Moving Poetry into Prose (or Pounding Away)

We are more like puppies than children on the brown carpet, piled together in a jumble of skinned knees, sunburned arms and mouths stained with Kool-Aid smiles turning upward while we sleep.  Our parents are just feet—linemen boots, loafers, suggestions of sandals and painted nails on bare toes.  Somewhere above it all, my father’s tenor, the roundness of the Ovation, Edgar tuning his banjo, and Donnie laughing.

The music of Bob Dylan is the soundtrack of my youth. It’s also the first poetry I remember.

As I got older, I shifted closer to center of the music. I had a talent for memorizations, so I became the lyrics prompter as the evenings wore on and the glasses emptied. Somehow “Masters of War” seemed more like poetry when my father growled it with all the frustration of dreams lost to expectations; “For the Good Times” more bittersweet than measuring life out by teaspoons with my mother singing soft harmony. Neither had anything to do with Mrs. Teeny Campbell’s approach to poetry—recitations with sweaty palms in front of an eighth grade class of captive, contained boredom. (“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” or “Under the spreading chestnut tree the village smithy stands…” still weave themselves through my nightmares.)

I stayed as far from formal poetry as I could get; even as an English major the closest I got was Elizabethan drama. I made it more than forty years with a huge gap in my education. It didn’t bother me. I read what I liked—and I liked poetry as long as it knew its place. And it did. Until now.

I signed up for a course in fiction, and the M.A.W. program nailed me with the bait and switch.

I am not a poet. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and for a few misguided teen years I cranked out the obligatory horrible verse. But I never fooled myself. I knew what poetry was, had heard it floating in music above my head as a child, and had never been able to define it. I certainly couldn’t write it.

So this class snuck up on me. Maybe I could find the answer here, a concrete poetry-ness that would let me say, “That’s it! That’s what makes it poetry—even if it has no rhyme, no traditional form, no regular rhythm.” Ezra Pound was as close as I got, and even though I’m not a poet, what he said holds true to what I try to write and applies to writing good prose just as strongly as it does to writing good poetry.

In “A Retrospect” Pound makes three clear points about what a poet must do:

  • Direct treatment of “the thing.” I write what I know, and it’s through the small things that I eventually arrive at the larger. To speak of “the thing,” whatever it may be, in such a way that the precise moment is given to a reader is not just valuable for a poet. The closer I get to the thing itself, the closer I get to Truth—not just touching shadows and hollow representations of it.
  • Using only words that contribute to the presentation. This one is tough for me. I call it the “Horton Approach”—you know, Dr. Seuss—“I meant what I said; I said what I meant…” I tend to be a word waster. But I’ve noticed that when I go back for revision and cut away everything that isn’t what I want to say, I’m closer to where I need to go—closer to the poetry of the piece.
  • Not composing according to the rhythm of a metronome. This is what makes Dylan poetry to me. Every emotion has its own speed, its own timing. In poetry, free verse isn’t free of rhythm, but guided by feeling. This is the pace of life—each moment has its opportunity to cut “nearer the bone.” To tap into that is to make prose approach poetry in the staccato of an argument or in the eternalizing of a momentary glance. When pacing and sound mirror content in my prose, I know I’m close to getting it right.

Reading Pound was tough for me. It’s a call to get back to the business of writing—whatever style that may be—to do it well or not at all, to recognize it as work and get on with it. I want my writing to “be as much like granite as it can be,” to be “harder and saner.” I want it to grind against Truth, if it can never attain it. I want there to be poetry in my prose. I want to be a poet who doesn’t write poetry…

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