Monday, January 23, 2006

An angry book on the history & dynamics of the prose poem is an inherently interesting project. I opened Holly Iglesias’ Boxing Inside the Box: Women’s Prose Poetry, published by Quale, skeptically & found myself drawn in instantly & completely, alternately sympathetic & furious & saddened & fascinated at what I read. This book is a brave & grand failure, but a failure nonetheless.

Iglesias’ project is to rescue the prose poem for women. It needs rescuing, her argument reasons, because the form is historically so male, at least in the United States. This is the prose poem as first theorized old Iron John himself, Robert Bly, which has three strains that Iglesias summarizes as follows:

fables (with David Ignatow, Charles Simic, and Russell Edson as modern masters), post-Romantic “fire prose” (perfected by Rimbaud), and the ‘object/thing poem’ (as written by Bly, Francis Ponge, Tomas Tranströmer, and James Wright).¹

This restrictive vision of what is possible Igelsias rightly calls the template prose poem, a paint-by-numbers version that seems carefully designed to enable poetic prose without getting anywhere near anything even remotely avant. While this certainly was the dominant mode of the prose poem circa 1970 or thereabouts, it has receded like gingivitis-infected gums since then. Even three decades ago, John Ashbery had published Three Poems, Robert Creeley had written Mabel and A Day Book, works that connect up with the broader uses of prose in poetry, such as Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, William Carlos Williams’ Kore in Hell: Improvisations, or Robert Duncan’s The Structure of Rime. Second gen NY Schoolers like Ron Padgett were checking out Bly’s sources & discovering a much richer & broader history than had been portrayed in journals like The Fifties, The Sixties or Kayak. And, once the Language poets showed up with the new sentence in the middle of the 1970s, whatever residual authority the template prose poem held dissipated.

Yet it is the template prose poem that Iglesias goes after, elevating it to a level of institutional dominance that hasn’t been the case in decades. This is something that she almost acknowledges in her reading of the main critical works on prose poetry, written by the likes of Stephen Fredman & Michel Deville, since their books begin by presuming exactly this newer & broader range. Iglesias doesn’t like language poetry & its kin all that much – her description of it is as follows:

Language poetry works to redefine poetry as a scriptural practice, as the process of composition itself rather than as an art form based on speech. Words in this schema are objects rather than referents; any notion of mimesis or the transparency of language is banished. Whatever shred of narrative remains is stripped of both time and place and based strictly on tone and syntax. Language poetry labors mightily to be difficult, takes pleasure in defacing the page; it can be opaque, self-referential, and inaccessible in the extreme.

It’s hard to imagine a one-paragraph description of virtually anything that is more inaccurate than this. I try to envision this as a description of the writing of Bob Perelman or Rae Armantrout or David Bromige or Charles Bernstein or Steve Benson or Lyn Hejinian & simply cannot do it. None of them labors mightily, even cursorily, to be difficult. Many of Benson’s performances are anything but scriptural. The same is true for almost all of Armantrout’s verse. Neither Bernstein nor Bromige nor Perelman banish narrative, tho they often play with it. Perelman’s “Manchurian Candidate” is hardly stripped of time or place. What part of Hejinian or Armantrout can be said to “deface” the page? These are just free-floating accusations that don’t stand up to any scrutiny whatsoever. Then there is the problem that words could never become referents unless & until they were objects, which is 180 degrees different from suggesting that words could be referential. Mostly, tho, this is the description of somebody who just doesn’t like langpo & would prefer not to have to deal with it. Which, for the most case in this book, she doesn’t. Langpo is not Iglesias’ target here & she invokes it only because it threatens to undercut her argument by offering a different set of facts. It is worth noting further, given this book’s topic & subtitle, that Iglesias mentions Hejinian just once², Armantrout, Carla Harryman, Tina Darragh, Lynne Dreyer, Diane Ward, Harryette Mullen, Leslie Scalapino, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Erica Hunt, Bernadette Mayer, Hannah Weiner & Laura Moriarty not at all.

Yet Iglesias writes positively about Susan Howe as well as several other women writers who have certainly been influenced by langpo: Kathleen Fraser, Rosmarie Waldrop & C.D. Wright. Indeed, both Waldrop & Wright figure vitally in the book’s expository structure – one could even claim that the book aims precisely at Wright, since its final pages are given over, with no critical comment, to her “This box comes in” from String Light. As tho it were the solution that her argument is wanting to make. And it is, frankly, a terrific piece of work.

But the real gut of that paragraph, the point at which it does connect to Iglesias’ main argument is the claim that “any notion of mimesis or the transparency of language is banished.” The key word here is banished, suggesting as it does that mimesis & transparency are natural entities rather than cultural constructions. This, as it turns out, is related directly to the problem Iglesias has with the template prose poem, which is its denigration of the “lyric I” & the concept of an unproblematic narrative writing. Her model at the book’s beginning is Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel,” an account of afternoon tea with a mass murderer in Latin America.

Iglesias’ ultimate argument is that males have had centuries to explore the lyric I & their own narratives, but now that women are starting to do so as well, male writing is moving toward prose poetry that, by virtue of Bly’s template, precisely devalues both normal narrative & the lyric I. Women need to hear their stories told in exactly the same terms as they grew up listening to the stories of men. This is actually very close to the same argument that I made in “Poetry and the Politics of the Subject,” in the Socialist Review in 1988, a position that Leslie Scalapino & others read at the time as implying that I thought women & people of color should not be part of the post-avant world. So it’s very weird to run into it here, nearly 20 years later, being taken as the heart of a feminist poetics.

I don’t disagree with Iglesias here, but at the same time her position is not the full story. It still seems to me that there can be no doubt that some people previously excluded from the social agency of power find it necessary, beyond just useful, to occupy those same positions because simply to do so overturns centuries of expectations on all sides. But I don’t think that this can ever be a full or permanent solution. The poetics that Iglesias argues for, to the degree that it can be gleaned from what she is arguing against, will never get you to the writing of Pamela Lu or Mary Burger. Indeed, it will never get you to Tender Buttons, a book first published 101 years ago, let alone to Lyn Hejinian’s My Life.

The problem is not that Iglesias is a female essentialist, nor a normative lyric poetry essentialist – nobody who could write “Pope Fiction” would be that – but that Iglesias relies on one of the profound missteps of the old template prose poem itself, the equation of the form of the paragraph with a box. It’s in her title, it’s a metaphor she returns to constantly, even the subject of C.D. Wright’s final piece. And Iglesias never lets us forget that it is also male slang for a particular part of the female anatomy. But, from Isadore Ducasse to St.-John Perse to Francis Ponge to Emond Jabès, let alone to Beverly Dahlen & Leslie Scalapino, the reduction of the prose poem to the paragraph as outer limit is just nonsense. It’s not that it can’t be – Carla Harryman has done brilliant work in such spaces, as have others going all the way back to Stein – but that it is ever a prerequisite. And it’s profoundly ahistorical – trace the history of the pilcrow (¶) in Wikipedia:

The pilcrow was used in medieval times to mark a new train of thought, before the convention of physically discrete paragraphs was commonplace.

Sounds more than a little like the new sentence, doesn’t it?

Yet Iglesias’ argument depends on your belief that the prose poem is, before it is anything else, a box. To belabor the obvious, a prose poem without a box is like a fish without a bicycle. Try fitting Lyn Hejinian & Leslie Scalapino’s collaborative work, Sight, into that box.

I think that this error on Iglesias’ part – I can’t think of any other word to describe it – explains also why she later muddles the major positive argument she wants to make, for the work of Kimiko Hahn, the closest thing this book has to an actual heroine. The aspect – “a hybrid form” – that Iglesias assigns to Hahn’s feminist approach to the prose poem is, if we are to assign biological formation to aesthetic stance, at least as much the consequence of Hahn’s multiple ethnicities. The passages Iglesias quotes say so explicitly. Iglesias could have made that argument as well, but this isn’t a book about the subaltern position – Iglesias tends to be anti-theory in general. It would have been interesting to explore how her thesis plays against questions not just of race, but class (think Tina Darragh, Rae Armantrout, even Erica Hunt) & other ideological dynamics. My sense is that the argument would dissolve – that you can make basically the same case for any subaltern position, but that once you’ve done that,. once you’ve occupied the master’s lyric I, what are you going to do next? A question that would invariably lead you away from Iglesias’ announced aesthetic.

Yet what is so odd about this, unsettling really, is that she makes the argument in a book whose formal model clearly is Williams’ Spring & All, certainly not a feminist text & one that argues formally as well as thematically against accepting the normative I at face value. Perhaps that is why Iglesias’ prose sometimes feels so ham-fisted – see that tortured, self-contradicting description of language poetry. Curiously, this accounts for one of the book’s greatest moments, the epilog, when one moves beyond Iglesias’ problematic generalities into C.D. Wright’s shining prose description of, what else, a box. It’s such a powerful & economic piece of prose that you immediately sense the heightened state of reality. And then you realize that this isn’t what came before.


¹ Putting Ponge & Bly in the same category is roughly equivalent to M.L. Rosenthal’s lumping together Robert Lowell & Allen Ginsberg as “confessionalists.” In both instances, you can’t make a dull poet interesting just by joining his name to someone like Ponge or Ginsberg. This, we should note, is Bly’s over-reaching. Iglesias is wrong only insofar as she doesn’t challenge the reductive nonsense of his trifold system. Making Ponge into the French James Wright is a way of avoiding dealing with the fact that, in France, there were already quite obviously more than just three strains of prose poetry. Victor Segalen & St.-John Perse, to name two, fall well outside the model proposed by Bly.

² Ironically, noting that Hejinian is mentioned just once by Marjorie Perloff in a piece that focuses on male poets