Prose and Poetry: A Pataphor

There are essentially two literary genres: prose and poetry. There is also prose-poetry, which is a shifting, vaguely defined form situated somewhere between the two, but many people are uncomfortable with it and relegate it to one or the other of the previously mentioned because it helps them sleep better at night.

Some people like only poetry; some people only love prose. And then there are people who love both poetry and prose. My guess is that most people love both (at least a little), or would love both if they gave themselves the chance, but many are so enamored with one that they don’t realize their attraction to the other. Either that, or they’re afraid of what their friends would think if they went for that other genre once in a while.

If it is possible to turn a prose-lover into a poetry-lover, or vice versa, that person was likely already prone to loving the genre in the first place. And just because someone who likes both genres goes on a poetry binge does not mean that s/he no longer enjoys prose. Likewise, if someone identifies mainly as a poetry lover but once in a while dips into a bit of fiction, it does not mean that they are in denial or in the act of betraying their poetry-loving cause. It just means that that’s what they’re into reading right now, and they may eventually go back to the other genre or (most often) back and forth between the two.

There are also those who enjoy a little poetry along with their prose. For these, each form enriches the reader’s experience of the other. There is nothing wrong with this.

The literary world is huge and ripe with all shades and shapes of richly rewarding experiences. There is bad poetry; there is bad prose; there is bad prose-poetry (some would say that all prose-poetry is bad, but I digress). There is also much that is good in each genre, and to deny that it is possible for someone to appreciate these simultaneously is to be myopic and petty. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what anyone reads, as long as it has value for them in their lives. One person reading poetry does not denigrate the experience of the prose reader beside him or her. To each his/her own.

Blessed are the free spirits willing to embrace all genres, for they will be bestowed with understanding.

-Fin-

An Experiment

A very old pastime in Japan is the collaborative creation of poetry, called renshi (previously known, with different requirements, as renku and renga). Small groups of people get together and, passing around pieces of paper, compose one verse of poetry each, creating a longer poem through linked verses. Each person takes an element or two of the previous verse and either deepens or transforms that element in a new verse, and the person after him or her does the same. For example, in Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North (translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa), the poet writes of the impromptu full moon-viewing party at a priest’s hermitage:

Shortly before daybreak, however, the moon began to shine through the rifts made in the hanging clouds. I immediately wakened the priest, and other members of the household followed him out of bed. We sat for a long time in utter silence, watching the moonlight trying to penetrate the clouds and listening to the sound of the lingering rain. It was really regrettable that I had come such a long way only to look at the dark shadow of the moon, but I consoled myself by remembering the famous lady who had returned without composing a single poem from the long walk she had taken to hear a cuckoo. The following are the poems we composed on this occasion:

Regardless of the weather,
The moon shines the same;
It is the drifting clouds
That make it seem different
On different nights.           – written by the priest

Swift the moon
Across the sky,
Treetops below
Dripping with rain.

Having slept
In a temple,
I watched the moon
With a solemn look.           – written by Tosei [Basho’s earlier pen name]

Having slept
In the rain,
The bamboo corrected itself
To view the moon.             – written by Sora

How lonely it is
To look at the moon
Hearing in a temple
Eavesdrops pattering.      – written by Soha

Another, shorter example of this is in Junichiro Tanizaki’s novella “Captain Shigemoto’s Mother,” set in the Heian period, which I finished reading not too long ago. In it, the lovelorn amorist Heiju paints this short poem to his married lover on the inside of her son’s arm:

The promises we exchanged so long ago have led to misery–
What was your pledge, that this should be its only trace?

The woman responds, also written on her son’s arm:

With whom did I pledge my love in the waking world?
On a fleeting path of dreams I wander, doubting who I am.

I was reminded of this tradition when a very kind reader of my poetry left a comment in one of my recent posts that included a haiku, and I left a haiku in response. While each poem is lovely on its own, the two poems together create a subtle narrative that deepens the metaphors and meaning of each.

And so I came up with the idea to post a haiku and ask readers to respond in kind. Ideally, one reader will post a haiku in the comments section in dialogue with mine, and the next reader will post a haiku in response to that one, and so on. The level of experience, with haiku or poetry in general, doesn’t matter (just give us your best); the point is to see what happens with open collaboration: where it goes, how different voices augment a poem with their own, unique insight.

Having said that, here is my poem to start us off:

This morning the fog
Clung veil-like to our windows—
Gone now, the world wakes.

Officially a Woman Writing Nature

It’s here! The Sugar Mule “Women Writing Nature” issue containing my first published poems has been made public. Download the PDF here. (My poems are located on pages 323 and 324.)

I’m thrilled and honored to be included in the (long) list of truly wonderful writers and poets published in the issue and to have found a momentary niche in a community of sensitive, intelligent, perceptive women. Together, we observe and discuss the natural world and our places in it — the bonds we human animals make with other animals and the impact of not only ourselves on the land but also the land’s impact on us. It’s a symbiotic relationship we have with the earth, for all our sins against and struggles with it. The pieces included in this issue reflect the various, idiosyncratic experiences we have in a world that is both brazen and subtle, wild and tame, wonderful and bitter(sweet), strange and common — sometimes all at once.

Check it out. I’d love to know what you think.

American Athenaeum News and a Stevens Poem

Colossus of Rhodes, a 16th century engraving by Martin Heemskerck

More good news! American Athenaeum, the literary journal I’ve been helping to curate for the past several months, is just about ready to release its first issue, Colossus. It won’t be released until July, but we are taking pre-orders for print, e-book and PDF versions of the issue here. I’m proud of this work and excited to share our contributors’ stories, poems and essays, so I hope you’ll buy a copy and check it out.

In celebration and for the sake of general enjoyment, a Wallace Stevens poem I love:

“The Latest Freed Man”

Tired of the old descriptions of the world,
The latest freed man rose at six and sat
On the edge of his bed. He said,
“I suppose there is
A doctrine to this landscape. Yet, having just
Escaped from the truth, the morning is color and mist,
Which is enough: the moment’s rain and sea,
The moment’s sun (the strong man vaguely seen),
Overtaking the doctrine of this landscape. Of him
And of his works, I am sure. He bathes in the mist
Like a man without a doctrine. The light he gives–
It is how he gives his light. It is how he shines,
Rising upon the doctors in their beds
And on their beds…”
And so the freed man said.
It was how the sun came shining into his room:
To be without a description of to be,
For a moment on rising, at the edge of the bed, to be,
To have the ant of the self changed to an ox
With its organic boomings, to be changed
From a doctor into an ox, before standing up,
To know that the change and that the ox-like struggle
Come from the strength that is the strength of the sun,
Whether it comes directly or from the sun.
It was how he was free. I twas how his freedom came.
It was being without description, being an ox.
It was the importance of the trees outdoors,
The freshness of the oak-leaves, not so much
That they were oak-leaves, as the way they looked.
It was everything being more real, himself
At the centre of reality, seeing it.
It was everything bulging and blazing and big in itself,
The blue of the rug, the portrait of Vidal,
Qui fait fi des joliesses banales, the chairs.

Publishing News

Great news! Two of my poems have been accepted for publication in the Women Writing Nature issue of Sugar Mule. Sugar Mule is an online literary magazine headed by M.L. Weber. Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, author of Work Is Love Made Visible and editor of Mongrel Empire Press, is the guest editor for this issue.

Much of my work addresses human interactions with nature or explores human issues through the lens of the natural world, so the Sugar Mule issue seemed like a great home for my first published pieces. I’m glad they agree. The poems to be published, “A Series of Poems On the Theme of a Blue Jay” and “Song of the Orchid Cultivar,” are fairly new poems of mine and explore themes of love, regret, foreignness and connections.

I keep telling people that I’m not a poet, that I write some poetry but mostly fiction, but the poetry thing keeps sticking to me. Granted, it was my first love, and some might say that I approach even my fiction as if it were poetry (for better or worse). I still don’t know that I’d brand myself a poet, but this recent news makes me a little more willing to admit it as a legitimate aspect of my writing life, rather than just a hobby.

The Women Writing Nature issue of Sugar Mule will be published in July 2012. I’ll post a link when it comes out. Until then, I highly recommend checking out past issues of Sugar Mule. And if you’re a new visitor to Something Looseknit and want a taste of my creative work, feel free to click the links below:

A Simple Poem
A Plain Thing” (flash fiction)
and another untitled poem.