The Prosaic Ceiling

Indulge me for a moment. I am working through a volume of poetry by Robert Siegel, The Waters Under the Earth, which I am really enjoying. I would enourage you to do the same. Get it today! Christmas is coming!


But in the course of reading him, some unsettled thoughts about poetry that I have had for some time (as in, what is it exactly?) began to settle. Or rather, began to begin to settle.


The dividing line between poetry and prose is not exactly like the dividing line between the ocean and the beach — although in other cultures and generations it has been much clearer. So why is this?


Some free verse is absolutely wretched, but of course, so is a lot of prose. And some free verse is fantastic, but even when I am reading the good stuff, I confess that I have had nagging doubts about genre blurring. So when I am reading really good free verse, I have a sense that this would be just as good as prose (and perhaps even better). And when I am reading elevated prose, I wonder why this couldn’t be rendered as a poem. This kind of thing could not really happen with the older traditions of poetry.


To illustrate, let me take one of Siegel’s poems, which I thought strikingly good, and see what happens when it goes into prose. And then I took a paragraph out of Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm, and shaped it into a poem. To my eye, the transformations work, and Siegel’s poem (I believe) is even more striking as a descriptive paragraph. I do not dispute that it is good. But good what?


Spinning


The water is low and smells


   of fish and dark-brown weeds.


The boat gives under my step,


 


sliding out from the pier


   toward the center. Lily pads


hiss lightly against the bottom.


 


Taking my spinning rod


   and spoon I prepare to fish.


The oars swing aimlessly.


 


Two dragonflies hang in air


   mirroring each other and the bright


hackles in my box. The sky


 


turns a slow circle over me.


   Without a ripple, the lake,


a single eye gazing upward


 


at all that rests on the surface,


   takes to its heart, tree, cloud,


and the quick outlines of my boat.


 


For a moment the horizon


   focuses on this place


where I stretch out a thin line


 


and, thoughtless, draw it in,


   turning as the woods turn with me.


I toss out the silver spoon


 


over and over, not caring


   what it takes from the deep


root-colored water, knowing only


 


that a wavery image is written


   on the sky caught in the water


of a boat, a face, and an arm


 


casting something bright to the clouds


   and reeling in silver. Again


I fling it out, and again,


 


spinning from the center of the world.


Robert Siegel


Spinning


The water is low and smells of fish and dark-brown weeds. The boat gives under my step, sliding out from the pier toward the center. Lily pads hiss lightly against the bottom. Taking my spinning rod and spoon I prepare to fish. The oars swing aimlessly. Two dragonflies hang in air mirroring each other and the bright hackles in my box. The sky turns a slow circle over me. Without a ripple, the lake, a single eye gazing upward at all that rests on the surface, takes to its heart, tree, cloud, and the quick outlines of my boat. For a moment the horizon focuses on this place where I stretch out a thin line and, thoughtless, draw it in, turning as the woods turn with me. I toss out the silver spoon over and over, not caring what it takes from the deep root-colored water, knowing only that a wavery image is written on the sky caught in the water of a boat, a face, and an arm casting something bright to the clouds and reeling in silver. Again I fling it out, and again, spinning from the center of the world.


Robert Siegel


Just A Paragraph


I salt my breakfast eggs. All day long I feel created. I can see the blown dust on the skin on the back of my hand, the tiny trapezoids of chipped clay, moistened and breathed alive. There are some created sheep in the pasture below me, sheep set down here precisely, just touching their blue shadows hoof to hoof on the grass. Created gulls pock the air, rip great curved seams in the settled air: I greet my created meal, amazed.


Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm, p. 25.


Feeling Created


I salt my breakfast eggs.


   All day long I feel created.


I can see the blown dust on the skin


 


on the back of my hand, the tiny


   trapezoids of chipped clay,


moistened and breathed alive.


 


There are some created sheep


   in the pasture below me,


sheep set down here precisely,


 


just touching their blue shadows


   hoof to hoof on the grass.


Created gulls pock the air,


   rip great curved seams in the settled air:


 


I greet my created meal, amazed.


Annie Dillard


But any attempt to put poetry of the older type into prose would be instantly recognized for what it was — a formatting problem.


Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, while I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. ”Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door – only this, and nothing more.’


Any prose writer seriously attempting this would be exhorted by his creative writing teacher to make the little voices in his head go away. The beginning of the “settlement” in my mind on this has to do with the nature of loftiness, and the inability of modern casual man to attain to it naturally. In a world that has lost most of its manners, we want to hide from every contrivance, which dactylic or trochaic meter most certainly is. Meter, rhyme, and alliteration seem way too artificial for us. Sir Phillip Sidney, dressing the way he did for Queen Elizabeth’s court, could not have written free verse. He had a completely different view of ethos. In fact, he had a completely different view of everything, what with that ruff and all. But nobility, among other things, has to be some kind of “a contrivance,” which is why we are shut off from it.


Again, this is not to say that free verse cannot be great writing — but rather that, when it is, it is still being written for an audience in blue jeans. We have lost our capacity to go “up.” I watched a few minutes of Bush’s second inaugural, and was astounded that we were celebrating the inauguration of a president with (among other things) the singing of a song that had lyrics worthy of full-length Disney animation, like Pocohantas or something. When funerals occur, we don’t know how to dress. If called upon to speak there, we don’t have the vocabulary.


The point of the illustrations in switching genres is this. If prose is, of necessity, prosaic, and the best free verse can attain to is the upper registers of good prose, then what are we missing beyond that?

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