Tender Buttons Gertrude Stein

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Robert Hass and I Chat a Little Prose and a Little Poetry


In this our third and final entry on the exciting world of prose poetry, I present quoted bits from Bob (his new book, A Little Book on Form), interlaced by my responses. A friendly chat, if you will (or even if you won’t). As you will see, Robert Hass knows a lot more than me on the topic, but I’m here to learn.

RH: “There are at least two kinds of this kind of thing: proses that are one paragraph long and proses that are more than one paragraph long.

“The paragraph as a formal device differs from the stanza in that the proposition of the paragraph is unity.

“The proposition of a composition of one paragraph is completeness.

“A paragraph that goes on for much longer than a page breaks the basic contract of the paragraph.

“These are all expressive possibilities.”

KC: Amen to that contract bit. I can’t tell you how many classics I’ve read where, when you turn the page, you see a paragraph that swallows BOTH pages, left and right. It’s like taking a deep breath and diving in to swim the underwater length of an Olympic-sized pool.

RH: “What the texts for writers say is true: The four kinds of prose are narration, description, exposition, and argument.

“This expectation is also an expressive possibility.

“From the beginning, this kind of prose was torn between undermining its medium and appropriating it.”

KC: Huh?

RH: “So a paragraph, which is a proposition of unity, full of non sequiturs is a contradiction in terms. This is, has been an expressive possibility.

“The prose poem came into existence not only during the age of prose and the age of realism, but at the moment when prose and realism were just beginning to enjoy the prestige of art.”

KC: I enjoy that, too. I’m a prestige guy from way-back.

RH: “This kind of prose was sired by ambivalence and envy. The ‘prose poet’ is either worshipping at or pissing on the altar of narration, description, exposition, and argument. Or both.

“To write this kind of prose you probably have to love or hate the characteristic rhythms of prose.

“The rhythms of poetry have quicker access to the unconscious than the rhythms of prose. It may be that this is one of the reasons many people prefer prose to verse. It does not make an indecent claim on the reader’s person at the outset.”

KC: I personally hate it when people make indecent claims on my person. Unless it’s my wife.

RH: “One of the obvious possibilities of this kind of prose was to fill it full of the devices that people identify as lyrical as a kind of alchemy to transform prose and the world of prose into poetry. This was the way of Rimbaud.

“Another possibility was to thwart the expectations of prose. Cubist prose, like Tender Buttons [Gertrude Stein], did it at the level of grammar. Surrealist prose did it at the level of representation and at the level of sequence.

“In all three cases, varying in intensity, the idea was to use the medium in ways that would subvert the usual expectations of the medium.”

KC: I’m loving this. And I think I’m even getting it. Especially how poetry has quicker access to the unconscious than prose. There’s clearly a difference when you read the two. Even when you read a poem side by side with its ugly duckling cousin, a “prose poem” (whose name is even ugly). Uh, would you mind passing the peanuts?



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