Tragipoetics III

"Prose" v "Poetry"

Berlin, 1945

Tragipoetics I and II

First, I should say that the divide between prose and poetry is not one to be worried over, at least not for this post. In fact, it seems that the hybrid nature of genre pulls out amazing work. I do not want anyone who might be reading this to think that I am attempting to draw some line in the sand between prose and poetry. Indeed, I believe any attempts at drawing a line are superfluous. The lines between genre are blurring further every day, as they ought, and I think we need to think beyond genre in general.

That said, for the sake of this post, I am thinking of prose (fiction/non-fiction/etc.) as a thing versus poetry as a separate thing. Where the line is will likely vary in this post. I assume you have your own line by which you divide things and I assume we can use either definition as we move forward. Again, this is not a series of posts concerned with the divide of genre but rather with how we process trauma and tragedy through art in general.

So, where does prose differ from poetry? We generally think of prose, whether fiction or non-fiction, as some kind of narrative-driven form. There are characters and dialogue and a definite beginning and end which to work from and towards. A poem, of course, does not need to have ANY of these things- a poem can go beyond these stricter definitions and work without them just as easily. Now, some would argue a poem ought to have these things as well but I quite obviously do not feel that way.

No, a poem need not resolve anything. A poem is a space in which a question can be raised, an issue can be brought in, some trauma revealed, without ever having to deal with it directly. As written in earlier posts on this subject, a poem has the option of being the saturated form of experience, focusing more purely on sense than on any of the structured artifacts that prose writing provides. Of course, some of my favorite prose works also ignore all of these rules and regulations, so something to consider.

Poetry, to me, however, is pure language, a distilled version of our developed and evolving construction. It is concerned with how words and meaning work, rather than attempting to create some kind of progression out of them. And because poetry has the option to be concerned with language alone and not with these other factors, I believe poetry has a unique ability to deal with processing experience. This is, again and again, not to say that other forms of art cannot do the same, just that I believe the poetic work is situated in such a way as to allow for it to thrive in this kind of processing.

What do I mean by "pure?" I am not suggesting that poetry is by any means "clean" or "unadulterated" -- far from it. Poetry can delve  into things that I believe may not be able to delve into otherwise. Nothing can stop a poetic work from getting gritty or muddy -- what would be the point? All I mean by pure is that language is generally what it is, the base of other thoughts and images. It is in placing words together that we create. Maybe we can even boil down and say that it is letters which are atomic and words which are molecules, etc. They are the building blocks and bring meaning along with them inherently.

All that said, I believe it is prose which allows for the set up of tragedy. It is in prose where the description of an event can create a therapeutic result. In Robert Coover's "The Babysitter," there are traumatic events wrapped up in the mundane: the girdle, what seems to be the rape of a young woman-- these abnormal things begin with a perfectly normal evening. Coover's language is Charles Bernstein's "chaotic thought" that exists in poetry and there is nothing but chaos in "The Babysitter." Coover here, perhaps better than a lot of poets, captures trauma through language versus narrative, its hybrid nature only adding to the trauma for the reader because there is very little to latch onto here.

Obviously, there is no "therapy" to be had in Coover's work: "The Babysitter" is void of any true resolution, which brings it closer to the realm of experience than narrative for me. However, whereas it is designed as a work of fiction (there is a narrative and characters and dialogue, etc.) we have to look at it as though it is the retelling of a tragedy in the lives of an American family and their employee. This retelling is what prose can do that poetry would find difficult to achieve: it can give us the moments in vivid detail without giving us the experience of these events. We get no sense of how these characters are processing, either during or after, these events. That, I believe, is where a poem can come in.