anything that's visually structural except use the occasional paragraph indent.  So why does he include them amongst his poems?  Because, ironically, his prose poems do have the very things I talked about in the first paragraph here: rhythm, a poetic use of words, structure and even drama.

I get a poem a day from The Writer's Almanac.  Many of these are fine poems, but quite often there are poems included that are really prose in disguise.  Quite well written prose, with some style, but truthfully, they're prose, or prose poems, and it would be far better if they got on and said they were, and didn't try to make us think that just because the lines are short they're what you'd call a poem.

An update: 24.4.12

Here's a prime example of what I mean.  The following poem by Anne Pierson Wiese, is called "Everything but God" and comes from her collection Floating City, published by Louisiana State University Press, 2007.   You can see the original layout here

In the book it's published as a regular poem, with short(ish) lines.   However, I'm going to post it as a piece of prose, and I bet your boots you can't tell where the lines end in the original version:

In Europe you can see cathedrals from far away. As you drive toward them across the country they are visible—stony and roosted on the land—even before the towns that surround them. In New York you come upon them with no warning, turn a corner and there one is: on 5th Avenue St. Patrick's, spiny and white as a shell in a gift shop; dark St. Agnes lost near a canal and some housing projects in Brooklyn; or St. John the Divine, listed in every guidebook yet seeming always like a momentary vision on Amsterdam Avenue, with its ragged halo of trees, wide stone steps ascending directly out of traffic.

Lately I have found myself unable to pass by. The candles' anonymous wishes waver and flame near the entrance, bright numerous, transitory and eternal as a migration: the birds that fly away are never exactly the same as those that return.  The gray, flowering arches' ribs rise until they fade, the bones so large and old they belong to an undetected time on earth. Here and there people's small backs in prayer, the windowed saints' robes' orchid glow, the  shadows—ghosts of a long nocturnal snow from a sky below when we did not yet exist, with our questions tender as burns.

This is a good, descriptive piece of writing - it could have come out of any book of creative journalism - but where is the poetry?   Even as a 'prose poem' it shows little sign of its poetic origin; only when you read the last sentence aloud do you hear the long o sounds coming through.  

A little about the author of this poem, a poet whose work is highly thought of, in fact.  
Although born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Anne Pierson Wiese grew up in Brooklyn, New York. She is a graduate of Amherst College and the New York University Graduate Writing Workshop, and currently lives and works in New York City.

Wiese won the 2006 Walt Whitman Award for her first collection of poems, Floating City, selected by Kay Ryan, which was published in 2007 by Louisiana State University Press. Other awards include a 2005 Fellowship in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and Second Prize in the 2004 Arvon International Poetry Competition sponsored by the Arvon Foundation in Great Britain. She was also a winner in the 2004 "Discovery"/The Nation Poetry Contest and received the First Place Poetry Prize in the 2002 Writers@Work Fellowship Competition.

Her work has been anthologized in Broken Land: Poems of Brooklyn(New York University Press, 2006).   You can several examples of her poetry here.

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