If I am a lover of form in verse, I am no less enamored of poetic prose. I don’t know why more people don’t write prose poems. Some poems, in fact, I think would lose none of their charm if we just let them be prose instead of forcing line breaks that can seem arbitrary.
So tonight, on what social media has just informed me is World Book Day, I offer some baby books for the harried, along with a brief introduction.
Prose poems are compact, usually a paragraph to a page or two. Shorter than most fiction, they tend not so much to tell a story as to convey an evocative image. The density of their language and their use of figurative language often used in poetry make them seem like a verbal inoculation against sloppy writing—they remind us that language can be precise and powerful without meter or rhyme, and they leave us with an image or idea that we can carry in to the world.
They are perfect for evenings when you just have a little time and want to indulge in something like candy for your brain. My choices tonight hearken back to where I first encountered the prose poem—a French literature class in college—so one is from the 19th century Baudelaire (who is often compared to Edgar Allan Poe, even by himself) and the 20th century Francis Ponge, who became something of an icon in prose poetry, known for minute description and crystalline imagery.
“Be Drunken” by Charles Baudelaire
BE DRUNKEN, ALWAYS. That is the point. Nothing else matters. If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time weigh you down and crush you to the earth, be drunken continually.
Drunken with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please. But be drunken.
And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace, or on the green grass in a ditch, or in the dreary solitude of your own room, you should awaken and find the drunkenness half or entirely gone, ask of the wind, of the wave, of the star, of the bird, of the clock, of all that flies, of all that sighs, of all that moves, of all that sings, of all that speaks, ask what hour it is; and wind, wave, star, bird, or clock will answer you: “It is the hour to be drunken! Be drunken, if you would not be the martyred slaves of Time; be drunken continually! With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please.”
“Rain” by Francis Ponge
The rain, in the backyard
where I watch it fall, comes down at different
rates. In the center a fine discontinuous
curtain — or network — falls implacably and yet gently in drops that
are probably quite light; a strengthless sempiternal precipitation, an intense
fraction of the atmosphere at its purest. A little distance from the walls to
the right and left plunk heavier drops, one by one. Here they seem about the size
of grains of wheat, the size of a pea, while elsewhere they are big as marbles.
Along gutters and window frames the rain runs horizontally, while depending
from the same obstacles it hangs like individually wrapped candies. Along the
entire surface of a little zinc roof under my eyes it trickles in a very thin
sheet, a moiré pattern formed by the varying currents created by the
imperceptible bumps and undulations of the surface. From the gutter it flows
with the restraint of a shallow creek until it tumbles out into a perfectly
vertical net, rather imperfectly braided, all the way to the ground where it
breaks and sparkles into brilliant needles.
Each of its forms has its particular allure and corresponds to a particular patter. Together they share the intensity of a complex mechanism as precise as it is dangerous, like a steam-powered clock whose spring is wound by the force of the precipitation.
The ringing on the ground of the vertical trickles, the glug-glug of the gutters, the miniscule strikes of the gong multiply and resonate all at once in a concert without monotony, and not without a certain delicacy.
Once the spring unwinds itself certain wheels go on turning for a while, more and more slowly, until the whole mechanism comes to a stop. It all vanishes with the sun: when it finally reappears, the brilliant apparatus evaporates. It has rained.
*The Baudelaire poem was printed in Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine: Selected Verse and Prose Poems and translated by Joseph M. Bernstein. Citadel Press 1990.
*The Ponge piece was translated by Joshua Corey and Jean-Luc Garneau and is available on The Poetry Foundation website at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/francis-ponge.