Thursday, October 22, 2009

Is It Poetry or Is It Prose? Does It Matter?

I've been a fan of prose poet Louis Jenkins for years. His work makes me grin--always a good characteristic in a poem. It's witty, to the point, and often does a little pointed skewering in deft, understated satire--good stuff. Thanks to the wonderful Jeanette Guinn, a longtime friend from the South Carolina Arts Commission, I found out about a grant from the Southern Arts Federation and partnered with my home county's library system to bring Louis to our fair city for a series of readings and workshops. I'm excited: high school students, adult literacy students, area writers, and the general public will all benefit from his visit to Greenville next month.

I'll confess right up front that I'm not a big fan of prose poetry. I like my poems to look like poems--nice, short lines stacked up on the page...a vertical rectangle the size of an index card is about right. Give that rectangle a 90 degree twist and, to me, it becomes a paragraph--not a poem--so I'm eager to sit at this master's feet to see if I can figure out exactly what about his horizontal rectangles constitutes poetry. What makes his paragraph poetry and someone else's flash fiction?

Louis says he could care less about form; he's written "line poetry," as he calls it, too, but feels more comfortable and less restricted in paragraph mode. Most of us poets seem to have a place that feels most natural: my friend Kay Day enjoys writing sonnets; Gregory Orr says what he has to say in short, sparse spurts; Keith Flynn burst into songs in the middle of his poems; ee cummings eschewed capital letters, and Emily Dickinson completely abused them. Yet each of these gifted writers creates appealing, powerful poetry.

I tend to think Louis is right; does form really matter? Isn't it the words themselves that make the difference? As with so many other areas of life, "rules" often get in the way of the experience. I almost drove myself--and more than a few others--crazy in my first crack at motherhood. I read every how-to book available in my determination to do it "right" and to internalize all the experts' "shoulds" and "musts" and "essentials." By the time I got to Child #3, I'd tossed out most of that advice in exchange for routines borne of convenience and practicality. (Undoubtedly, this is why the youngest child in most families is more laid back than older siblings; we moms eventually figure out that doing what comes naturally makes life much happier!)

Poetry might benefit from that trade-off. Less focus on form and more on fodder would perhaps make this genre not so offputting to those unfamiliar (or unimpressed) with the rigid rhyme scheme of a terza rima or the syllabic specifications of haiku. I'm certainly not suggesting we start throwing words on a page all namby-pamby, but a little more oomph and a little less oeuvre might bring poetry a few more fans.

You'll get plenty of both if you come hear Louis do what he does best on Friday, November 6th, at 7 PM in the Hughes Main Library in downtown Greenville, SC. I promise you will be entertained. And if you'd like to learn more about weaving words into a prose poem, sign up for his workshop for the nominal fee of $25 (thanks to the aforementioned grant!). It's Saturday, November 7th, from 10 AM till noon at the same place. Just contact Sandy Merrill at 864-527-9293 or e-mail her at


Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Well, yes, Jayne, it does matter to me. Form matters, and by form I don't necessarily mean rhyme, meter, sonnet, what have you. The way words sing and gather and shape themselves into a poem, that's what I'm talking about. I for one didn't find the few Jenkins' "prose poems" I've read that original. And if Garrison Keillor is reading them, Lord help us. (He's had J's work on his show how many times????) And I don't think a grin is always or even most of the time what I want a poem to give me.
Your curmudegonly poet-friend, K

Jayne Jaudon Ferrer said...

Maybe it's the flow, rather than the form, that's most essential? And for me, that poetic "music" needs to come in small packages. I almost drowned reading Charles Frazier's "Thirteen Moons" because virtually every sentence was a poem. Umpteen hundred pages of that was just too much! Your last sentence caused me to ponder at length what I want a poem to give ME, and I think I still have to say that, yes, more than anything else, I want a poem to leave at least a wistful smile on my face. :-)