Keston Sutherland and the verse / prose divide

A while ago I spent some time enthusing about ‘Odes to TL61P’ and have now added a page on the first ode to arduity. The reason for doing this is not just my enthusiasm for the work but also the fact that it manages to push certain types of difficulty into newish territory.

The page has produced a helpful and positive response from Sutherland who tells me that it might not yet be finished and Chicago Review wants to publish Ode 1. He also takes me up on my assertion that most of the Odes are in prose-

that while you must be right that they are
“mostly in prose”, I wonder whether they might not at the same time, and in just those justified, block passages, be something other than prose, too? Prose cannot normally be imagined to have porous edges liable to be penetrated or broken through by lines that suddenly qualify as “verse”; I don’t know how to conceive it yet, but the function of that smashable edge must be somehow to introduce a generic contingency or blur, so that we are never fully “in prose”. I think so anyway (though of course you may not).

Before I throw this around, I think I’d better clarify my personal take on prose poems and the relationship between poetic prose and verse. In my adolescence I came across two examples of prose which was really verse. These were ‘Lessness’ by Samuel Beckett and a number of prose poems by Zbigniew Herbert. I understood the prose poem as something which couldn’t be said in ‘ordinary’ prose but couldn’t be versified either. At this point (in about 1971) my thinking on this issue stopped and I’ve spent the last forty years with the same level of understanding.
I’ve now had a bit of a think in response to the above prod and now realise that there are different kinds of prose poem and that poets use prose for all sorts of reasons. Then there’s the ‘form’ issue with some works being entirely in prose, other being predominantly in verse but making use of prose as well and those that are mostly prose interspersed with bits of verse.
I’m now in the process of looking in some detail at the way poets that I admire make use of prose. David Jones, Neil Pattison, Charles Olson, J H Prynne, Sean Bonney and Geoffrey Hill have all made use of prose, either to create ‘prose poems’ or to incorporate both prose and verse into a single poem. Jones, Olson, Prynne and Bonney are of particular interest because they have placed verse and prose together. All of these are distinctly different from the way that the two elements interact in the Odes.
I agree with Sutherland’s assertion that prose can be ‘more’ than prose when used in a poem.
I’m not of the view that the use of prose implies a weakness or lack of ability on the part of the poet but it does seem to me that the notion that ‘it’s a poem because I say it’s a poem’ is more than a little suspect. I’ve just realised that I’ve left out Kenneth Goldsmith from the above list, his appropriation of prose and the subsequent re-framing does result in poetry even though the banal and everyday original text has been left intact.
This is taken from Ode 1:

Isn‟t it the fact that I want you to stare at me until our eyes trade sockets, not the suggestion that hooding was banned in 1972, that asks for an adaptation on bliss in memory? Light
sockets, the penetration of bodies by power and remorse,
devoured in a shadow life sends back?
Remember this: I sort through the boxes,
my first poems are there, the
drawings I made at school are
and my toys are, lead prodigies and barbarians,

It’s difficult to know where the verse prose boundary is in the above, in the pdf the line beginning ‘sockets’ fills the full width of the page and is more part of the prose section than the verse that follows it but there’s also room for the word ‘socket’ to appear at the end of the line above. I’m either taking this too seriously or this is an attempt by Sutherland to create a ‘porous’ edge to the prose. This blurred break occurs in the most personal section of Ode 1, the edges between prose and verse are much clearer elsewhere in the ode as are the reasons for those edges.

Leaving the question of the ‘smashable edge’ to one side for the moment, consideration of other poets’ use of prose within a poem reveals a wide range of approaches. The Maximus Poems contains a few paragraphs of prose, some of which refer to events from Gloucester’s archives whilst others express Olson’s point of view. Given that Olson frequently versifies complete extracts from these archives, the prose/verse rationale isn’t immediately apparent but I’m prepared to accept the complexity of Olson’s thinking about form and structure.
With regard to Prynne, there are two prose paragraphs in ‘High Pink on Chrome’. Both of these are placed at the foot of the page, like unmarked footnotes. The first of these reads as a scientific elaboration of the poem whereas the second is more oblique and deliberately odd. As far as I’m aware, this is the only occasion where Prynne mixes the two elements and he does it such a way that the reader isn’t entirely sure whether the paragraphs are to be read as part of the poem or as a comment on the poem. This is also an example of having your cake and eating it in that both prose sections are very clearly delineated by the acre of white space above them leading this reader to view them both as somehow ‘optional’. The only other instance of Prynne using prose is in ‘The Plant Time Manifold Manuscripts’ which contains only a few lines that might be construed as verse.
We now come to David Jones who makes extensive use of prose in both ‘In Parenthesis’ and ‘The Anathemata’. I remain of the view that these are two of the most important poems of the twentieth century and thus make no apology for using these as examples of the ‘porous edge’.
‘In Parenthesis’ is concerned with the WWI Somme offensive and the Battle for Mametz Wood in particular. The following occurs in Part 4 (‘King Pellam’s Laund’)-

He noted that movement as with half a mind – at two o’clock from the petrol-tin. He is indeterminate of what should be his necessary action. Leave him be on a winter’s morning – let him bide. And the long-echoing sniper-shot down by ‘Q’ post alone disturbed his two hours’ watching.

His eyes turned again to where the wood thinned to separate broken trees; to where great strippings-off hanged from tenuous fibres swaying, whitened to decay – as swung
immolations
for the northern Cybele.
The hanged, the offerant:
himself to himself
on the tree.
Whose own,
whose grey war band, beyond the stapled war-net -
(as grey-banded rodents for a shelving warren – cooped in their complex runnels, where the sea-fret percolates).
Come from outlandish places,
from beyond the world,
from the Hercynian –
they were at breakfast and were as cold as he, they too made their dole.

(The two lines beginning ‘himself’ should be indented).

It’s interesting to note that Jones doesn’t address the prose/verse issue in his preface, he refers to the poem as a writing and points out that ‘In Parenthesis’ is so-called because it is written in a ‘space between’ yet he acknowledges that he’s not sure what it is between.

I’m not sure that this gets us very far but it does identify some ways in which verse and prose forms may ‘play off’ against each other in productive ways. It also demonstrates that the edges between the two can function as giving additional meaning or significance to the work.

I was going to conclude this by giving an example from ‘The Anathemata’ but wordpress won’t let me indent as I would wish. I’ll finish instead recording my agreement with Sutherland that some poets do manage to produce a ‘generic contingency or blur’ and that this can work to good effect. I’d add the rider that it also means that we are never ‘fully’ in verse either.

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2 responses to “Keston Sutherland and the verse / prose divide

  1. I agree the prose is porous here. I can’t think offhand of another text that moves between prose and verse modes in this way — without the verse seeming to be set “within” the prose, as in the Vita Nuova or Through the Looking-Glass, or vice versa, as in your Prynne example or Spring and All.

    Jarvis gives an example I had never read before, Collins’ The Passions. It’s unfortunately rather unreadable as sentiment, but if you can bracket that problem, the effect of changing metrical gears is remarkable — rather like the effect of moving from prose to verse in the Sutherland (though Collins has more gears).

    • Prynne makes use of Collins’ ‘Ode to Evening’ in the ‘Huts’ to make a different point – I’ll need to read some more. Have spent some more time on the ‘edges’ in Jones and may be coming to some conclusions which might make sense. There’s precious little about this on the web….

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