Tuesday, February 01, 2005
Kevin Thurston has asked me to discuss my “ideas that distinguish 'plotless prose' from 'prose poetry'?” I could, I suppose, dip back into the works of Viktor Shklovsky who first employed that phrase, but since it’s a term that I use on an everyday basis, it makes more sense to unpack what I’m thinking whenever it pops up in my conversation.
I should note first that plotless does not mean non- or anti-narrative. Nor are all – or necessarily many – prose poems themselves plotless. The parables & tales one finds in the work of Russell Edson, for example, would be nothing without their little plots. So there are a series of distinctions to be made, perhaps along the lines that Geof Huth suggests in his attempts at creating a vocabulary for discussing visual poetry.
Narrative is the unfolding of meaning in time. This occurs before that, X before Y, etc. One can find narrative in any work by Bruce Andrews or early Clark Coolidge – they’re rife with meaning & passionately in love with time, so it’s a rich engagement. But they tend to avoid plot, which exteriorizes narrative onto a signified landscape that lies vaguely out there beyond the limits of syntax. That’s an important distinction. The fundamental “realist” trick of language is that it gets us to experience the integration of linguistic elements through syntax up not into higher levels of language at all, but rather outside of the materials at hand into this posited exterior world, into character & plot. The pleasures of the text are thus ascribed to these hypothetical objects & events. It’s a wonderful bit of magic that I recognize most often when I read aloud to toddlers. Babar in particular is a fabulous demonstration of this, because not only is it a parable of French colonialism, but some books retain elements of a larger frame tale (full of improbable elements, such as the ability of the elephants to walk from their country all the way to Paris), while others vary key features – see how the rhinos are portrayed from volume to volume, for example. Not all of the creatures are “feasible” either, but that’s another story.
There are, of course, works of fiction that themselves flirt with plotlessness – Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren or some of Thomas Pynchon’s later novels, especially Vineland and Mason & Dixon, present all the joys of tale-telling without much sense that tales themselves – which in these cases thoroughly entail character & event – ever need to go anywhere. It’s the telling itself that is the point. They raise really interesting questions between the elements of this exterior posited world and a compulsive sense of direction. I know some readers who find these projects tedious precisely because they never seem to go anywhere, get anywhere. Exactly!
The prose poem is a different critter altogether, tho it can certainly intersect with plotlessness. The prose poem originally – like when Baudelaire & Ducasse were elaborating its possibilities in the 19th century (it is one of that century’s three major innovations, along with free verse & the dramatic monolog) – originally had to do with the interpenetration of the dynamics of poetry with those of prose. As is invariably the case with any of these formal developments, there were antecedents well in advance, leading not only toward what we eventually knew as the prose poem (as in the case of Bertrand), but also toward directions not taken: I would argue, for example, that the poetry of Alexander Pope is a lineated prose. In what ways are those not prose poems?
In the 20th century, it is curious that the model of the prose poem proposed by Max Jacob should have been the one originally imported into English & America, especially since there were several far more interesting versions available in French: Ponge, Segalen, St.-John Perse. Nonetheless, there are today – finally – a full range of possibilities available to any writer in English. One is limited only by one’s imagination. Often these works have little to do with any boundary issues betwixt poetry & prose &, if anything, this might be exactly the prose poem’s oncoming crisis. It will, in fact, have to stand up on its own feet going forward.
What does this have to do with plotlessness? Not, I suspect, a lot. That would appear to be just one possible dimension of the poem that can come into play. Would it mean that the prose poem was then anti-narrative? Not in the slightest, tho one can arrive – as Clark Coolidge does in Polaroid & The Maintains – at moments in which narrative appears to be self-canceling even as it continues to go forward. That is part of what makes those works such extraordinary events – they’re the extreme cases that allow us to suddenly take in the whole range of what lies between “normal” verse & their practices. Are Polaroid & The Maintains plotless? Only in the trivial sense that they resist referentiality’s trick projections of character, object, event. But that’s not really what’s interesting about them as texts.
I could probably even sketch these relationships out spatially so that it would look something like this:
This is a little schematic obviously, but this may give you a better idea of where I slot such terms in my head as I go about the chores of the day.