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Prose Posing

As I drove to the post office last week, I found myself hoping to find something alegre in my box, and I did: a special edition of a highly respected literary magazine. My alegría, however, turned to disappointment when I found in those pages the same item I find in many other magazines and literary outlets in the U.S.: too many pages where prose poses as poetry. It's a trend that has gathered great steam over the past 20 years, and it is a literary crime.

Free verse does not imply no verse. Free verse is "free" to find its own structure, visually and rhythmically, free to rhyme externally, internally, or not at all. What it is not free to do is convert itself into pure narration.

If you can easily convert a poem into contiguous sentences whose primary quality is that of narrative, then you're reading prose posing as poetry. In his poem Poetry for Supper, the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas imagines two poets talking and writes:

'Listen, now, verse should be as natural
As the small tuber that feeds on muck
And grows slowly from obtuse soil
To the white flower of immortal beauty.'

'Natural, hell! What was it Chaucer
Said once about the long toil
That goes like blood to the poem's making?
Leave it to nature and the verse sprawls,
Limp as bindweed, if it break at all
Life´s iron crust. Man, you must sweat
And rhyme your guts taut, if you'd build
Your verse a ladder. . . . '

'Sunlight's a thing that needs a window
Before it enter a dark room.
Windows don't happen.'

No, windows do not happen. Which brings me to another critical aspect of poetry: formality. Poetry speaks to every layer of our natures, both high and low, yet poetry is, by its very nature, not natural. It is formal, in the primal sense of the word: form-al. It is construct, not happenstance; sculpture, not bricklaying. It is not story, although it may contain story within it.

William Stafford, a U.S. Poet Laureate, was a master at placing stories within poems, not to reveal but to evoke. The story is sublimated into a wordless presence, not an explained narrative, as in his poem:

Dreams to Have
They film a woman falling from a bridge
but the camera stops, and she stays
in the air. I can remember that place
in the rest of my life: it is going on
while events wait for their cues.

Time jerks its way forward and you are
a long-waiting part, ready, ready,
walking our town. I round your corner
and my eyes come true.

All good writing requires attentive discipline, a good ear for innate rhythm and language, a willingness to cut as much as to create, a readiness to harness enthusiasm to patience, and a persistence that makes the writer return again and again, for years if necessary, to the work until it reaches its finishing line. Although this discipline works for writing both prose and poetry, it works differently for each.

Sometimes, I wonder if the many instances of sentences "arranged" to appear as poetry are the result of a profound and pervasive lack of discipline. To write a good collection of short stories or a good novel involves an amount of time and a degree of solitude that require not only commitment but also sacrifice. To write a few good sentences, however, throwing in a powerful metaphor or two, or a violent or emotional event or two, and then to publish it as poetry is, in many ways, an affront to prose authors--and a dilution and destruction of poetic form, which if one approaches it with honor, also demands no small deposit of one's time and effort. Its size is no reflection of its needs in being wrought.

Why does poetic form matter? Why shouldn't poetry be allowed to morph and melt into whatever any one individual wants it to be? Because a vessel without structure cannot carry-- either cargo or meaning. Poetic form matters because, as William Carlos Williams wrote,

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there."

In these days where too often it appears that "the beast is slouching toward Bethlehem," and "the center cannot hold," let our poems not be lacking in what humankind needs to find there,
let the structure of these vessels be strong enough to carry us when we need them most.


Text and image copyright, 2006, Ysabel de la Rosa. All rights reserved.
Poetry for Supper by R.S. Thomas, quoted from Today's Poets: American and British Poetry Since the 1930s, Copyright 1964, Charles Scribner's Sons
Dreams to Have by William Stafford, quoted from Someday, Maybe: New Poems by William Stafford. Copyright 1973, William Stafford. Publisher: Harper & Row


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