Living · Reading

In Defense of the Prose Poem, or The Existential Escargot

Every time I teach Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium, I buy another book he references in them. It’s like getting a reading list from a trusted source. Usually it’s another treasure I don’t know how else I would have stumbled across. Once, I admit, I didn’t see what he saw—I put down Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual after reading about half of it. But I’ve chased down others of his works and enjoyed them, so I still count him as a triumph.
One of my favorite discoveries was Francis Ponge. Ponge writes prose poems, which I adore. I’ve had many conversations defending this delicate art.  Ponge’s The Nature of Things (Le parti pris des choses) features in Calvino’s essay on “Exactitude” because Ponge is a master of exactitude. In the quest for “le mot juste,” he takes all the prizes. He describes objects and incidents with laser precision. I read one or two occasionally when I need a shot of beauty, like an vaccine against the dis-ease of the world.
In The Nature of Things, “Snails” is by far the longest piece–over four pages. It is quite striking throughout, but the end compels me to write (but first to quote).  He calls snails “saints.”
“That is the example that snails offer us: saints who make masterpieces of their lives, works of art of their own perfection. They secrete form. Nothing outside themselves, their necessity, or their needs is their work. Nothing is out of proportion with their physical being. Nothing that is unnecessary or obligatory.

“And so they delineate the duties of humanity: great thoughts come from the heart. Live a better life and make better verses. Morality and rhetoric combine in the ambition and desire of the wise.

“How are they saints? Precisely by obedience to their nature. So: know yourself. And accept yourself for what you are. In agreement with your vices. In proportion with your measure.

“What is most appropriate to the human being? Words. Decency. Our humanism.
And he wrote this in Paris in 1936. So 350 years after Polonius told Laertes “To thine own self, be true” and 70 years before a rash of self-help books and articles in women’s magazines, here was some crazy Frenchman watching snails in his garden and thinking ‘Hey, we’re a lot alike!’ What a cool world we live in when meaningful connections can be made between such disparate entities, when patterns in the nature of things echo, or reverberate, or like images in a mirror, respond to each other.  The longer I live, the more I feel everything is connected.
And the advice is so beautiful:  Know yourself. Accept yourself. 1- in keeping with your vices, and 2- in proportion to your stature. So look honestly at yourself. Learn your weaknesses. He doesn’t say to stamp them out; just learn them. And understand your stature. I take that to mean we should acknowledge how we stand tall (our strengths, etc.) and how high we stand—to realize our position in relation to other things and people. Find your place. Plomb your depths and measure your heights. Then express yourself—all with a mind to perfecting yourself. At 17 I told a friend I was questing to create the perfect Alison, and he very gallantly asked me not to because he liked the current version fine. But who could ever stop? The point Ponge makes is that we must do it consciously every step of the way.
Discover our nature and live it. Well. Really well. Good luck out there.
(The Ponge text is taken from Joshua Corey and Jean-Luc Garneau’s translation, available on the Poetry Foundation website: The photo is of a little girl running toward self-actualization, faster than a snail or a stopped train.)

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