Once I encountered Illuminations by the incendiary Arthur Rimbaud I became an habitue of the borderland between prose and poetry.
I won’t make too much of Illuminations having been written in England between 1873 and 1875, but it does seem to me that Rimbaud, with his acute ear, must have been influenced to some extent by the cadences of English.
I didn’t aspire to write prose poems in this manner, much as I admired them, my own poetic instinct being both terse and architectural. At least I didn’t think until now that I aspired to write prose poems. Today I’m not sure.
While you’re writing a novel, it’s one thing, but when it’s published it’s another. It looks different, it feels different, and when you read it, it sounds different to you. You’re a latecomer to it. It’s foreign business. It must submit to customs inspection. Your eye and ear are more critical, and at the same time more receptive. You’ve separated the forest from the trees. There is a moment when you decide whether you need a divorce from this recent bride or whether you need to get acquainted on a less fraught, less sexual basis.
You brace for dreadful surprises, infelicities of thought, plot and continuity. And they arrive. But there are delightful surprises too. And so you read on with a sense of dread and triumphalism. Or so it was for me reading Artemisia’s Wolf, just published by Prakash Books of India.
I won’t help you to the infelicities, because authors are not supposed to do that, although it might be fun and I think Rimbaud would approve. But the pleasant surprises give me an excuse for promoting the book, so I’ll seize them, and you’ll just have to trust me to say something worth reading.
The distinction between poetics and what is poetic is perhaps clear to a poet but not necessarily to the popular mind. Too bad, because a consensual distinction would go a long way towards counteracting the prejudice against “poetic” prose. The connotation that comes immediately to mind is fancy-schmancy, pretentious, flowery prose, and this popular notion accounts for all sorts of bad received ideas. It also accounts for our odd and damaging distinction between poetry as a rarefied and acquired taste and rap, rai, country, the Bible, the Qu’ran, and all sorts of prized treasures that we don’t usually call poetry. It may even account for our turning to the academy for our understanding of poetry.
The impulse of poetry is to be succinct, to be economical, pointed-all virtues ascribed to modernist prose and much valued by our critical establishment. A further impulse is to redefine and push the architecture of language, to extend its emotional and intellectual range-again, virtues we look for in modernist fiction, in writers like Juan Goytisolo, Jose Saramago, Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, and so many others.
I avoid using the term literary fiction because I regard it as dismissive and shabby. Literature is literature, why smear it with precious qualifications? It would be interesting to research which critic began using this adolescent ploy.
The writer Dan Baum, author of *Nine Lives, Citizen Coors* and *Smoke and Mirrors,* nudged me back into that borderland between prose and poetry when he suggested my novella, Saraceno, was a tone poem. Uh oh, I thought, he means it’s hoity-toity. But that’s not what he meant. It was a compliment.
Now comes Artemisia’s Wolf, which I wrote much more easily and quickly than Saraceno. I wasn’t making any poems when I wrote Saraceno, but I was making plenty of them when I wrote Artemisia’s Wolf. And now, reading the book, not the manuscript or the galley proofs, I dare to wonder if it is a prose poem. Just wondering, not concluding, not claiming. But wherever I open the book the thought comes to mind. Not, curiously, when I listen to the unpublished audio version, but when I see the words on the page.
I even tried the theory out at a poetry reading the other day. I read “Nuala’s Curse,” one of the chapters, and I noticed the audience smiling. They were expecting poetry. I had already read a few poems. And Nuala’s Curse went down as part of the progression of poems:
May the IRS audit your nihilist face, lift your passport, freeze your sexual assets and jerk you around a hundred years.
I regard this as something of a defeat, and yet I wonder if I might not snatch victory from its jaws. Here is what I mean. I’ve been working on a long narrative poem for several years. But *The Burning Hotel* hasn’t gone well. Oh, some of it has. But I can’t seem to carry it off. I conceive of it as blank verse, and perhaps Artemisia’s Wolf is telling me that that’s the wrong form for this story of nativist evil. At least it’s the wrong form in my hands.
How to test these ideas? Well, the first thing I’ve done is to scan parts of Artemisia’s Wolf, searching out its meter. Scansion is something you can do quite consciously, as when you’re diagramming a poem, or unconsciously, simply because your mastery of prosody has reached a point at which it’s mostly intuitive. I’m old now, and I’ve internalized a great deal of what I know.
My scansion of Artemisia’s Wolf, whether it was dialogue or narrative, startled me. Sure, I found iambs, trochees, spondees, the whole lot, but I took all that in with aplomb. You can find all sorts of meters in prose. But the septameters of dialogue and the octameters of narrative clearly revealed what Nicholson Baker in his 2010 novel The Anthologist claimed to be the basic foot in English, the four-beat line. Not the more tidal iambic pentameter.
I started reading random passages to myself, wondering if this is how I should have approached The Burning Hotel. I could not indict my prose for being “poetic,” for being artful. It struck me as more dynamic, less self-conscious. It struck me often but not invariably as something like what Rimbaud heard for his Illuminations. He was no poet to write prose poems because he found the shorter line difficult. Not him. He could do both equally well. Could I?
I instinctively blanch from comparing myself to Rimbaud or Glenway Westcott, as I have elsewhere, but on the other hand I should be forgiven, shouldn’t I, for setting the bar high, even if I plop in the mud under it.
I wasn’t hearing any Hart Crane in The Burning Hotel, as I might have wished, but here I was hearing Illuminations in Artemisia’s Wolf, and I was scared. It’s not something I had set out to do. It’s not something I can say I achieved, but it is something I was hearing, happily and worriedly. It struck me as particularly curious because I had been rereading Homer for the umpteenth time to give me clues to handling The Burning Hotel, and Rimbaud had been far from mind, although it might be said that once having encountered him, especially in youth, he’s never that far from mind.
It isn’t difficult to hear Stephen Crane’s landmark The Red Badge of Courage in Ernest Hemingway’s unforgettable The Killers. Nor is it difficult to hear Native American orators in both writers. The restraint, the taciturnity make the language all the more powerful.
We don’t often accomplish what we set out to do in writing, we accomplish something else, something that comes from the repository of what we have read and processed, something triggered by the words and thoughts appearing before us. We finger our memories, our subconscious when we write. We set out to do one thing and end up doing something else, because the memories that need to surface in behalf of the work at hand are not always the memories present when we begin. That is why, I think, plot-driven fiction often fails to engage the intellect; it’s bullied by its own preconception.
And it’s this fingering of memory that makes me leery of Amy Lowell’s famous remark that most great poetry is achieved in our youth. She didn’t know what we know about neuroscience, but her remark has become ensconced in our cultural psyche and is reflected in most literary journals as a given.
Much mischief is done the culture by the critical compulsion to categorize, to get a handle on a written work so that, in effect, one does not have to rise to its challenges but instead one forces it to rise to one’s limitations. This shoves us into the cultural march with our feet in a bag. We say poetry is unpopular and we turn to the academy to define it, but it is in fact all around us. It’s not poetry that is at fault, it’s our understanding of it. We say something is literary fiction, and so we consign it to a pigeonhole when in fact we have no real understanding of what it is, except that it doesn’t readily fit our available stock of labels. This is why art that can’t be easily categorized often suffers neglect. It’s a kind of fast-food criticism that ill serves a society that claims it’s interested in extending boundaries.
I suppose this is a way of saying what I said at first, I’m not sure if Artemisia’s Wolf or Saraceno is poetry, and, now that I think of it, I don’t really care. If you like them, you like them, and what does it matter what somebody calls them? I thought of The Killers as poetry the moment I read it. I don’t think Hemingway would have objected. I thought of the celebrated television series, Generation Kill, as poetry, and I’d be interested in knowing if Brian Turner, the poet of the Iraq War, would agree.
Del’s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal Latte’s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother’s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt’s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com