Sentenced to Poetry: Fullness as Accumulation and Rebellion in the Prose Poem
by Amanda Earl
"I began to long for complex sentences, for the possibility of digression, for space. The space of a different, less linear movement: a dance of syntax. The prose paragraph seemed like the right kind of space where form could prove ‘a centre around which, not a box within which’ (Ezra Pound)." (Rosemarie Waldrop, “Why Prose Poetry”)
The first prose poems I read were Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris (1869). I was an eighteen-year old, studying French at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, in downtown Toronto, going gaga over attractive young men and being influenced by a Turkish friend who spent all her days in the café knitting when she wasn’t buying jewelry. Suddenly I was surrounded by strangeness, people who floated convention, who spoke languages other than English, who had travelled.
I was already mesmerized by the poems of Baudelaire and Rimbaud in many ways, the wildness of them, but I especially liked the way Baudelaire’s prose poems move away from rhyme but still contain a musicality in the sentence, still portray a speaker who wants to be drunk, who wants to explore creativity as something untameable, compatible with the poet’s restless spirit. There is something about the prose poem that feels out of control, not constrained by line breaks that is liberating and makes for endless possibilities of whimsy, exploration and connection.
As a young woman surrounded by fascinating students from exotic places, given the opportunity to wander the streets of downtown Toronto on my own, the rebelliousness and cosmopolitan nature of these poems and the author had a certain appeal.
Prose poetry can be a way of conveying the fullness of language and human experience, of playing with the sentence. Lisa Robertson creates memorable and eccentric poetry out of the sentence. Her book, the Weather (New Star Books, 2001), is an assembly of weather reports but also a playful and lyrical collection of sentences and fragments. Each clause builds upon the next by means of rhythm, repetition and accumulation of detail to create a crescendo with sound and imagery:
"A beautiful morning: we go down to the arena. A cold wintry day; we open some purse. A day is lapsing; some of us light a cigarette. A deep mist on the surface; the land pulls out. A dull mist comes rolling from the west; this is our imaginary adulthood. A glaze has lifted; it is delusional space. A great dew; we spread ourselves sheer-like. A keen wind; we’re paper blown against the fence. A little checkered at 4 PM ; we dribble estrangement’s sex. A long soaking rain; we lift the description."
I just started reading Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the Present (2014), which feels like an homage to the sentence. As does Nilling: Prose Essays on Noise, Pornography, the Codex, Melancholy, Lucretius, Folds, Cities and Related Aporias (2012) a book of essays, a book of essay-poems.
I am enthralled with the way the sentence in prose poems or essay-poems can be accumulative. On occasion, whenever I damn well feel like it, I have been known to subscribe to horror vacui, filling up a blank space with detail, rather than trying to be as spare as possible in my writing. Perhaps as a type of rebellion from the standard viewpoint that poetry should be minimal or the realization that human behaviour isn’t minimal; it is sloppy, overflowing and wordy. I spend a great deal of time eavesdropping on conversations and trying to find ways to translate awkward behaviour of strangers onto the page. I’m not always sure that minimalism is the best way to do so. Even as a reader, sometimes I want to be drunk on language and imagery.
In Juliana Spahr’s “thisconnectionofeveryonewithlungs” (University of California Press, 2005), the sentence, by means of repetition and accumulation, becomes incantatory. The section entitled “poemwrittenafterseptember11/2001” begins as seven minimal lines made up of one sentence with lots of space in between. Spahr crowds more and more text onto successive pages until near the end of the poem when she has a paragraph of twelve lines made up of one sentence and then back to two-line sentence at the end, “How lovely and how doomed this connection of everyone with lungs.”
The sentence can be long or short. It can be minimal or full of detail. It can reflect the breath, the body. In “Je Nathanaël” (BookThug, 2006), Nathalie Stephens (now Nathanaël) moves between short, staccato sentences and run on sentences without punctuation to create a tone of restless sensuality. The book deals with the inability of language to articulate human experience but also the inability of the body to represent the self:
"Books don’t show the way but insist on remaining. So how to leave the book and enter directly into the body ? We are jealous of one another’s bodies yet we each have one. I would undress my tongue and dip it willingly into ice cold water would invite you to meet me where the body becomes transparent where nothing is for sale and everything is given away. I would invent rude words for your mouth to show you the true colour of blood. Love in the raw is life renewed. But of this write nothing down not a thing. Be wary of the heat that emanates from the unwritten page. Everything remains to be said so long was we have said nothing. Most importantly do not fear dirtying yourself. love washes the body clean of perfection.”
Stanza-based poetry often leaps from one image or theme to another without any kind of obvious transition. When it’s done in prose poetry, it feels like a form of rebellion against conventional prose. As soon as we are taught to write, we begin to learn the importance of logic, of clear transitions between ideas. Prose poetry fucks with that. Take for example, the brilliant and versatile Anne Carson.
Her writing dances from subject to subject. The transitions aren’t always straight-forward. This is not a careless mistake, but rather a deliberate technique, a way to accumulate and balance, to create a collage of wonder. This method has given me permission to leap in ways that conventional writing environments do not.
Her ability to transcend the boundaries of genre is liberating. Float (Knopf, 2016) is a kick-ass example of such: 22 chapbooks that float from poetry to essay to fragment, often within the same chapbook. The work is versatile, playful, thoughtful and full of language that is straight-forward, not high-fallutin, nor academic-sounding.
In Cassandra Float Can, one of the chapbooks in Float, Carson is interested in “cracks, cuts, gashes, splittings, slicings, rips, tears, conical intersects, disruptions, etymologies.” She talks of the veils that cover so-called reality, how translation and even the writing of the sentence itself can be an act of covering or cutting through surfaces.
I am currently reading Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property (Wave, 2016), another blend of essays and prose poems, reminiscent of Anne Carson’s Short Talks (Brick Books, 1992) in that each poem takes one subject and goes off in unexpected directions.
The sentence in prose poetry is the conveyor of leaps. Its rhythms evoke Miles Davis playing horn on Bitches Brew: long, echoing brass or short trills. It is versatile, rebellious and adventurous.
Reading this over, I’m starting to worry that I’m saying I don’t like stanza-based poetry. That isn’t true. Whatever serves the work, even song lyrics. Hey, didn’t Bob Dylan just win the Nobel Prize for Literature for his lyrics? This means I can talk about music as poetry. Hell, I would have anyway. But thank you, Sweden.
Some of my favourite poetry blends lines and sentences, poem and prose poem. Works such as Oana Avasilichioae’s We, Beasts (Wolsak & Wynn, 2012) move from single lines on a page to lines that transcend linear space, moving up the page diagonally to blocks of prose punctuated with periods. When this sort of thing happens, publishers have a hard time categorizing a book as poetry or prose. This, I think, is my favourite kind of literary rebellion, a work that is unclassifiable, that doesn’t fit into a pigeon hole.
Wouldn’t it be great if genre didn’t matter? It doesn’t. Fuck it.
Amanda Earl is a poet, publisher and fiction writer, living in Ottawa. Amanda is managing editor of Bywords.ca and fallen angel of AngelHousePress. Her books include “A World of Yes” (DevilHouse, 2015), “Kiki” (Chaudiere Books, 2014), “Coming Together Presents Amanda Earl” (Coming Together, 2014). Further information is available at AmandaEarl.com or contact Amanda on Twitter @KikiFolle.