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Saturday, March 14, 2020

Poems in Prose: what are they?

In times of crisis... as stocks of toilet paper get low... as one realizes that one is in the higher danger age set... one thinks: have I really made my views on prose poetry clear? Which is why I've been writing this, first of two parts.
What is prose poetry? Part 1
Definitions, like stories and songs and jokes and explanations, do play a role in ordinary life. Usually, however, their role is to be enlisted in argument – not argument as per the ideal case of philosophy, where a case is presented for a certain thesis against other theses, but argument as in emotionally fraught disagreement between two or more people. Philosophy and ordinary life overlap: there is always a bit of a case being made in ordinary life, and there is always a bit of an accusatory edge in the philosophic use of definition. Gorgias, that wonderful dialogue, makes this overlap emerge. Out of the pocket of Gorgias, I’d like to say, came the entire existential novel.
But I digress. Say I am asked to define the spoon, fork and knife that I see before me at the table. I’d say something like the spoon is a handle with a scoop at the end, the fork a handle with tines at the end, and the knife a handle with blades at the end – in other words, all are elaborations on the handle. This being ordinary life, I’d probably add what they are used for, even though I’d recognize that you can eat peas with a fork as well as a spoon, and that you can stir sugar in your coffee with a knife blade as well as a scoop, etc. The particular use of spoon, fork and knife have to do, eventually, with their design genealogy: definition at this point spreads out and becomes a portrait, a “biography”.
These might seem like miserly concerns: we all know what a spoon, a knife, and a fork are! Yet in the law definition often becomes a tricky way of gaining advantages one way or another. Take the definition of a truck. We have an idea of what a truck is, as opposed to a car. Yet “we” are not automobile manufacturer lobbyists and executives. This is from the Wikipedia entry on sports utility vehicles:
“In the United States, many government regulations simply have categories for "off-highway vehicles" which are loosely defined and often result in SUVs (along with pick-up trucks and minivans) being classified as light trucks.[3][16] For example, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations previously included "permit greater cargo-carrying capacity than passenger carrying volume" in the definition for trucks, resulting in SUVs being classified as light trucks.[17]
This classification as trucks allowed SUVs to be regulated less strictly than passenger cars under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act for fuel economy, and the Clean Air Act for emissions.[18] However, from 2004 onwards, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to hold sport utility vehicles to the same tailpipe emissions standards as cars.[19] In 2011 the CAFE regulations were changed to classify small, two-wheel drive SUVs as passenger cars.[20]
However the licensing and traffic enforcement regulations in the United States vary from state to state, and an SUV may be classified as a car in some states but as a truck in others.[21] For industry production statistics, SUVs are counted in the light truck product segment.”
So I hope we can all see, before we get into our SUVs tonight, that definition is more than “mere semantics”. No, definition is part of human life itself. Semantics can be denigrated as you like, its mereness a kind of excommunication from seriousness, but it returns again because – well, I have to use words when I speak to you. And so the definition figures in that image and product of human life itself, literature.
Take this, from Notes from the Underground, which is in the direct line of descent, I’d like to claim, from the Gorgias. Here the Underground man confronts the abstract notion that runs through our ordinary lives, our governance, our place on the planet, our relation to the cosmos: advantage.
“Advantage! What is advantage? And will you take it upon yourself to define with perfect accuracy in what the advantage of man consists? And what if it so happens that a man's advantage, SOMETIMES, not only may, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases what is harmful to himself and not advantageous. And if so, if there can be such a case, the whole principle falls into dust. What do you think--are there such cases? You laugh; laugh away, gentlemen, but only answer me: have man's advantages been reckoned up with perfect certainty? Are there not some which not only have not been included but cannot possibly be included under any classification? You see, you gentlemen have, to the best of my knowledge, taken your whole register of human advantages from the averages of statistical figures and politico-economical formulas. Your advantages are prosperity, wealth, freedom, peace--and so on, and so on. So that the man who should, for instance, go openly and knowingly in opposition to all that list would to your thinking, and indeed mine, too, of course, be an obscurantist or an absolute madman: would not he? But, you know, this is what is surprising: why does it so happen that all these statisticians, sages and lovers of humanity, when they reckon up human advantages invariably leave out one?”
The underground man is right to think that definitions often fall into a listing of properties – we even think of definitions, vaguely, as inhabiting that great list, that cultural monument, the dictionary. And he is also right that as we plunge into definitions we come to strange contradictions. As for instance: the prose poem.
Ah, the prose poem, that puzzling platypus of a thing. While Baudelaire was not the first person to write one, I believe that – give or take Gaspard le nuit – he was the first person to write a collection of them, Spleen de Paris (1869). It is a collection that he fronted with a letter to his publisher, where he wrote perhaps the most famous definition, of a sort, of the prose poem:
"Who among us has not, in his days of ambition, dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple enough, bumpy enough that it adapts itself to the lyrical movements of the soul, to the undulations of daydreaming and the summersaults of consciousness?
It is chiefly of the frequenting of enormous cities, the crossing of the innumerable relations that this obsessive ideal is born. You yourself, my friend: haven’t you ever want to translate into song the strident cry of the vitrier, to express in lyric prose all the desolating suggestions that this cry sends up just to the rooftops, high above the level of the street fog? "
In the Petit Parisien of October 29, 1897, a “Jean Frollo” – pseudonym of some of the writers of the paper – wrote an article on street cries that traces them from the thirteenth century to the late 19th through mention in various broadsheets and poems, as well as books of drawings. He reproduces some of the cries – the vender of almonds, the huckster of a bathhouse, etc – and tells this anecdote about two glaziers – vitrier:
On this topic, you know the story about the two vitriers. One, possesses a sonorous organ, threw out his vibrating cry: ohe! Vitriiii!... while the otyher, who followed 15 paces behind him, timidly, profited from the lungs of his comrade by merely saying, softly: me too!”
Baudelaire, one notices, does not give a definition of the prose poem but, rather, gives us a certain atmosphere in which to accept the prose poem – to justify it. That justification is linked to doing it: Baudelaire asks his publisher if he has not himself dreamt of something like a prose poem, had it evoked or provoked in him by the chances of the day, street encounters, the sound of merchant cries, the huckster’s shuffle. The prose poem such as Baudelaire wrote em becomes central to French poetry: Lautreamont, Rimbaud, Mallarme, Max Jacob, Michaux, Ponge, Char, Jacottett, Jabes, all worked in the veins of the prose poem, some exclusively. At the same time as the verse poem disappears from newspapers and magazines, a sort of observing essay, the chronicle, appears there, with features that are indistinguishable from the prose poem. All of which tends to frustrate the searcher for definitions, for the hard and fast, for the base of the argument, the principle of the accusation or the defense.
TBC

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