Lately: A Diatribe Against Sameness

I was just reading a review of Lyn Hejinian's Best American Poetry anthology linked from The Page (see link under "essential links" at right). In it, the author, while completey questioning Hejinian's "editorial standards," cites as his academic model Ezra Pound, who said, Poetry should be at least as good as well-written prose.

First of all, I think Ezra Pound was more concerned with the state of Ezra Pound than he was about the state of American poetry. But more than that, I feel like the inclusion of Pound's viral rhetoric in that journalist's discussion is emblematic of something more troubling in our culture:

that somehow, poetry and prose are related.

Portraits and houses both involve paint. But I don't think we'd ever mistake one for the other. Yet, so commonly people disregard poetry that is not proselike, or poetry that is overly poetic. You can't really win with poetry.

I move that we, as a community of poets, officially secede from prose.

Let prose fend for itself. Like most bullies, it moves more simply and takes up more space. It seeks to be understood before it understands. Fine, go on ahead.

Poetry, however, is not the acme of language. There is good prose writing in the world, yes. But please, let's stop this madness of poetry-is-true-language/prose-is-true-language. No one wins. Prose may make more money, but poetry is obviously the sexier of the two. And listen to me: mired down, again, in comparisons. It's not about that.

A culture's poetry should be distinct and radical from its other art forms. I know several poets who link poetry to painting—but we'd never say A poem should be at least as good as a well-painted landscape. Why not? And should it? Or is painting better? Honestly, I prefer film to a lot of poetry, folks like Luhrman and Almodóvar who take risks, who understand what a medium means: how it means.

We don't confuse film and photography even though they both rely on image. One is, essentially, the moving form of the other. Yet they remain more distinct than prose and poetry, which too many people believe differ only in form.

A form is a radical origin of meaning.

A form means. Content means. Aspects of a poem mean differently than aspects of prose. Frankly, I'm tired of this confusion. Let's be sister-cities. Let's be adjoining hotel rooms. But let's not be brothers whose parents demand, Why can't you be more like Matthew—or, at least as good as him?!

A poem should be at least as good as the form it takes, the language it involves, the images it creates, the sounds it rings, the shape it takes, the melody it murmurs...but it should not be the same or better than prose. It's like what I was talking about in terms of preciousness: once we overvalue something, we ultimately lose all value. Don't overvalue poetry or devalue prose. And let's not make them equivalent. Let's find them mutually exclusive nests, little honeymoon hideways, and we'll stock whatever their favorite wine may be: and maybe, it's the same wine after all.


  1. I'm enjoying your posts lately, Charlie.

    Almodóvar is one of my favorite filmmakers. Hable Con Ella is smashing. Just smashing.

    I like the wine analogy.

    Thanks for posting.

  2. Stop the Madness! Vote for Charles!!

    I love reading your blog. :-)

  3. So true, Charles, but I do think you read Pound’s comment as prose, as very dry prose, strictly, and that makes your dichotomy—prose vis-à-vis poetry—fail. I mean, hell, the issue isn’t easy. I’ve never understood prose and poetry to be so separate from each other so I don’t understand your desire for imminent divorce. Let me sound stupid, Charles. Prose is language. Poetry is language. Language meanders, coming in and out of styles. Who can say, for instance, that “To the Lighthouse” is strictly prose? Or who can say it is strictly poetry? It seems to me that two forms—with their own particular styles—survive rather well together.

    I don’t know. I’ll digress instead. Since I constantly struggle with new forms—with their appreciation—I found some truth in Joan Houlihan’s essay, though it is far too easy to ridicule “language” poetry without a proper perspective. (Actually, not much different than ridiculing the high language of “classical” poetry written as “New Formalism”.) But what Houlihan may be ignoring (or not) is the Wordsworth test: the poet creating the taste by which he is to be judged. This might explain, I’m not sure, some of the problems in Houlihan’s vain attempt to interpret poetry—all poetry—from the same vantage point, utilizing tools that are now unfit for the task. Is that a possibility? I don’t know. I truly don’t know.

    Nice post, Charles. You’re hot lately.