Friday, October 06, 2006

Of late, I’ve been checking out proofs and page design for The Age of Huts (compleat), which the UC Press will be bringing out next spring. One of the issues that comes up, in certain poems within 2197, is what happens when a line functions partly in the manner of prose, as traditionally handled by typesetters since at least the mid-18th century, and partly in the manner of verse. The poems used a stepped line, not unlike the lengthier one that William Carlos Williams favored toward the end of his life. Except that the lines themselves are understood as prose – they are all sentences, even if sentences terribly skewed (a vocabulary imposed over fixed grammatical structures) – so that when they reach an certain right-hand margin (it’s a thinner width than the prose poems Ketjak, Sunset Debris or The Chinese Notebook, all of which are part of the cycle & included in the volume), the line moves back to the lefthand margin & continues, just as it does in “ordinary prose” such as this paragraph. At the end of each sentence, however, the line drops or steps down, sometimes twice in a single swath from left margin to right (again, as does WCW). I must say that the typesetters have worked hard to try & get this right, tho I can tell just how difficult they’re finding this mixed feature, part line & part prose.

When I was first writing 2197 in the late 1970s, mostly at a coffee house on 24th Street in San Francisco’s Noe Valley called, I swear, the Meat Market (it had been a butcher shop in the 1950s), I wasn’t aware of anyone else trying to join these two modes in quite this way before. Now, however, it’s something I see a lot in new poetry, albeit not necessarily in the way that I tried here. A good current example is visible, I think, in Aaron Kunin’s new chapbook, Secret Architecture: Notebooks, 2001, just published by Braincase Press of Boulder, Colorado. Here is the opening passage of the first of the three poems in the boo, “’I used to be different. Now I’m the same’”. Note especially the sixth, eighth & ninths stanzas.

The first word is “although.”

Not a strong enough advocate of your desire?

I think there’s some value to taking everything personally.

I want to hurt you; it hurts me that you’re not hurt.

— It hurts me that you’re hurt; I didn’t intend that.

It hurts me that you didn’t intend to hurt me.

For spite, I’ll never stop loving you.

As an act of pure meanness, I’ll never stop loving you.

Just to be selfish, I’ll never stop loving you.

Just to be sick, I’ll never recover.

The hum of the fish tank kept him awake, so he got up in the middle
of the night to turn it off.

The glow of the fish tank, placed directly behind the sofa, made it
impossible to sleep, so he reached out pettishly in a fit of half-sleep
and turned it off.

The fish boiled in their tank; someone having (maliciously or
accidentally?) turned the temperature dial as high as it would go
during the night.


— Who isn’t waiting for an apology? I’m waiting for several apologies…

— I stopped waiting for an apology long ago.

He would tell you himself if you talked to him for as long as fifteen
minutes; you wouldn’t have to ask directly …

You don’t deserve a better notebook if you’re only going to contaminate
it with that deplorable handwriting.

Weak tea, strong opinions; and the reverse.

Matching tea with opinions.

The ellipses above are Kunin’s. The lines above function perfectly as prose, but within a context that can only be defined as a stanza. But this is something different than merely using “prosaic” language in verse form – something English language poetry has been capable of since the days of Alexander Pope. Rather, what Kunin seems here to be pointing out is more radical – the idea that opposite of poetry is in fact not prose (nor, it would seem, vice versa). The old “classic” formula for poetry (poetry = prose + A + B, etc.), the whole scandal behind the miscegenation of the prose poem (read Baudelaire on the subject) was exactly this point, that poetry is not equal to prose. It’s not that Kunin is entirely erasing the borders that gives this confrontation its charge – far from it – but rather he seems to understood this particular Venn diagram in three dimensions, rather than the normative two. Kunin appears to have picked up on a way in which poetry and prose exist on different axes altogether – accordingly, their intersection isn’t an overlap, but something else altogether.

Consider the shorter lines – they are not not prose, if you understand what I mean by that double negative, but they don’t challenge their role within a stanzaic structure. The longer lines – any that curls back from the right-hand margin to begin again without the traditional “poetic” hanging indent – however do torque the stanzaic, precisely by foregrounding the convention they choose to violate. It’s not that poetic “goes away” for a line or two, but rather that it suddenly comes into view, as such. In a text that is consciously deploying “unpoetic” language, the tone of irritation & the horrific-on-a-small-scale tale of boiling the fish, this angle of interaction between the two genres ups the ante & reinforces Kunin’s actual argument. It’s certainly effective writing, and in fact it gave me a sense of his language as being much richer than the actual tone used warrants, which, when I think back on it, is an interesting overlay. I’m not sure that I could duplicate that effect in my own writing if I tried.

Secret Architecture is a good book, all three of whose poems exploit this intersection between genres. My one problem or complaint, to call it that, is one that I so often have with first-rate work in chapbook form – Secret Architecture was printed in an edition of just 100 copies and is already, it would seem, sold out. It’s a shame that it has to be a secret on this level as well.