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Calculation: Bad Prose Does Not Make for Good Poetry
– originally posted to the PDC Mar. 1, 2013
– edited on blog Jan. 26, 2014

A 'Best Of' post from the Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page.

"The Letters" by Jack Ridl -- Poetry Daily, 3/1/13


from Practicing to Walk Like a Heron (Wayne State UP)
poem found here

First lines:
This week the letter from my mother
is a half-page long, the handwriting



narrative poetry, and poetry as "calculation"


Wordsworth writes in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, writing as regards the popular poetry of his day:

[A]s it may be proper to remind the Reader, the distinction of metre is regular and uniform, and not like that which is produced by what is usually called poetic diction, arbitrary, and subject to infinite caprices upon which no calculation whatever can be made.

Taking it within the context of the time, recognizing that he is speaking about a specific body of poetry, in language that is his own and of his own (not-terribly-post-Enlightenment) time, this statement stands as what could be read as Wordsworth's base definition for poetry, as opposed to prose (and poor poetry): something calculated. When you sit down and give ponder to the idea, it is a tough one to refute or reject: after all, is that not the distinction between the banal and the good even in prose, that the good is controlled, manipulated, creative, and, in reverse, not lacking in control. (Note how good grammar is not generally considered good writing: it is merely clean writing.)

So, then, here: what can we say is calculated as regards this poem? The language is prose but broken into lines (as opposed to being crafted lines). And it is not even terribly clean prose, at that. The first sentence ("This week the letter from my mother is a half-page long, the handwriting shaking its way across the paper.") has two subjects, or, perhaps better said, it shifts its focus in mid sentence from the event of the letter arriving to the item of the handwriting on the paper. This is something which would be readily cured by changing the "the" to "it's" (and, even, might be less jarring if later in the poem, but don't hold me to that). Also, later ("'Good way to end the week,' our years connected from there, upper left corner, to here centered perfectly."), there is a grammar issue -- which is curious because he got the grammar correct in putting commas around "upper left corner"; so why leave them off "centered perfectly"? And then there is the question of what to do between "week" and "our": a comma is incorrect; a dash, or semi-colon would work, each to different ends (not a colon, however).

Should we try the general retort, "But it is poetry, not prose"? You can try, but better would be to start recognizing that that phrase is the last line of defense for otherwise indefensible poetry. Calling it poetry does not relieve the accusation of being sloppy; calling it poetry does not relieve the writer from the burden of following the rules of language, even if those rules are being tweaked, modified, or re-established within the work. (Which is not the case here: this is simply sloppiness.) Also, the rules generated by this poem are that of "prose broken into lines": so even by the rules of the moment there is yet the burden to get it right. Within the rules of the poem, the sentence beginning "I pour a cup" is an uncontrolled run-on. The arbitrary line breaks do not save it. (Indeed, they only serve to try to conceal it. Which is funny, because with a little poetic calculation, they might have been made into something interesting.

Can you defend the poem? (And, yes, we can still call it poetry, even if unsophisticated poetry.) What calculation can be found within this poem, other than, perhaps, the (to all appearances arbitrary) decision to have stanzas of four lines, breaking the lines into near equal length?

(You know, I should say here: You often here of people speaking as to how they have troubles finding the stanza length (and, in turn, line length) of a poem, and then of finding a stanza that suddenly makes the poem work. I always want to question the majority of those tales with this: Did the found stanza-line combination make the poem work? or did it most successfully hide its flaws? That is a good opening for a discussion around the defense of a poem.)

I can point out a place with mis-calculation (or glaring absence of calculation): between the third and fourth lines. There is a change in time (and tense) from present to past, meant to be a shift to compare the mother's current handwriting to her previous handwriting. (Having "this week" at the front creates the idea that the event of the letter -- and the handwriting in the letter -- is specific to this week. Thus, when the next sentence is about penmanship, one wants to read that she normally has good penmanship, but something is wrong this week. The past tense, then, is in error. But one then the reader realizes that if there is an error, it is not there, and the reader has to go back and reread the opening phrases against their semantic construction.) 

In prose, such a shift would want some kind of cue (be it semantic or syntactic or what) to give the reader notice that the change in tense is not a mistake, to tell the reader, "yes, there is a shift in idea, here": very simply, a paragraph break. Or, perhaps, a "before" at the end of the "she was" clause. Or, here, in a poem, there need be but a little calculation: a stanza break. In fact, the absence of the stanza break (or such similar) at this point reads to me as a bright sign saying "There Is Here No Purpose Behind The Line Breaks Here Except To Make Lines." 

So, again, can you defend this poem? Is there anything here of value? of merit? that gives any insistence that this poem deserves to be read as a poem? or, that the poem on the next page deserves to be read? any defense that this poem is, in fact, nothing more than ordinary and rather shallow and undeveloped prose masquerading as being more important than it really is by taking on the mask of "poetry"?

Let me ask it in a different way, in a way that posits an idea: why is it that people who write poetry think that they can take prose that would be rejected as undeveloped, uncoordinated, if not uninteresting prose and, by giving it line breaks, magically imbew it value and justification under the name of "poetry"? (Please don't notice that the words are undeveloped, uncoordinated, if not uninteresting; there are, after all, line breaks, and a trivial attempt at some closing profundity. Is that not enough?) 

One more time, with flair: why is being prosaically lazy made poetically creative merely by the introduction of line breaks?