‘The deeper they burn’

Robert Pinsky asks and answers an interesting question in his Poet's Choice column in the Washington Post's Bookworld: "What is a prose poem? Who knows?"

Pinsky then dances around the definition, suggesting it has something to do with "speed and compression," or the "deft, mysterious creation of feeling from a few words," or the idea of movement in prose.

The Academy of American Poets offers us a somewhat more precise explanation:

While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. The prose poem can range in length from a few lines to several pages long, and it may explore a limitless array of styles and subjects.

Say again? The Academy acknowledges the confusion: "the prose poem essentially appears as prose, but reads like poetry."

Hmm. Where should we place Ernest Hemingway's six-word story (composed in response to a challenge)?

Baby shoes. For sale. Never worn.

That certainly meets Pinsky's definition of a "deft, mysterious creation of feeling from a few words." What becomes harder is drawing the line between poetic prose and prosey poems. For example, take the following passage from Marguerite Duras' novel The Malady of Death:

And she, in the room, sleeps on. Sleeps, and you don't wake her. As her sleep goes on, sorrow grows in the room. You sleep once, on the floor at the foot of her bed.

She goes on sleeping, evenly. So deeply, she sometimes smiles. She wakes only if you touch her body, the breasts, the eyes. Sometimes she wakes for no reason, except to ask if the noise is the wind or high tide.

She wakes. She looks at you. She says: The malady's getting more and more of a hold on you. It's reached your eyes, your voice.

You ask: What malady?

She says she can't say, yet.

Prose or poetry? It has the feel of poetry to me, a sparseness and yet an emotional depth. Duras' entire novel, (in a minimalist translation from the French by Barbara Bray), strikes me as an extended poem in prose. Yet, despite its brevity, The Malady of Death meets all the requirements of fiction (a narrative, characters, etc.) and it has the ambition of fiction: to explore the depths of human heart.

When I consider some of my favorite authors and the elegance and beauty in their choice of words, the manner in which they evoke the felt life, I am reminded of Pinsky's "deft, mysterious creation of feeling." Consider the final two sentences from Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses:

He rode with the sun coppering his face and the red wind blowing out of the west across the evening land and the small desert birds flew chittering among the dry bracken and horse and rider and horse passed on and their long shadows passed in tandem like the shadow of a single being. Passed and paled into the darkening land, the world to come.

Poetry or prose? Does it matter? It's the control over words that these authors/poets have, their economy, their ability to hint at something profound with one descriptive adjective ("darkening") or the use of cadence or repetition, that gratifies the reader.

As England's poet laureate in the early 19th century, Robert Southey, once wrote: "It is with words as with sunbeams, the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn."

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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