Reading · Writing

In Praise of Prose

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.

Enjoy.

“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.

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:  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/89712/snails. The photo is of a little girl running toward self-actualization, faster than a snail or a stopped train.)