Wednesday, May 13, 2015

LU MFA Foundations: Defining Prose Poetry--Eve Jones

The use of constraint in poetry is like a contract the poet makes with his or her art: "I will write you, but I will write you using this technique, in this form, with these words, with this length of line, playing with this much white space, approaching with this tone, etc." There are both conscious and unconscious decisions made along the way, and when it all comes together, the consequential art is a marriage of content and form, of picture and frame.

Prose poetry is no exception. A prose poem intends to be a poem in its attention to language, but does not employ the use of line like regular poetry. It resembles prose, and in fact, it is cousin to short prose such as flash fiction and the lyric essay. Prose poems may be narrative-based or not. They may have complete, grammatically sound sentences or odd fragments. They may be glimpses of something or the whole shebang. They may brim with metaphor or not. They may be one-sentence or two pages long. They balance the said and the unsaid. They have the same goal as any poem: to wallop the reader with some emotional impact, and to do it with grace. 

By way of illustration, consider a section of Karen Green's book, Bough Down, a section which could rightly be called a prose poem. Or lyric essay. Or memoir-beating-as-heart. It is chronicle of grief following the suicide of her husband, David Foster Wallace. It borrows from prose, it borrows from poetry, it refuses to settle, it is less chronicle and more reaction, more endurance. It is difficult, it balks the tidy rooms of the brain, it wallops. 

Home is where I take up such a tiny portion of the memory foam; home is a splintered word. His pillow is a sweat-stained map of an escape plot, also a map of love’s dear abandon. (When did he give way, at which breath?) Forgiveness may mean retroactively abandoning the pillow and abandoning the photograph of someone with curious eyes, kissing my toes, poolside. I paint my toes Big Apple Red. I don’t know what to do about the shock of red nails on clean, white tiles except get used to it. (And when he gave way, was there room for feelings or the words for feelings?) While I brush my teeth, I can see him in my periphery at the other sink. The outline of him lulls and stings. (And when he gave way, was it the end or the beginning of suffering?) I draw his profile near, I make him brush his teeth with me, he spits and makes a mess. I could love another face, but why? 

In her wonderful “verse novel,” Red Doc >, Anne Carson writes:

“what is the difference between / poetry and prose you know the old analogies prose / is a house poetry a man in flames running / quite fast through it / or / when it meets the mind waves appear (poetry) or / both are defined by length of lines” 

I have found that thorough discussion of the difference between poetry and prose can take an entire term, and, like all that is meaningful and unsettling, the questions linger long after a single course in the genre. After all, there are a lot of ways writers can say the unsayable. There are a lot of houses. A lot of men on fire. 
—Eve Jones




On-Campus or Fully Online (No Residency Requirement)

In the LU MFA Foundations series, our faculty members 
discuss or clarify foundational elements of the craft of creative writing.
Other entries in the series are linked here.

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