Revelations of Language: On Prose Poetry and the Beauty of a Single Sentence
Nick Ripatrazone Looks at Journals Dedicated to the Prose Poem
I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about sentences. I have been sentenced to this fate, you might say, which is both a bad pun and also the truth; between writing, teaching, and reading, I can’t escape sentences.
The sentence contains the entirety of literature in miniature. Individual words hold their power through context and placement; phrases carry their meaning through juxtaposition. Paragraphs are often too thick to memorize: a mindful, more than the mouth can manage. Sentences linger on the tongue and echo in the room. You can still hear, years and yearnings later, the sharpest sentences of our life.
Sentences are glorious. The titular essay in Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence considers the words of Gertrude Stein. He concludes that one of her sentences “is exactly what I want”; a “combination of oblique self-involvement and utter commitment to the things themselves. For words are also things and things are apt to burst with force and loud report.” I like how Dillon’s sentences emulate the cadence and counters of the writers whose work he features. There is something wonderfully freeing about literary inhabitation.
Sentences in essays can range from the informational to the parenthetical to the lyric. We feel the latter: when the essayist takes a deep breath and unfurls emotion and description in layered clauses, each comma a pivot or step. Novelists can stretch sentences for pages, eschewing paragraph breaks for the intensity of the moment. Poets, too, write in sentences; often the power endemic to that form is the poet’s awareness of the tension between syntax and lineation. Each line break a doorway; each stanza a field.
First drawn to fiction, and then pulled by poetry, I wrangled with the sentence. I read Stein, and William H. Gass, and Jayne Anne Phillips (Black Tickets is a marvel of sentences). I sought to define the sentence, for I believed that structure was the revelation of language. I believed that a sentence must begin and end, and because we also begin and end, there must be some mystical value therein.
The prose poem, as a mode and structure, caught my attention. Purists often use the apparent distances between the writing modes for the sake of criticism; there is no sharper rebuke of a poem than to say it is merely prose with line breaks.
Yet I’ve learned that the borders between modes and genres of writing are often the richest for experimentation and growth. I started writing prose poems to understand both prose and poetry, and yes, to acknowledge their shared dependence upon the sentence. Like so much of my reading and writing life, I found what I sought in literary magazines.
The first issue of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, published in 1992, begins with a “Warning to the Reader” by Robert Bly. “Sometimes farm granaries become especially beautiful when all the oats or wheat are gone, and wind has swept the rough floor clean.” Sunlight seeps “through the cracks between shrunken wall boards.” We are drawn to that light, and so are birds, who, “seeing freedom in the light,” flutter up and fall, again and again. Those birds often die, trapped in the granaries, for they are unaware of the best way to leave: through a rat’s hole, “low to the floor.”
Bly ends the poem with two warnings. The first is for writers: “be careful then by showing the sunlight on the walls not to promise the anxious and panicky blackbirds a way out!”
Readers must also be careful, for those “who love poems of light may sit hunched in the corner with nothing in their gizzards for four days, light failing, the eyes glazed.” Soon, they “may end as a mound of feathers and a skull on the open boardwood floor.”
Bly’s prose poem employs the same enticing images that he later critiques. Yet the critique can only succeed if the images were arresting in the first place. The poem works so well, but is an ostentatious opening for a literary magazine. It appears before founding editor Peter Johnson’s introduction to the issue, as if to affirm the importance of prose poetry rather than its definition.
Johnson appreciates Michael Benedikt’s description of the prose poem, which includes an “attention to the unconscious, and to its particular logic,” an almost acute usage of “colloquial and other everyday speech patterns,” as well as a “special reliance on humor and wit.” Johnson agrees. He thinks prose poetry “has affinities with black humor,” since that mode of writing “straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy,” and prose poetry stretches across modes. “Prose poets,” he writes, “no matter how different in sensibilities, wander on this uncertain terrain. It’s a land of paradoxes and oxymorons, welcoming the sleight of word artist.”
Although Benedikt and Johnson focus more on content and tone, I’m interested in how prose poets imagine the sentence. Without the corners of line breaks, prose poets are at the mercy of margins—so some internal energy or tension anchors their syntax.
In one poem from the issue, “At the Grave,” Nina Nyhart writes of a widow who takes flowers to her husband’s grave. One year, “the flowers in her yard, his favorites, aren’t in bloom.” She has to wait to visit him, and misses their anniversary. Once the flowers bloom, she cuts and collects them, and heads toward his grave, but a voice admonishes her for being late—and for bringing geraniums. She corrects him: “See here these aren’t geraniums, they’re lilies, you never could tell one flower from another.”
The banter and prodding, between widow and ghost, unfold like a domestic conversation—so much that the reader becomes complacent. Yet the conversation ends abruptly. The widow pleads to her husband: “Don’t go away,” but “silence surrounds her as completely as the voice had before.” I could feel the heaviness of that final sentence, perhaps, because I could not trace it through a line. The sentence, which looked like any old sentence, unfurled the meaning, and then it ended, and the page became white.
For the May 19, 1917 issue of The New Statesman, T.S. Eliot wrote a short essay “The Borderline of Prose.” He observes “a recrudescence of the poem in prose” across the world. He wonders if “poetry and prose form a medium of infinite gradations,” or if “we are searching for new ways of expression.” Eliot admits some mystery in both the form, and his perception of it, and concludes “the only absolute distinction to be drawn” is that “there is prose rhythm and verse rhythm.”
Considering the prose poems of Richard Aldington, Eliot worries that a reader is “constantly trying to read the prose poem as prose or as verse—and failing in both attempts.” Unfortunately, that means a reader “goes on to imagine how it would have been done in verse or in prose—which is what a writer ought never to allow us to do. He should never let us question for a moment that his form is the inevitable form for his content.” Eliot’s final judgment: “Both verse and prose still conceal unexplored possibilities, but whatever one writes must be definitely and by inner necessity either one or the other.”
Sentence: a Journal of Prose Poetics opened three years after The Prose Poem stopped publishing. Founding editor Brian Clements saw the magazine as a continuation of Johnson’s work—both the publishing of prose poems, as well as a discussion of the form in contrast to “poetic prose.”
Issue 8, Clements’s final issue as editor, features prose poems by Oliver de la Paz, Simeon Berry, Nin Andrews, Michael Bassett, and Sarah Blake, as well as a forum on the prose poem. There, Peter Johnson returns to his beloved form, and isn’t satisfied. “I miss the short, pithy traditional prose poem, with its penchant for satire and surprising internal leaps.” He voices a larger concern: “In general, anger is absent in contemporary poetry, which is surprising because there is so much to be angry about.”
Johnson laments that “fashionable irony is safer than invective.” Instead, he writes, “I’d like the prose poem to get nasty.”
My favorite prose poem of the issue is “Fresco” by David Shumate. “I feel an affinity for those people frozen in frescos,” the narrator begins. “I too feel trapped much of the time. In the company of people I wouldn’t choose to be with on my own. But fate has other ideas.” The narrator thinks of a man depicted in a fresco, “lugging that wine vessel around,” a servant to “raucous revelers.” The servant watches “as they couple in the manner of dogs and tries not to snicker.”
The servant—the narrator imagines—is likely transporting himself through that same “ancient vehicle of the imagination.” The servant wishes to escape the tableau, for a woman is tickling his neck with a feather; inviting him to “make a lover of her.” Instead, the servant “takes comfort in the rules governing frescos. A thousand years may pass. But you can never move an inch.”