Friday, July 04, 2008

Sentence Interview

Hello All,

I was interviewed on Cross-Cultural Poetics a few months back and the link is up on their web site. If you're interested in listening to a 15-minute interview about prose poetry, it's #158:



Adam said...

Thanks for your definition, Brian. A prose poem is something published as a prose poem. Very Aristotelian of you. Or was it Chekhov? As an undergrad, a poetry professor of mine invited a poet to class. When said professor asked what made the poet's poem a poem, the poet said this: Because I say it's a poem. He wore the same wry smile I heard in your voice when you gave the definition. I gather that what's funny about the "joke" is that, because of the difficulty of defining universals in such a diverse genre, it isn't really a joke.

All of which brings me back to the question of the epic prose poem, which I believe you told me would be called (officially) a "really well-written novel." Can of worms officially opened. A nice, focused interview, and I'm not afraid to say I learned a thing or two.


DLowe said...

Yes, that was an interesting interview and I learned a lot about the prose poem from Brian’s articulation of its history, definition and process. The interviewer was very thoughtful too and I enjoyed the discourse on poetry in general.
I’ll lend a left-field thought: The Fiction Poem. It seems generally accepted -- and granted I have little proficiency in poetry -- that a poem is “true”, a memoir of the writer’s own experience. And though it may be fiction, it is nearly always ASSUMED by the reader to be some honest extension/expression of the writer’s life. For instance, we assume, because of his poetry, that Robert Frost lived in the woods of New England and, among his other interests, was a keen naturalist. We assume that Theodore Roethke, in his poem “My Papa’s Waltz” is describing his abusive relationship with his father. In both cases (and, I think, in most cases), the reader assumes correctly. First-person voiced poems written about a Norwegian shoe salesman finding his way in a new country are probably written by a Norwegian guy who sold shoes while finding his way in a new country. But their must be, somewhere, poetry written less “honestly” just as the novelist creates worlds that bear little resemblance to her own life. Where are these poems?

Prof. Clements said...

Thanks, Adam and Don, for your comments.

Adam, I like that--formulated as a joke and moderately funny like a joke but not really a joke! Maybe Holub can classify that for us.

Don, your assumption that the "I" in the poem is the poet him/herself, an assumption you share with many readers, is not a safe assumption. It is probalby just as frequently not the case as it is the case in poetry (and in epic poetry, of course, was never the case, since there was no narratorial "I"-- but that's not what you mean; you're really talking about lyric poetry here). The line between true/not-true is hazy in poetry--many poets tend to value the truth behind facts over facts, which may be why poets were more frequently baffled than the general population at the furor over James Frey. So if you assume that what seems to be personal history in the poem is just that, you have about a 50/50 chance of being right. With some poets, Sexton, for example, you have a better chance, but certainly not 100%. Sexton, perhaps the prototypical "confessional" poet, is known to have inserted fictions into otherwise accurate poems of personal history.

In the end, though, it doesn't really matter whether Eliot really had doubts about being seen eating peaches in public, or whether Robert Bly ever actually played hockey, whether or not Forche's colonel friend actually dumped a jar of ears on the floor, or whether a certain more contemporary poet was sexually abused by her father. The poem itself, the thing that quickens our blood and sparks our imagination, is in the world and of the world and needs no factual justification. This is the problem with the argument that "honesty" and "sincerity" are required for the composition of moving poetry; many of the proponents of that argument fall prey to the fallacy of assuming that that honesty and sincerity require sticking only to the facts (as opposed, for instance, to emotional truths which may have only peripheral relation to facts at all).

If you are really interested in poets who write fictional poems, Russell Edson (fabulist) may be your man on one end of the spectrum or Ai (dramatic monologist, and, yes, pronounced "I") your woman on the other.

As many of you know, there is another gray area in the cross-over between prose poetry and flash fiction, a rich field for cultivating and/or harvesting Don's "fiction poems."


DLowe said...

Very helpful for me, thanks, Brian. And I will look up Edson and Ai. You've outlined what I have suspected -- that poetry, even the first-person voiced poetry, is not as memoir-like as it might seem. And yes, I agree, the blood quickening and arm-hair raising is the main thing. Not the facts.

ccpl said...


I've been thinking about your post and think you might be interested in checking out a couple of poets who write great prose poems! Mark Yakich and Lynn Emmanuel. They are not confessional-type poems and are very fun!! Remind me and I'll bring the books to the residency.