A Northwest Based Literary Journal

The Curse of Lineated Prose, by James Benton

 

The Problem: I use the term “Lineated prose” to describe a kind of poetry recognizable by the presence of certain characteristic usages, among them:

  • Overuse of the verb “to be,”
  • Absence of a pulse due to
  • Flat, fluffy, or flabby diction, and
  • Line breaks that raise the question, “why here?”

Admittedly the line between prose and poetry is a fine one, the center of which is often indistinct and shifting. We easily speak of “prose poetry” and of “the poetry” of particularly affecting prose, but the more we try to mark the line between the two, the more elusive the boundary becomes. I can live with that, but I think poetry aspires to something if not greater than prose, at least to something significantly different.

Luis Turco[1] suggests that within the various genres (poetry, drama, fiction, and essay), there are two modes: prose and verse. He then defines prose as unmetered language, verse as metered language (5). I find these distinctions handy to a certain extent, but to grant the possibility of poetry that involves unmetered language, is to risk erasing the distinction once again and to grant poetic merit to flat, lifeless language equal to that of vibrant, heightened language.

Nevertheless, I do not want to suggest that only formally metered poetry be allowed to lay claim to the genre. Meter and the line in fine poetry have often been mutable: Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Coleridge and Wordsworth, the list of poets whose resistance to received formal metrical structures is quite lengthy indeed.. Whitman’s long lines, to take but one example, possess a strong rhythmic pulse and an undeniable, legato musicality that comes not from rigid iambics, but from a linguistic sensibility that encompasses larger syntactical units, while heightening the language through the use of traditional schemes and tropes. His is a prosody that takes place not only at the level of the idea, but also at the level of the line and the phrase, as well as at the level of the syllable.

But what prosody explains verses like these excerpted from Ryan G. Van Cleave?

CANTINA BAND, BLACK OPS[2]

I was in a bad place when I visited Tony in Grand Forks, ND,
emotionally coked to the gills from a break-up
with a live-in girlfriend who once devoured the world with
sweetness but now wanted to sleep with the stars
not in Hollywood or LA, but in Branson, MO, where my cousin

Frank, played the congas with a Donny Osmond imposter named Stu.
Tony, an O-3 in the Air Force (Captain) who likes to
lecture me in Spanish, said Más que una pobre vida resbaló por tus brazos/
more than one poor life slithered from your arms. I said
hey thanks, and felt blind, like my eyelids were errant, wooden.

While this poem obviously contains a powerful message (the full poem offers genuine and well earned pathos), the lines seem to break based only on an arbitrary visual consistency. Musically, these lines lack a discernible pulse, and it is this absence of a pulse that pulls the work, good as it is on many levels, away from the poetic toward the prosaic. Here are the lines without the line breaks.

I was in a bad place when I visited Tony in Grand Forks, ND, emotionally coked to the gills from a break-up with a live-in girlfriend who once devoured the world with sweetness but now wanted to sleep with the stars not in Hollywood or LA, but in Branson, MO, where my cousin Frank, played the congas with a Donny Osmond imposter named Stu. Tony, an O-3 in the Air Force (Captain) who likes to lecture me in Spanish, said Más que una pobre vida resbaló por tus brazos/more than one poor life slithered from your arms. I said hey thanks, and felt blind, like my eyelids were errant, wooden.

The ear hears little in these sentences to suggest that their proper form is poetic. I want to emphasize here that this example is not one of bad writing, but of prose inexplicably broken in random places into lines and called poetry.

Auden suggests that the difference between poetry and prose is self-evident, and this is almost certainly true. Who am I to argue with Auden, after all? Except this explanation capitulates in the same way the Supreme Court capitulates on the question of pornography: “I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.” Since any taxonomy worthy of the name is based on distinctions and differences, there must be some set of characteristics that separate poetry from prose, or the there is not such thing.

One point of view is that poetry is line conscious while prose is sentence conscious. This idea appeals to me greatly because it confers semantic meaning to the line itself, and by extension to the line break—a semantic opportunity not afforded to prose. At the same time, approaching poetry solely as writing that is line-consciousness rewards lineated prose. Surely there is more to poetry than an aversion to the right-hand margin.

Denise Levertov’s essay on the function of the line offers one compelling rationale for choosing where a line should break based on the sense of the line, finding joints or faults in the text that occur as natural or “organic” breaking points. A great deal of contemporary free verse behaves in this way, or at least attempts to. Line consciousness of this sort certainly elevates or heightens language because of its attention to sound in relation to sense.

Similarly, some poets divide language in ways that allow individual lines to have one meaning if taken in isolation and other meanings if taken in the context of their surroundings—line integrity, the syntax of equivocation. Chad Sweeny refers to such lines as “swing gates,” in which the poet capitalizes on the ambiguity of phrases in isolation to add additional layers of meaning or to make room for multiple explications. Here, the line break simultaneously compounds and expands meaning while compressing, and thereby intensifying the language.

No matter where they break, however, to be worthy of being called poetry, there ought to be some attention to language at the level of the syllable, otherwise, well, otherwise prose.   This is to argue neither exclusively for nor exclusively against formalism in poetry, but rather to argue in favor of prosodic craft in a larger sense. A craft that recognizes, as Paul Fussell observes, that “civilization is an impulse toward order” (4), and that such order in poetry involves elements of language including the metrical and the rhetorically decorative as well as the ideational. I argue that the vocabulary of poetry includes such terms as anaphora and chiasmus, and that poets should know the difference between a spondee and spandex, a trochee and a tree branch. The vocabulary of poetry is not entirely the same as the vocabulary of prose, nor should it be, or, again, the distinction between them disappears altogether.

Some may argue that attention to meter and traditional prosodic tropes ignores important modernists like Gertrude Stein, and post-modern work like that of Ron Silliman, both of whom approached poetry with the expressed intent to abandon traditional aesthetics altogether. Fair enough, though I am quite willing to accept as poetry the work of Stein and Silliman and many other non-traditional experimenters because such work begins with and attends to language itself, seeking to extend the semantic power of the simple line break deep into the territory of breakage in search of original and significant grammars.

Grammatical breakage is a practice far more ambitious and purposeful than the practice of merely walking away from tradition for the sake of walking away, and the first step toward a more purposeful evolution of poetics is to attend more carefully to the line and to the music within it.

 

[1] Turco, Luis. The New Book of Forms. Hanover:New England UP 1986. Print.

[2] Van Cleve, Ryan. “Cantina a Band, Black Ops.” Rattle #21. Summer 2004. Rattle.com. Web. 21 November 2014

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