Statement of Philosophy

A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.

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Monday, April 29, 2013

"Ms. and Super Pac Man" by B.J. Best -- Verse Daily, 4/29/2013

from Pleiades (33.1)
poem found here


First words:
They met at Overeaters Anonymous.


the prose poem, and the question of the distinction between poetry and prose

— reformatted with minor editing 9/30/15
— a little editing 6/16/2013

This is a prose poem – or so it claims. But that is the question: what is a prose poem? It seems these days that people are very willing to take near anything under 300 words or so and call it a prose poem. But are they? Merely because they are short, does that make them a prose poem? How is a prose poem different from a short-short? How is it different from flash fiction. Are you willing to say there is no difference and "prose poem" is, merely, any short prose work? Let me reverse the question: is there anything about this little story that is not, merely, prose?

Let's look at two texts. First, T.S. Eliot's "Hysteria," often called one the best prose poems in English:

As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty green iron table, saying: "If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden…" I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.

and Franz Kafka's "Absent-Minded Window-Gazing" (translated by Willa and Edmund Muir; plucked from here):

What are we to do with these spring days that are now fast coming on? Early this morning he sky was gray, but if you go to the window now you are surprised and lean your cheek against the latch of the casement.

The sun is already setting, but down below you see it lighting up the face of the little girl who strolls along looking about her, and at the same time you see her eclipsed by the shadow of the man overtaking her.

And then the man has passed by and the little girl's face is quite bright.

I have to put them within the post, here, because the whiz kids at other poetry sites (like Poetry Archive, Poetry Foundation, and AllPoetry) don't seem to realize it is a prose proem and have it on screen left justified, with broken lines. (If you look at the html, the poem is actually by hand broken into lines.) [Note: PoetryFoundation corrected it the next day, after I pointed it out. 4/30] And since I put up one, then why not also the other. I put them there mostly for you to read. To compare.

"Hysteria" is a prose poem. "Window-Gazing" is a story. You do not every see "Hysteria" called a story, and I have yet to see Kafka's short-shorts called prose poems except in the loosest manner (as a kind of association with them, rather than identity with them.) So read them. Granted, these are only two texts; but can you find something different between them?

Let me offer a suggestion: is, perhaps, the Kafka piece, simply, prose. It uses prosaic forms, it plays with prosaic technique and effect (here, the creating of suspense and realization within a linear narrative). Does it not seem that the Eliot piece tries for something more, if not, even, different?

To be honest, I have rather come to dislike the idea of the "prose-poem," because so little effort has been put into maintaining any singular identity to it. (Which is unfortunate, because the idea of a "prose poem" – the idea that Eliot was playing with, and that Mallarme played with – could be a fascinating form.) And, in contemporary poetics, just as people are willing to accept anything with line breaks as a poem (rather than prose with a narrow margin), so then also can any short prose work be considered "poetic." So perhaps the answer to the question of what is and is not a "prose poem" lies less in form – because it is absurd to think "brevity" is the single and only source of the "poem" part of the title – and rather in the simple question: What is the difference between poetry and prose?

Just for fun, let's take a look at The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. This is the opening of the entry "Poetry":

A poem is an instance of verbal art, a text set in verse, bound speech. More generally, a poem conveys heightened forms of perception, experience, meaning, or consciousness in heightened language, i.e., a heightened mode of discourse.

"A heightened mode of discourse": what Wordsworth calls "calculated" language. Notice how the definition moves away from any specific area of effect (perception, meaning, or what) and turns instead to the more elemental idea of "heightened language." And I think that is both a simple enough – and sufficient – distinction between prose and poetry: that which is poetic rises above the prosaic through a heightened attention to, and manipulation of, and creation out of language. Manipulation in what specific way, attention in what specific way, and creating in what specific way is are questions unnecessary to the general, encompassing idea. As such, there is no requisite form (or such) to poetry – and you can legitimately have such things as the prose poem set next to villanelles. What is constant, though, what is necessary and requisite, is "heightened." Which is, rather and in truth, what I look for when I read poetry: I want to come upon something that has been created – which means looking also at the language – and not something merely related, and conveniently broken into lines to get it past poetry editors, when prose editors really wouldn't give it a second thought. I want to see crafting, not mere "writing."

Poetry – be it line broken otherwise – is a challenge: a challenge to skillfully and brilliantly manipulate language to create a heightened experience, one beyond what you find in mere prose.

Of course, as i said, this idea rather takes the question of form out of the definition. Which is good, because Broch's The Death of Virgil (for example) is very much a book length poem, even if not broken into formal lines, and needs to be identified as a book length poem: or, at least, and perhaps more accurately, as a poetic book. Line breaks are merely one way of heightening language, not an identifier – which is why I rail so consistently against poetry that is really just prose with arbitrary line breaks. Simply, such texts are not interesting! You've shown me nothing, of poetic skill, ability, talent, or performance. You've merely written some (usually drab and melodramatic) prose, and broken it into lines. Am I to accept that that is the extent of your poetic ability? Two-inch lines and a stanza break after every third?

So, we return to the Pac-mans. Don't ask yourself, "Is this a prose poem?" Ask yourself, "Is this poetic?" Is there heightened language? Is there literary performance beyond the prosaic? Or is this merely prose? Which is fine – let it be a short-short. Nothing wrong with that. And I leave it to you to decide. But I think there is damage done if you accept the merely prosaic as poetic; damage done whether that prose is written in paragraph form, or with line breaks: that is, a lowering of the bar, a diminishing of beauty. A willingness to accept mediocrity, or worse, in a field that, by it's very idea, should be demanding attempts at brilliance.


That little correction – from a "book length poem" to a "poetic book" – may be far more important than one might think at first. For it moves the idea of "poem" out from the nominative and into the descriptive. It is a very different standard of judging to say "is it poetic?" rather than "is it a poem?" Playing to definitions is far easier than playing to characteristics. Saying "is it poetic?" puts the emphasis on rising in performance; whereas "is it a poem?" merely asks, "can it fit in this (insanely broad) category?"

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