Jun 17, 2010

Mary Wallach, "Why I Don't Write Autobiographical Poems": Questions about Prose Poems

Too Gawky for a Lyric?

The prose poem is a form I don’t trust—can it be true that it was genuinely impossible to render the work as either prose or poetry?

My knee-jerk response is to call each prose poem intellectually lazy and dishonest. If it doesn’t trust itself to be A or B, why should I trust it? What need is there for some hybrid C?

Will most prose poems really, truly, honestly refuse to fit themselves into any of the uniforms worn by poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction? Shame on me, old curmudgeon? Anal fuddy-duddy? Prescriptive Tyrant?

As always, however, exceptions keep cropping up. Here is a prose poem in which the first paragraph seemed to be headed nowhere better or bigger than the bitter sarcasm of a crowd I call The Young, The Ironic, The Angry, and The Bogus (YIAB). I almost didn’t finish “Why I Don’t Write Autobiographical Poems,” and what a shame for me--and shame on me--that would have been.

The turns in Mary Wallach’s piece beautifully illustrate why poets talk so much about turns. In most poems the turns support the notion of a poem as discovery (or discoveries) for the poet as well as the reader.

If you think you know where you’re going, and that’s where you go, where’s the surprise for you? Without surprise, where’s the delight, the urgency? Are you just re-filling a prescription at the drug store? Where’s the chance for epiphany or other kinds of a-ha moments? And without those, are you offering a poem or a stale self-indulgence?

The fact that rhyme or the line breaks in free verse can produce, or at least add to, surprise and discovery in a poem is one more reason to doubt the prose poem as a genre or subcategory. Once again, however, the exception reinforces the rule.

See if you agree. Here is “Why I Don’t Write Autobiographical Poems.”

Why I Don't Write Autobiographical Poems by Mary Wallach | The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor


Anonymous said...

Yes, the turns are true of prose and poetry.

Words fall like a thud when a writer just comes right out and tells me what's signficant. Who the fuck cares, then.

Just describe. You know, the way artists aren't really drawing figures or objects, they're defining the space around the figures and objects. Like that.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Like you, I was mindlessly caring if I finished this poem. And like you, what a shame for me and on me if I had not.

I wondered if it had been written in poetic fashion but that the line breaks didn't work on the Writer's Almanac webpage. But I guess that is not the case?

After reading this poem/prose, I see it as a set of instructions for future writers/some poets. I wonder if it is classified as a poem because that is what Mary Wallach is - a poet. If she labeled herself an essayist, would this be called an essay?

Perhaps a different set of standards exist for the different generations of poets? Romantic poets would never consider writing such prose poetry - and if they had, I would be very very critical of them as a poet. But 20th century poets can write prose poetry without having fans stomp on them. I have different standards for each generation/century.

So when did prose poetry start? When did rhyme and meter get tossed over for substance and laziness by the poet?

Banjo52 said...

AH, thanks. I don't think enough about that space business in the visual arts.

You bring up the old maxim of "Show, don't tell," with which I ALMOST completely agree.

For the rest of that thought, everyone, see today's post, and thanks, AH, for providing the stimulus (again).

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, sorry! I thought I responded a while ago, just saw that I didn't.

I wonder about the Romantics. In their spirit of rebellion and Wordsworth's "language of the common man," they just might have been friendly toward the prose poem, especially as a challenge to Augustan precision, balance, symmetry, neatness, restraint. And that letting it all hang out seems very true of their descendant, Walt Whitman.

Moonbath said...

It's Feb. 2011--a little late to leave a post, but I was googling myself --Mary Wallach--and came across your thoughtful analysis of WIDWAP as I call it. First of all, I didn't write it as a prose poem, but as a poem. As Brenda's Arizona guessed correctly, the line breaks didn't come out right originally on the Writer's Almanac Site. It first appeared in the Mississippi Review and I indeed wanted it to be an "instructiona" to poets/writers to be specific. I appreciate your appreciation of the "turns" and what also makes this a poem is the conscious use of sound and beat. P.S. I am in my 50s, pre-hip, ironic. P.S.S. love your choice of poets, i.e. Lux, Stafford, Stevens. P.S.S.S. If you go to facebook, I have a WIDWAP page though rather dormant. Again, thanks for your thoughtful and gracious commentary.

Banjo52 said...

Moobbath, Mary, This is a first! what a nice surprise. I've found your note at bedtime (almost) on Feb. 15, so will wait till I'm more awak a day or two to respond.

I'm so glad I liked your poem. Whew! I try to choose only poems I like if the poet's alive, but there's been an exception or two.

Since your "Moonbath" isn't functioning and there are many Mary Wallachs on Facebook, I'm not sure how to contact you, but I'll look into it.

Moonbath said...

I'm pretty sure that if you go to Facebook and search
WIDWAP: The Poetry of Mary Wallach
you will find me. The page is open to everyone, as far as I know.

Banjo52 said...

Still not working for me, Mary. It just sent me back to Banjo52. Am I doing something wrong?

Banjo52 said...

Mary, correction! I found it later last night. Nice boxer, right? I'll go back when I can go slower and enjoy. (Still have NO idea what I was doing wrong or right).

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