Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Louis Jenkins on the Prose Poem

Louis Jenkins, in Magma, talks about the prose poem – what he aims at when writing one, how trends have changed over the years, and how the prose poem relates to more formal poetries.

I thought this bit was great, especially the hayseed got up in the tuxedo and the “even though there may be no real poetry happening” –

It seems to me that most free verse has a kind of formal quality, even though it may be written in the most prosaic language, relate the most prosaic experience, and lack any insight. It’s like some hayseed got up in a tuxedo. This is due primarily to line-breaks. They give the thing the look of a poem even though there may be no real poetry happening. I thought why not just write it out in prose and see if this ‘experience’ has any poetry about it? I know some poets will argue about ‘the music’ etc, etc… That doesn’t interest me. I think that whatever it is that makes a poem work, that sort of mysterious moment of recognition (Robert Frost called the poem “a momentary stay against confusion”), can happen in a prose poem as easily as in any other kind of poem.

I like the music of poetry and get frustrated when I read poems without any, of the kind he describes. But writing it out in prose seems more honest. If it’s prose, why not make it look like prose? If the layout of a piece leads me to expect prose, I might enjoy its prose, rather than keep wondering why it’s been written in lines.


Ed Parsons said...

Sometimes the poetry of the piece - or even its music - might lie in the foxed relation between the lack of 'poetic' features and the expectation of such features raised by the poetic form. Why shouldn't rhythm, sound, etc work on a muted level which is brought out precisely by the lineation?

And what good poet writes prose with line breaks anyway? The piece of Jenkins' argument you quote here (I haven't read the whole thing in Magma) naughtily assumes that something has to be 'poetic' or straight prose. But things aren't as simple as that.

Mark said...

Glad you like the interview Rob, thanks for highlighting it. We're very pleased with Magma 36, our guest editor Anne-Marie Fyfe did a great job. There's a launch reading in London next Monday 4th December - maybe a bit far from Scotland for a Monday night but would be great to see you if you can make it.

Rob Mackenzie said...

Tony, you're right. Things aren't as simple. And lineation can work to create poetry out of lines that at first seem prosey.

Louis Jenkins seems less interested in how lineation might alter prose-like sentences, and more interested in the "mysterious moment of recognition" - that's what he sees as the poetic element in his prose poems. Or at least, that's how I understand him.

Mark - I'll have to check with the Magma office, as I still haven't received my paper copy (and I subscribed earlier this year), but the website is usually interesting.
I'd like to be at the launch, but yes, it would be a bit of a trek for me.

Mark said...

Rob - I think Magma 36 has just been sent out, but I'll double-check with our subscriptions manager to make sure you receive it.

Mark said...

If you could send an e-mail to me - poetry [at] wishfulthinking.co.uk with details of when you subscribed and what you have/haven't received, that'll make it easier to chase it up for you.

C. E. Chaffin said...

I have long objected to the "prose poem." To me it's an eternal oxymoron. It has been brought on by a terrible lack of skill in managing line breaks by contemporary poets. I wish there were another name for prose-poem. Poetic paragraph?

When I write my own poems out in prose, even free verse, there is something in the form that screams, "Put me back into lines." Something about the pauses inherent in line breaks. Lazy enjambments have taken us down a diminishing road.

Anonymous said...

Mark Rylance just gave a speech at the Tony Awards using Louis' prose from Backcountry.