By TOMÁS Q. MORÍN
DAY TWO | NOVEMBER 4, 2014
A TREND IS DEFINED as "the general course or prevailing tendency,” a “fashion or mode.” For this analysis, it is the definition of a trend as “the general direction followed by a road, river, coastline, or the like” that most interests me because the trend I will be examining, the prose/verse hybrid poem, a poem which for the sake of brevity I will refer to using the inelegant name “proverse,” exists on the edges of the American Poetry landscape. Before proceeding I want to define the proverse poem. It is not a prose poem, nor is the prose it contains the same kind one would find in a prose poem. Let me illustrate by way of example by first presenting a short prose poem by James Wright, followed by a snippet of a proverse poem by Robert Hass. Here is Wright’s “On Having My Pocket Picked in Rome”:
And here is part of Hass’s poem “My Mother’s Nipples.” The excerpt begins in a lineated section and then transitions into prose:
What should first be noted is the way Wright’s poem and the lineated portion of Hass’s poem demanded they be voiced in a similar manner, which is to say in a musical way that is different from the way we normally speak. Since only one of the poems contains lines, this cue to the reader to employ a performative, affected voice comes not from lineation, rather from the use of anaphora and intentional assonance, devices that keep the poem and the prose poem squarely within the vocal tradition of the song and the prayer. In contrast, Hass’s observation about his mother at her husband’s bedside contains the lilt of ordinary speech. This is not to imply that the prose sections of proverse poems are sloppy or less crafted than their lineated counterparts. On the contrary, I would argue that Hass worked just as hard at crafting this part of his poem so that it would resist the texture of song that he used in his lineated section. This movement toward and away from music is precisely what distinguishes proverse from both lineated poems and prose poems.
If pressed to offer a definition of proverse, I would tentatively say it is a poem that contains lines interspersed with prose that approximates the rhythm and tone of everyday speech. The key word in this definition is “everyday” because it is this word that distinguishes proverse from haibun, that ancient Japanese form that combines poetry in the form of haiku with prose poetry. Some will no doubt point to the poet who coined the term haibun, and say that Basho’s haibun Narrow Road to the Interior is actually a perfect example of proverse. To them I would say, You’re absolutely right! In fact, Narrow Road might be one of the first examples of proverse. I would also add that Narrow Road is unlike most of the haibun that it inspired in that its prose does not contain the lyrical charge of much of the prose one finds in haibun. Most haibun, to my ear, consists of haiku interspersed with prose poems. For those unfamiliar with Narrow Road, here follows an excerpt translated by Sam Hamill:
It would be tempting to surmise that Hass’s use of proverse was inspired by his work as a translator of Basho and other Asian poetry, but such a conclusion would only tell half the story. It is just as likely that Hass was inspired by his translations and deep reading of the great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz whose deft use of proverse is on display throughout his work, most notably his volume Bells in Winter. Read this poem aloud to someone and challenge their ear to pick up on the key changes in Milosz’s poem “From the Rising of the Sun” as it changes from lineated lines to prose.
If they thought the moment of transition occurred when the poem moved from the second person address to the first person, then they were right. Picking up on this change should have been fairly easy. In fact, I would call it one of the hallmarks of proverse. The example of Milosz, again, is still only a potentially partial account of the seeds of proverse in Hass’s work, not to mention the American Poetry landscape. The fact is Hass is not the first American poet to write proverse. One need look no further than our homegrown maverick William Carlos Williams and his book Paterson, a multi-book project that appeared during the 40s and 50s, to find a potential wellspring for proverse.
Within the last 75 years there has been a sporadic flowering of proverse among American poets. A short list of this harvest would include most every one of Frank Bidart’s books, C.D. Wright’s last few books (notably One with Others), Seven Notebooks by Campbell McGrath, Ka-Ching by Denise Duhamel, George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous, Evie Shockley’s The New Black, Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End, Face by Sherman Alexie, and the poem “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” by Adrienne Rich, to name a few. While I have noticed that many proverse poems are long, this need not always be the case. For example, here is the entirety of Mark Strand’s “Poem of the Spanish Poet” from his most recent collection, Almost Invisible:
Returning to the idea of a trend, I want to turn my attention to what first set me down this byway at the edge of American poetry. In the fall of 2013, I had the good fortune to encounter the work of two formally adventurous young writers who were each writing long proverse sequences without any knowledge of each other’s projects. When I asked them about their influences, I expected I might hear some familiar names, and, while the names were indeed familiar, they were not the names I expected. Some of the writers and works they cited as influences and inspirations for their proverse were Nabokov’s Lolita, The House on Mango Street by Cisneros, Jennifer Egan’s Black Box, and Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust for their use of stream-of-consciousness.
While some might bemoan the absence of poetry on this list, I, for one, think it is a sign of health that American poetry is becoming a little less self-referential. Perhaps what we are witnessing is the slow process of poetry recovering some of the ground it ceded to the novel and the short story long ago. Lest I be misconstrued as advocating the death of the lyric, let me state that what I feel proverse offers is an alternative route to whatever destination the poet has in mind. The pathway of proverse is less the suspended highway among the clouds of the traditional lyric and more the slow county road of many stop signs and digressions. The true test of proverse’s ability to thrive and move from the edge to the mainstream of American poetry will depend on the type of reception it encounters by the editors of our magazines and journals. How they make room, or not, for the length and ranginess of this form so different from the sleek lyric that easily fits onto a page will determine the speed with which the proverse poem spreads. Either way, I think the proverse poem is here to stay because unlike work that deviates from the traditional lyric, the proverse poem does not break new ground, rather it explores the territory we left behind and in so doing shows us the way home.
WRITER PORTRAIT BY AARON ALFORD