Toward a More Rigorous Text
If we argue – and I am arguing – that the sentence,
as distinct from the utterance of speech, is a unit
of prose, and if prose as literature and the rise of
printing are inextricably interwoven, then the
impact of printing on literature, not just on the
presentation of literature, but on how writing
itself is written, needs to be addressed.
– Ron Silliman1
He gripped more closely the essential prose
As being, in a world so falsified,
The one integrity for him, the one
Discovery still possible to make,
To which all poems were incident . . .
– Wallace Stevens2
After years of writing poetry, I had not yet found a firm home-place to bring back my most free listening. Another way of saying this – and unmixing the metaphor – is to state that I have always sought a wider social value against which to balance and measure (to bring home) my individual findings and feelings (my listening).
Basically, I wanted the effect of rhyme without necessarily needing the rhymes themselves. That is, I wanted an organizing principle that could simultaneously open up and conclude the sense of my work. Rhyme, and the poetic line itself, have always been beautiful candidates for this organizing home-place. But for most poets nowadays, a rhyme is no longer an adequate allegory for the world that we experience – not the regular comfort of end-rhymes at least – and for me the line is too variable, and too arbitrary in the ways it can be fixed, (even rock-like pentameters like Milton’s). Neither device has ever fully balanced the drastic lyricism that our language can bear. Better a stanzaic structure, perhaps, like the couplets of Pope and Ammons and others, or Olson’s breath-units, or Williams’ variable foot, or Stevens’ signature tercets, but ultimately, these techniques all present the same problem, namely, arbitrariness, the lack of reason’s stamp. Poetry must always be thinking about justification; to justify is to become inevitable.
But how can we justify the nearly total freedom of words if those words don’t appear in a form where they can be subjected to reason? This is like inquiring about the purpose of letters when they’re not made into words. Indeed, as Robert Frost intimated, sense does make a certain sound.
We need responsible scrutiny, real roofs, stiff beds, a socially-accepted set of conventions that will criticize or accept or offset our wildest feelings. And we need these things within the formal makeup of our poetry.
Subjecting free syntax to the test of the sentence, we begin to learn how written oppositions can change each other – the tactile qualities of paratactic free language versus the staid relations of settled hypotactic grammar.3 It’s about tension, equilibrium, the present moment as it nests in time, and the responsible language of reason as it stands against the free language of the imagination. It’s about compromise. To find a written form that will be an object in the world, and also an object in the mind – a sculptural and conceptual presence – so that the word exists in its tactility alongside its signification, the lyrical freedom loosened all the more within a more established boundary.
A new form of writing. Call it what you will.4
According to Lewis Turco’s “The Book of Forms”:
A prosody based upon the typographical level – what poems look like on the page – is called carmen figuratum, or spatial prosody. (Italics Turco’s)5
He goes on to describe calligrammes, shaped stanzas, altar poems, and of course concrete poetry. In the next section, entitled “The Sonic Level,” Turco tells us that:
Some nonmetrical systems for writing poetry are based upon constructional schemes – sets of correlated things such as grammatically parallel sentence structures – and these systems ought properly to be considered as prose prosodies when verse systems are not in use for structuring poems. Parallel sentence structures are constructional schemes, and the prosody that uses them is called grammatical parallelism. (Italics Turco’s)6
What he seems to be saying is that prose is constructional (nonmetrical), and is based upon the grammar of sentences instead of such “poetic” systems as would include meter, stress, and syllable.
Elsewhere, in “The New Sentence,” Ron Silliman provides a veritable literary history of the perceived differences between poetry and prose.7 One tends toward the referential use of language (prose), while the other focuses on the message itself (poetry). One is walking toward a definite goal (prose), while the other dances for its own sake (poetry). But Silliman is very conscientious to demonstrate that any perceived difference between poetry and prose does not operate in a strictly linear opposition; instead they are profoundly interrelated, with different emphases at best, and form but two of the functions of any given act of verbal communication, with poetry bearing on the message as such (signifier), and prose concerned with some subject outside the bounds of the text (signified). In other words, it seems that poetry is aware of itself as writing, whereas the history of prose precludes this awareness. Instead, prose calls attention away from its presence on the written page.
But what if you wanted to have both – a typographical level as well as a sonic level – and if you wanted to maintain both, in a relationship where they share equal importance? Both a spatial prosody and a prose one. In other words, what if the shape of the prose on the page were just as important as the shape of a poem on the page?
You would have a piece of writing made of paragraphs and justified margins, but also made of lines of text that are always the same length, regardless of where or how the text is printed. In other words, there would be line-breaks as well as sentences, endwords and enjambments and lines of equal breadth (but not equal in terms of measure (duration), necessarily, rather, they’d be literally equal in distance, from justified margin to justified margin). A written thing that combines the sentences and paragraphs of prose on a level where they are co-important with the end-stresses provided by fixed poetic lines. A more exacting text.
The idea is that a work of true prose poetry should always look the way it looks, however it’s printed. We should note the title, its font and size and distance from the first line. We’d notice whether the beginning of the text itself were or were not capitalized. We would notice prose markers, such as justified margins, but the lines might have strictly determined endwords – “again,” “memories,” “time,” “other,” and so on. We would notice if the piece were reprinted in a journal, with none of its original shape retained, because the torque of the sentences, and even the cadences, will have changed. With lines re-justified to fit a new format, the prose would trump the poetry, tilting the balance. An orator might even read a differently-printed piece differently out loud. A publisher would not take such liberties with the shape of a conventional poem, not without some prosodic markers to indicate where the poem’s lines originally broke. Should a publisher take such liberties with prose?
(Is this prose actual size?)
But there has always been a physical component in the production of prose (as Walter Benjamin, via Paul Valery, might have said): the size of its box, the page, the physical book.8
To ask of our poetry: can it stand the test of prose?
To ask of our prose: can it stand the test of a poem?
Giorgio Agamben seems to be anticipating the need for a more rigorous text when he states:
The versura, the turning-point which displays itself as enjambement, though unspoken-of in treatises on metrics, constitutes the core of verse. It is an ambiguous gesture, that turns in two opposed directions at once: backwards (versus), and forwards (pro-versa). This hanging-back, this sublime hesitation between meaning and sound is the poetic inheritance with which thought must come to terms. In order to take up the legacy, Plato rejected the transmitted forms of writing, and fixed his gaze on that idea of language which, according to the testimony of Aristotle, was for him neither poetry nor prose, but their middle term. (Italics Agamben’s)9
Now, as with Mallarme’s innovation on behalf of poetry, the page becomes an active presence within the prose. One purpose of manifesting such a distinction is of course to heighten the awareness of the language. The line becomes a means for locating stress within the sentence, just as the sentence (and other punctuation) becomes a means for locating stress within the line. They are co-important, sentences and lines, and can now be made to take their place within each other, setting the concretion of prosaics, prosepoetics, a poem’s prose. This presents an interesting problem to that old-fashioned cast of writer who composes in a notebook, in pen, and not on a computer screen or even a typewriter, so that the size and spacing of the handwriting, to some extent, influences what is typed when the piece of writing is converted to the computer for printing and distributing to journals and friends. At some point along this process of creation and commodification it becomes necessary to determine what the piece will look like.
Although A.R. Ammons was not writing prose poetry in his Tape for the Turn of the New Year, he was writing work where the size of the page, and therefore the text’s presence as written text, was an important concern. He did this by making his poem on a thin and continuous sheet of adding-machine paper. Re-printed, his poem maintains the original (necessary?) thinness, though it unfortunately loses the effect of its “true” size as the reader turns pages instead of unscrolling it.
Some of the same effect is witnessed in the prose poem “The Ice Storm” by John Ashbery. As I first encountered it in a Hanuman Edition, that is, published alone in a tiny book that measures roughly 2 ½ by 4 inches and is 29 pages long, the text exploded along in lines just a few words wide. The title, too, stands on a page of its own, and it isn’t until we turn the page that the text begins. When the poem was reprinted in the book April Galleons, Ashbery let the lines stretch to the full justified margins. The title appears just above the body of the work. Witness the difference between the first page of the tiny Hanuman version, and the same text as it appears in the larger book. First, the small edition:
isn’t really a storm of
course because unlike most
storms it isn’t one till it’s
over and people go outside
and say will you look at
that. And by then it’s
of course starting to
collapse. Diamond rubble,
The title is absent, because it appeared on the page before. The leading spaces between the words are exaggerated, to justify the lines. There is a slowness I experience, in reading this version, that I cannot duplicate while reading it as it appeared in the book April Galleons:
The Ice Storm
isn’t really a storm of course because unlike most storms it isn’t one till
it’s over and people go outside and say will you look at that. And by then
it’s of course starting to collapse. Diamond rubble, . . .
Prose works are different works when read in different shapes and fonts and sizes, different in a first edition, more or less as an author intended them, than when they are read in an anthologized translation, crammed sometimes two or more on a page, with the title riding hard on the first words of the piece, no space to breathe. And what of those other quirks of typesetting and bookmaking, beginning blocks of prose with a giant first letter or the first few words capitalized or in italics? Would Ulysses begin with the same effect without its page-sized “S”? These are matters to be taken less lightly, and should become direct concerns for the writer of a visual prose.10
A test of prose: Take a poem, introduce normative punctuation, periods, paragraphs, don’t change the words. Now scan the sentences, bring the poetry home.
Let’s subject a famous work to this anything-but-arbitrary little test. Let’s pass sentence on one of the most “poetic” of poems. A poem that undeniably succeeds in the act of showing what it says because of the way it looks on the page. Let’s transfer Ezra Pound’s “The Return” into a grammatical, hypotactic display of schoolroom prose. First, the poem as it appears in Pound’s Collected Poems:
See, they return; ah, see the tentative
Movements, and the slow feet,
The trouble in the pace and the uncertain
See, they return, one, and by one,
With fear, as half-awakened;
As if the snow should hesitate
And murmur in the wind,
and half turn back;
These were the “Wing’d-with-Awe,”
Gods of the wingèd shoe!
With them the silver hounds,
sniffing the trace of air!
These were the swift to harry;
These the keen-scented;
These were the souls of blood.
Slow on the leash,
pallid the leash-men!
And now, the same poem prosed, proseated, prosified:
See, they return; ah, see the tentative movements, and the slow feet, the trouble in the pace and the uncertain wavering!
See, they return, one, and by one, with fear, as half-awakened; as if the snow should hesitate and murmur in the wind, and half turn back; these were the “Wing’d-with-Awe,” inviolable.
Gods of the wingèd shoe! With them the silver hounds, sniffing the trace of air!
These were the swift to harry; these the keen-scented; these were the souls of blood.
Slow on the leash, pallid the leash-men!
Still quite beautiful as prose. Though now no longer evincing what it says; no longer showing, in prose, the tentative hesitating shape of the poetry. In prose, I’d almost want to edit a little:
See? They return. Ah, see the stanch movements. Steady feet, straightforward pace, and certainty unwavering.
See, they return – one, and by one. Without fear, as if awakened. As if the snow should land with a windless thud, inviolable. . . . (etc.)
There, now. The beginnings of a prose “The Return.”
Now, what did we learn? If I were Pound, and I were editing an early version of my poem, I might discover something about my line breaks, word choices, and punctuation. I might tinker with the rhythm. And thanks to this little editing exercise – molding my unbounded poem into the boundaries of prose – I’d be a little more certain that I had a strong piece of writing. But eventually I’d release it from the limits of prose and change it back to pretty much the way I’d had it. (Again, if I were Pound.)
Is the more rigorous text a single ideal form of writing, or am I maintaining that there are two ideals – one for each genre – that approach a fusion of disciplinary standards from different ends of the signifier/signified relationship?
In other words, if our poetry should be more prosaic, then shouldn’t our prose be more poetic as well? Would breaking our prose sentences into poetic lines as a temporary editing gesture help to strengthen those sentences when they’re reconstituted as prose?
Here’s a block of simple prose writing, lifted purely at random from a national news source:
As if the damage from Thursday night’s twister wasn’t enough, conditions today are again favorable for tornado formation, according to the National Weather Service.
The Weather Service advises those under tornado watches to be prepared to take cover should severe thunderstorms or tornados come through the area.
Now let’s look at the same prose in a completely different typographical arrangement:
As if the damage
night’s twister wasn’t
conditions today are again
for tornado formation,
to the National Weather Service.
The Weather Service
advises those under
tornado watches to be
to take cover should
or tornados come
through the area.
By offsetting the verbs, shaping the language like a twister itself (thin lines swirling down the page), and breaking the units into couplets (physically the smallest stanzaic structure that might hold together in a violent wind), it’s somewhat easier to see what this prose needs to make it more visual and aural, more charged, more intense, more “poetic.”
Let’s add a little description in each sentence, and change a word or two. Also, a small measure of frivolity might balance the seriousness, and create a sense of balance that gives these two short-ish sentences the feel of a poetic whole. And when we return the margins to the demarcations of justified prose, we might come up with something like this:
As if the damage from Thursday night’s twister wasn’t enough – trees uprooted, houses clumped in heaps, detritus strewn, cars overturned, storefronts peeled completely away – conditions today are again favorable for tornado formation, according to the National Weather Service.
The Weather Service advises those under tornado watches to be prepared should such a violent natural event come tearing through the area. Kiss your loved ones and sweet ass goodbye.
Description was added to the first sentence, and the visual word “tearing” in the second one. We were also able to hear that a synonym in the second sentence, such as “violent natural event,” avoided repetitious use of the word “tornado” and the sudden introduction of a new piece of information (“thunderstorms”). We also shifted to frivolity for another kind of justice: poetic balance. And, voila. Not merely lyrical prose, but somewhat of a prose lyric.11
The book is one of the issues of poetry, and one of the issues of Language. The book, not just the page, although the page too is a space to be habituated, and not just cordoned, by the poetic word, and also by the (de-) conventionalized sprawl of the prosaic sentence. A book is a property, a private space (publicized), for you to own. The ways it shapes language can be novel.
Should all prose be concrete? Or do I have an inordinate respect for the book?
Along the way, one printing custom I should like to help eradicate – and thus restore some dignity to the word – is the prose convention of breaking multi-syllabic words and hyphenating them across lines of text. Typesetters call this travesty of printing a “forced break.” I wonder what the first book was that subjected words to such treatment? Could we see the last book to do so within my lifetime?
A new standard of writing could prove useful in the computer age, where the size of a text spreads or condenses, given the technological circumstances of the computer – “can your word processor read the commands of my word processor? does your e-mail compress text and introduce line-breaks? how big is your screen?” – and so on.
And finally, we approach a kind of ultimate written form. The schoolbook standards of prose writing become engaged with the free radicals of poetry in a justified theater – capitalized, graphed, and periodic. The sentences convey actions from subjects to objects across scanning, metrical lines. Both poem and prose. Poetic philosophy, philosophical poetry. Metrical sentences. As Frost said, “the sound of sense.”
If formal problems in poetry reflect, generally speaking, social ones as well, then what social problem is diagnosed or alleviated by the poetic concretization of prose? Will the book regain some of its doctrinal quality, some of its aura, recaptured from the legions of escaping commodifications? This remains to be seen. In my estimation, poetry, like any spoiled child, may have suffered socially from too much permission. And prose, like any sanctimonious adult who knows what’s good for us, may have overborne its powers. As a result, prose strays into blurbs, slogans, and the banality of self-help; and poetry is lost to in-jokes, the understanding of which is nearly impossible without some key or critical help. Hence the need for a middle ground. At any rate it is my hope that a new writing will occur – when the possibilities have been considered and practiced by intelligent and talented authors – born of a heightened awareness for the elements of writing, which have always included the page but not always consciously. For hasn’t the line break always been an element in the prose sentence?
- Ron Silliman, The New Sentence, p. 73
- Wallace Stevens, “The Comedian as the Letter C,” in The Palm at the End of the Mind, p. 66.
- This subject is well discussed in Stephen Fredman’s, Poet’s Prose, pp. 32-33, especially. Also interesting (in a related sense) is Fredman’s useful distinction between wholeness and completeness, which occurs on these same pages.
- Concrete Prose, Sized Prose, Templative, Blocked Prose, Parcel Prose, Prose That Carries Its Context, Contained Prose…?
- Lewis Turco, The Book of Forms, p. 7.
- Ibid., p. 9.
- New Sentence, pp. 63-76
- Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, p. 217. The quote that states, “In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be . . .” is used by Benjamin to begin his essay. The words themselves, in another context of course, are Paul Valery’s.
- Giorgio Agamben, Idea of Prose, p. 41.
- Gerald R. Bruns’ 2005 book, The Material of Poetry, provides a compelling argument on behalf of poetry as conceptual visual (and aural) art, with the page playing a major role in composition. I diverge from Bruns, however, where sense-making and sentence-making turn away from what Steve McCaffery calls “poetic research into the endless possibilities of language.” For the reason of sobriety, I prefer instead to ply quietly and perniciously within the old construct, the better to dismantle some of its values yet create a smooth transition for tradition. Prose poetry could, I suppose, become a chaos of justified margins, slanted, cut up, widened, tapered, until soon the work could be made to look a lot like concrete poetry, as in the exemplary word sculptures of Susan Howe and McCaffery. But then I think our language concedes some important ethical middle ground to the individual writer over the common reader.
- Two juxtaposed quotes. First, Ernest Fenollosa, from The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, written before 1908, and published by Ezra Pound in 1936: “The sentence form was forced upon primitive men by nature itself. It was not we who made it; it was a reflection of the temporal order in causation. All truth has to be expressed in sentences because all truth is the transference of power.” (italics Fenollosa’s). And second, Thomas Carlyle, from On Heroes and Hero Worship, from 1840: “…all speech, even the commonest speech, has something of song in it… Observe too how all passionate language does of itself become musical, – with a finer music than the mere accent; the speech of a man even in zealous anger becomes a chant, a song. All deep things are Song. It seems somehow the very central essence of us, Song; as if all the rest were but wrappages and hulls! The primal element of us; of us, and of all things… Poetry, therefore, we will call musical Thought. The Poet is he who thinks in that manner. At bottom, it turns still on power of intellect; it is a man’s sincerity and depth of vision that makes him a Poet. See deep enough, and you see musically; the heart of Nature being everywhere music, if you can only reach it.”
Geoff Bouvier’s first book, Living Room, won the APR/Honickman Prize, and was published in 2005 by Copper Canyon. His second book, Glass Harmonica, appeared in 2011 from Quale Press. In 2009, he was the Roberta C. Holloway Lecturer in Poetry at the University of California-Berkeley. He earned an MFA from Bard College in 1997 and a PhD in poetry from Florida State in 2016.
This essay first appeared in the now-discontinued online journal Octopus, in 2006.