Poetic Voyage

POETIC VOYAGE: AN INTRODUCTION TO SECRET WOUNDS

I. INTRODUCTION

I have always loved the whiteness of a short bond paper. It provides limitless possibilities even if its dimensions are eight and a half inches in width and eleven inches in length. I particularly like them to be a bit thicker. In the paper world they call this “substance.” A substance twenty paper is just right for me. This whiteness is hard to fill. We don’t allow even a small crease on our bond paper for it will tarnish its smooth surface. We carefully put in on the paper try and watch the printer invading it whiteness with blotches of ink after we click “print” and “ok.”

The first lines are always the hardest to write. I don’t know what made me write this paper. I went as far as rearranging my room and cleaning it up so the scenery will change. I also thought and did actually bake a yellow cake hoping that if I could create something as scrumptious as this, maybe I could really make something by writing. I also thought that the sugar in the royal icing that we used to cover the cake can keep my brain churning and my hands typing.

It must be those movies I watched in our bulky twenty-one inched television. One notable movie is “Before Sunset” which I finally got to watch after it was much talked about and made several appearances in discussions both in and outside my class. It is about this writer who writes about a girl he met ten years ago, which stood him up during their next meeting and he finally met her again when his book about there one day together got published. It didn’t matter that I only got to the scene where they finally meet after one book signing. It still moved me and of course there was recognition even if it was my first time to watch it. And also a movie I already seen half of before resurfaced again which is “Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind” which thankfully I watched from start to finish this time. It’s about two couples who wanted to erase each other in their memory but eventually they meet again.

It might have been the CD that a close friend burned for me containing some of the songs he wanted me to hear. He urged me to listen to it and maybe just maybe he said I might get inspired with the acoustic version of Alanis Morisette’s “Jagged Little Pill” album or Ben Fold’s Songs for Silverman. And maybe I might like his favorite bands Elbow, Armchair Cynics, Jack Johnson and Friends, Keane, Train, Toad the Wet Sprocket, or might sing along the songs of Juana in their album, “Misbehavior.”

Or maybe it was the urgency of it, the necessity of finishing the paper or else I might fail Creative Writing 199. It maybe because the deadline is soon and I need to write it now or else. And it can be the combination of all these things.

I believe that I usually get my greatest ideas while traveling to and fro Diliman and Manila everyday. There is something about the jeepneys and the sitting arrangement. You can’t help but sit straight and face the person opposite you especially when the jeepney is full. The breeze and the colors attract you to face sideways and look outside. Your attention is drawn in and out simultaneously just like when you’re half asleep – you’re in that shaky state where you’re aware of your surroundings while unconscious is calling you to indulge in a deluge of images while you rest with closed eyes and snore a little. I rarely dream when I sleep thus I get excited when I do remember one.

Almost every writer if not all have an eccentricity in their process of writing. Mr. Jose Dalisay, a great fictionist and great teacher, shared his eccentricity in writing during one of our discussions in fiction writing. He told us that when he writes his desktop is turned on so he can readily access the internet, his laptop is turned on because this is where he types his serious writings and last but not the least the television to serve as background.

I’m not forgetting that this is an academic paper but I want to give the feel that I’m just in my room(although as of the moment I’m really physically in my room) talking to a friend about one of my greatest passion in life which is poetry.

I’ve got my arsenal ready: books, photocopies, marker, pen, computer, sometimes music in the background, and my printer with ink. And I type away.

I have been writing since I was little. I remember that I have written a story on a yellow paper about dwarfs and fairies. It must have been the influence of cartoons and my very thick and well-loved fairy tales book which was given to me as a present by my cousin.

Another present that made me start to write is a small diary given to me by my mom. I had it for a long time but I didn’t write on it because I was afraid I might mess it up. My first entry wasn’t even in my own writing. I let our household help write the entry for me. I am not a prolific writer. There were days, months and even years when I didn’t have any entries in my diary. To date, I already have used up four diaries. I haven’t started on a new one yet but I have just created a blog recently – those journals we have online where people air their frustrations, give a piece of advice, write about their thoughts, and share their experiences to anyone who by sheer circumstance or by invitation have seen their blogs. But some things never change, I don’t update it regularly. I write only when I have to and when I feel like it which is a bad practice.

What got me started treating literature seriously were the old books in our library back home which belonged to my aunt and mother. There were their high school textbooks in English Literature. This was where I first got acquainted with Emily, Shakespeare and Frost among many others. Just recently, I heard a tape recording of myself reciting these poems and reciting my favorite short story in the books.

My teachers both in grade school and high school also contributed in introducing literature in my life. In grade four, I played the Pussycat in out inter-school poem recital contest of “The Owl and the Pussycat.” I also remember myself going to the library of the elementary school to read Dr. Seuss books. During my high school, I was reading lots of comics since one of the establishments who rents in our shop lend and sell comics. My father would borrow them and I will after he does.

My Filipino teacher in high school was the one who introduced me to Philippine literature where I got to know Amado V. Hernandez. We even made a paper on a Liwayway short story.

It was during high school that I my writing was first recognized. All the top students in the high school attended a seminar on writing for a school paper and we had to make an impromptu editorial piece. I was in third year high school but I won second place. I really didn’t think much about writing since I came to that point. It was when I said to myself, I could write. It earned me a spot in the paper as Associate Editor. Sadly, I didn’t really write nor contribute much in the school paper. I only attempted to write two articles which were brutally edited and so they didn’t come out as I had written them.

It was during high school that I attempted non-fiction. I started writing essays about myself and the life I was having at school. It was as if I was writing my own biography and I was the tour guide. I will infuse my beliefs and thoughts in them. This was possible because back then I had my own typewriter. Some of those manuscripts are still with me right now.

I never gave writing that much thought afterwards. And when I started college,                                        my parents advised me or more likely convinced me to study accountancy because they told me that is a good preparatory course for law one day. I like Math. And so I never objected.  But my second choice was to study Journalism. Accountancy won out and so I did study and put writing behind me.

I only attempted to write poetry when I discovered attraction for the opposite sex. This marked the long and slow growing love for poetry.

Richard Eberhart said “Poetry is a confrontation of the whole being with reality. It is a basic struggle of the soul, the mind and the body to comprehend life; to bring order to chaos or to phenomena; by will and insight to create communicable verbal forms for the pleasure of mankind.” He also further says that poetry is a gift of the Gods. And the process in which it is made is “ultimately mysterious, involving a total thrust of the whole being, some kind of magical power.” I too believe that poetry is magical and not only that powerful as well because it moves people. He also believes that “when a poem is ready to be born it will be born whole, without the need to change a word or perhaps with the need to change only a word or two.” Although I agree with him to a certain extent because I too hate revising, a lot great writers revise their works a lot and that doesn’t diminish their greatness.[1]

I soon discovered that I love reading as well. And I started with the books in our own library. I started to read my aunt’s old Mills and Boons pocket books and their old subscription of Readers Digest and National Geographic.

It was also during high school when I and my friends attempted to borrow books in the library and read novels the likes written by Charles Dickens.

Many might get mad at me but I also love to buy and send between you and me cards. I would often scout the shelves of National Books Store in Recto for cards. I particularly liked their line of “Between You and Me” cards, where the cards would be saying what you wear for you. It was just so convenient. I have favorite like “So, are you in love with anyone right now”[2] and I gave these one to a guy I had a crush on a Valentine’s Day.

I didn’t just give out cards. I also loved writing long letters to my friends during summer vacation where I wrote two interesting letters to a former classmate about being in love.

I got into creative writing when I transferred to UP. Aside from getting myself a degree, I wanted to take it because I felt writing could help me discover myself. It was for me a therapy for all the problems I was facing.  I’ve always read about creative writing workshops and wanted to join one but I didn’t have any decent work to give.

While studying Creative Writing, I had my all time highs and lows. I was badly mangled and it just grew worse with the passing of time. A lot of times I had to stop and ask myself “What am I doing here?” but I’d convince myself to get going and quit complaining. I was rediscovering a part of me which was dormant for a while – my passion for writing.

I chose poetry because it’s beautiful and affecting. It’s not that I love fiction, I do. I have high regard for fictionists. But I am a woman of few words. Words don’t flow like water from me, they only come in droplets. I also love how intricate as poem is. I love the fact that it is visual and poets are allowed to play with the page.

“Poetic Voyage: An Introduction to Secret Wounds” may do more than what its title suggests for it will attempt to follow the tail if not the shadow of Wordsworth’s “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.” I know how astounding it sounds but I hope that by the end of it I will get most of you thinking if not convinced about the assertion I’ll make in this paper which are basically how fit the confessional style of writing to prose poetry.

Secret Wounds, on the other hand, is the title of the collection of poems I have written which follows the confessional style of writing and most of the poems will take the form of prose poetry while a few will be in verse. The poems which when revealed are very much connected to me. I chose the title Secret Wounds because I believe that in every battle that one undertakes one doesn’t leave without a battle scar. And it is usually those wounds which are not seen by our eyes which affect us the most. And during these battles we rage as we continually try to live, we’d receive wounds that bleed in secret for all eternity.

II. The Art of Confession

I have studied in a Catholic School from Kindergarten to High School. Values Education was a staple subject in every grade level. We had to attend the novena every Wednesday and we also have “Mass Cards” which we bring to church every Sunday so the teachers will affix their signature to attest that you indeed went to church that Sunday. When choosing Honor Rolls for the year part of the criteria of judging who will received the coveted medals was how the student behaved throughout the year. Thus the word “confession” isn’t an alien word to me. But the first thing that comes to mind when I hear that word is the Sacrament of Confession.

Although the word confessional takes from the sacrament, when we talk about literature the idea is taken to a whole new level where the priest is taken out of the picture. Some form of repentance and guilt maybe seen in some of the works but what is apparent is self-evaluation where the poet reflects on the events of his life.

Confessional Poetry was simply described in the Oxford Companion to Twentieth Poetry in English as a “verse in which the author describes parts of his life would ordinarily be in the public domain.” It also identifies that the prime characteristic of it is the “reduction of the distance between the persona and the author.” [3] This description is too general because it seems that anyone who incorporates personal experiences in his or her writing can be said to be confessional. But it is general enough to encompass the different writings of different writers using this technique. Their writing yield different results because each writer has a set of experience different from the other and each one approaches such experience with a different point of view.

The Naked Self

In confessional poetry, there is great emphasis to the self. The confessional poet draws materials from his personal life although a lot of people will say that this isn’t exclusive to our confessional poets. Even a fantasy fiction writer draws inspiration from things happening in the “real” world and the world that he creates is just a projection of the world in which he is very much a part of. So what makes confessional poetry confessional? It’s not just that he is talking about from his personal life (this makes it autobiographical) but also it’s the degree of intensity in the handling of such material. It is the utter nakedness that the poet is unashamedly exposing to the public.

Rosenthal was the one who first used the term “confessional” when she reviewed Robert Lowell’s Life Studies in 1959.

Because of the way Lowell brought his private humiliations, sufferings, and psychological problems into the poems, the word confessional seemed appropriate enough.[4]

Thus it seems appropriate enough that to begin to comprehend what truly is confessional poetry, we must begin with Robert Lowell and one of his poems in Life Studies which is Skunk Hour.

The poem is a mixed of smells. It begins with the smell of the sea breeze, salty and a bit slimy, and the smell of an old woman who’s old and weak which smells like earth. All these smells are already operating in the first stanza of the poem. It gives off the feeling of rot and decay. The following stanza reinstates the smell of rot and decay due to the mention of old buildings which were deteriorating and the persona in the poem just letting them fall. In the third stanza, the smell of the ocean appears due to the presence of the lobstermen whose skin the slimy smell of the ocean never leaves. And in the fourth stanza, the smell of the ocean comes from the fish net that the fairy decorator used to decorate the shop.

The smells in the fifth stanza reverts to more earthy because of the change of the environment from the seashore to the hill. It is also during this stanza that we notice a change in the persona. During the first two stanzas he speaks of an old woman who lives by the sea shore. In the third and fourth stanza he speaks of a man who was once a summer millionaire and a decorator. But it is in the fifth stanza where we see the pronoun “I” which is usually a staple of confessional poems where it usually also points to the author himself.

The change of scenery doesn’t help us much with the change of the smells because the poem still produces odors which our noses aren’t really a fan of – the fifth stanza with its hill and graveyard followed by the smell of the inside of a car, tears, blood and mouth, and in the seventh and eight stanza an increasing domination of the smell of a skunks so vile yet the persona in the poem breaths the air in.

The feeling of despair and hopelessness is already resolute in the first four stanzas but it is intensified as the poem progresses. We also see signs of insanity when we encounter the line “My mind’s not right.” in the fifth stanza. What made the change of intensity I believe comes from the last line of the fourth stanza, “he’d rather marry.” This marked the change to a more desperate persona. He envies those people as he watched the love-cars. We feel the loneliness of the speaker when he says, “I myself am hell/ nobody’s here–” Here we see a speaker who desperately wants to be loved and yet all he can do in look at others with envy.

But then in the following stanza we notice in him a slight change in disposition and I attribute this to the presence of the skunks where he found comfort and company. The skunks are his model because they are unaffected to his despair instead they are there to ravage the garbage pails in search of food to eat.

When Robert Lowell talked about this poem in one of his essays he said:

The first four stanzas are meant to give a dawdling more or less amiable picture of a declining Maine sea town. I move from the ocean inland. Sterility howls through the scenery, but I try to give a tone of tolerance, humor, and randomness to the sad prospect. The composition drifts, its direction sinks out of sight into the casual, chancy arrangements of nature and decay. Then all comes alive in stanzas V and VI. This is the dark night. I hoped my readers would remember St. John of the Cross’s poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan, and agnostical. An Existentialist night.[5]

And to this John Reed’s reading of the poem fully explains the closing of the poem when he said that:

If man could find his sustenance as freely in a corrupt world, he, too, would not scare. The skunks, in an obscure way, have become hopeful models, and the speaker of the poem can stand on the “back steps and breathe the rich air.” The commitment to and acceptance of the meanest level of existence is in itself a liberation from an ill season and a moral world that seems unoccupied.[6]

All this talk about existentialism and the self makes us think that Lowell is self-indulgent in the poem. But Paul Breslin thinks otherwise he said that “By putting the stanzas about his surroundings first, Lowell reinterprets the private suffering as only one more symptom of a pervasive cultural breakdown.”[7] Thus we come to understand the method where Lowell first describes to us the decadence his surroundings before he mentions the “I” in the fifth stanza. Therefore, we see the “I” as a mere representation or offspring of the decadence that is surrounding him. This process of representation is something that we find in most of the good confessional poets.

The Imagery of Exhibition

Poetry is riddled with metaphors, similes and the likes but confessional poetry relies heavily on imagery which is personal to the poet. It is the images which are usually what we find in everyday life that the poets utilize in their poems. Thus, even if the images are extremely personal to the poet, his readers will easily recognize them.

M.L. Rosenthal further extends it when she said:

Lowell’s genius in the use of concrete detail is expressed not merely in an ability to create evocative external sense-impressions but also in the higher ability to give body to emotional statement.[8]

Lowell’s manipulation of the images gives us a very holistic feel of what’s happening in his poems thus his experience not only becomes his but also the readers. The readers are in turn experiencing his experiences through his poems. This is possible due to the heightened emotions that his poems evoke through the images he presents.

With this in mind, I would like to shift our attention from Lowell to Anne Sexton, a bold and impressive poet[9] and that she was consistently and uniformly confessional to the point that she was pronounced guilty of narcissism.[10] According to Dianne Wood Middlebrook, she didn’t want to be considered part of the confessional school of writing instead she regards herself as a storyteller.[11] Let’s study one of her poem which she usually the first poem she’d read during her readings. She said that this poem informs her readers what kind of woman and poet she was.

This poem operates on what usually is the trademark of Sexton’s poem which is mirroring. She does this particularly well but subtly in Her Kind. The poem first presents the witch with its grotesque features like her twelve-fingers haunting houses during the night. The visual images spawned into the poems are dark and gloomy especially when she describes the witch as one that haunts “the black air.” But we also get a glimpse of faint light coming of the houses that the witch visits.

We already notice as in the next following stanzas that the “I” in the first few lines are different from the “I” in the last line which closes every stanza like so – “I have been her kind.” There is a subtle change inside the poem to prepare us for this and it comes from the second to the last line of the stanza, “A woman like that is not a woman, quite.” Why does she need to distinguish the two between the two? Which one is the persona? Which one is Anne? Or is she both? The association with which the last “I” makes with the first “I” seems to create more confusion at determining whose who. But I believe that this is again a mirroring of the self, and of herself, which style Sexton uses in her poems.

Her choosing a witch as her first metaphor is a witch harmless and a “lonely thing” even if she is “not a woman” and she dreams of evil this is only because she is “a possessed witch” and she’s “out of mind.” Even if Sexton pronounces that the witch isn’t a woman she is portrayed as humane and victim of the overpowering urge to be what she is, a witch, and Sexton associates herself to this creature when she said she has been her kind.

In the second stanza, we are brought to a housewife’s kitchen with its “skillets, carvings, shelves,/ closets, silks, innumerable goods;/” There is still grotesque in this stanza because of how the persona describes her children and husband – as “worms and elves.” As in the first stanza Sexton presents us a wife and mother slaving her way in her kitchen so she could prepare food for he children. She had to put up with constant whining and is always trying to fix things. The kitchen where she reigns isn’t a castle or kingdom to her instead she thinks of it as a cave in the woods.

This picture which she tries to draw for us is a picture of how she views her life in the suburbs. We don’t usually picture these white picket fenced houses, calm, quiet with walls which freshly painted, as caves where a woman will feel isolated and trapped to the brink of madness. Thus she says, “A woman like that is misunderstood.”

In the last stanza, Sexton speaks of an adulteress who is in constant travel around the village. We get a feeling of her moving around town inside a cab unaffected by the stares and mockery of the people. She is just trying to survive. But this character though it seems she is more triumphant than the other two but we are presented with images of a biting flame and bones cracking which means she isn’t any luckier than the other two.

At first glance I believed that among the three she is the luckiest one especially when I read the line “A woman like that is not ashamed to die.” I applaud people who aren’t afraid to die because it felt like they already have done enough and that anytime they are ready. But if you read it again this is not the case for our adulteress. Shame is something that she carries with her like a stench that never leaves and no amount of soap or perfume can take the stench out. Thus, it is only through death that she feels this stench will leave her.

When I looked at how she handled the images and characters in the poem I couldn’t agree more with Mills when he said that Anne Sexton “is a poet without mystical inclinations, but rather is earthbound, committed to a vision that shocks by its unvarnished realism.”[12] Just like the other confessional poets their choice of earthbound images, like images from everyday life, and utilizing these seemingly ordinary images and fashioning them into poems as affecting and as real as this poem by Anne Sexton.

The Music of Confession

            Greg Johnson when he spoke about the poem Her Kind was amazed by the tone being utilized by a poem when it is tackling very serious issues. He said:

What is remarkable, however, is not this admission itself but the lively, almost gleeful tone in which it is uttered… —she rejects anger in favor of humor, flamboyance, self-mockery. She is a kind of perverse entertainer, and if she seems cast in the role of a martyr, embracing madness in order to domesticate it for the rest of the community–making it seem less threatening, perhaps even enjoyable–it is nevertheless a martyrdom which this aspect of Sexton accepts with a peculiar zest.[13]

I attribute the zest and gleeful tone that the poem employs to its diction. Confessional poetry utilizes words which common in everyday speech. Although we owe much of the seriousness of the poems to its content, this is often juxtaposed with the musicality in the choice of words that confessional poets employ. Which brings us now one of my favorite confessional poet, Sylvia Plath. I didn’t choose to discuss include her poem for discussion just because she’s my favorite but there is merit to her being dabbed as a confessional poet so much so that on July 30, 1965 during the Third Programme of the British Broadcasting Corporation which carried out a discussion of confessional poetry M.L. Rosenthal thinks that aside from Lowell’s Skunk Hour, Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus are the true examples of confessional poetry because “they put the speaker himself at the center of the poem in such a way as to make his psychological vulnerability and shame an embodiment of his civilization.”[14] And this is also due to this that I chose to look into the poem Lady Lazarus in the hope of finding out what truly makes a poem confessional.

If we focus on the musicality of the piece there is method why the poem is written this way. It consists of short phrases and sometimes just a word in a line. But what makes the poem stick is how the words in the poem were utilized. At first glance even without reading we’d notice that every stanza has three lines in it. It is also interesting how the three is repeated every stanza with the three lines which really symbolize literally how many times she tried to commit suicide and failing and being reborn every time. The poem rings like a nursery rhyme because of the tone that the poem has and diction it carries. With this Eillen M. Aird agrees with me when she mentioned that:

In this poem a disturbing tension is established between the seriousness of the experience described and the misleadingly light form of the poem. The vocabulary and rhythms which approximate to the colloquial simplicity of conversational speech, the frequently end-stopped lines, the repetitions which have the effect of mockingly counteracting the violence of the meaning, all establish the deliberately flippant note which this poem strives to achieve.[15]

If we magnify her diction, she objectifies the body into a lampshade, paperweight, linen, and napkin which are ordinary things you’d find in one’s home. But then right of the bat in the second stanza she gives more weight to these objects when she brings allusions to the holocaust when she describes her skin as “Bright as a Nazi lampshade” and her face is a “featureless, fine/ Jew linen.” And so these objects cease to be just your everyday thing. Thus when she asks the question “Do I terrify?” you really feel a chill.

The way the words are sparsely dropped on the lines mimics how controlled the persona in the poem with her emotions. This controlling of emotion is evident when she believes that her sour breath will vanish in a day and she will soon be a smiling woman. She boasts of her nine lives and that this was already his third. But she considers those who saved her life as her enemies. But she also falters because she said “What a trash/ to annihilate each decade.”

But she picks up momentum again and strangely mocks the people who came to view her spectacle. She gleefully performs for them and presents her hands and knees and skin and bone but also mocks them for having participated in her performance.

Then she demands that people think of her as the “same, identical woman” that it seemed to be a warning that it will happen again because nothing changed in the world in which she will go back to living. She likened herself to a seashell which is rocked shut and she doesn’t want to come back again. Thus even if she calls it miracle, she feels betrayed for living. She then boasts again of dying as an art and she does it well. The repetition of “I do it so it feels” and “It’s easy enough to do it” is a desperate demand for the reader to understand what she’s going through but demands that there be a charge to her performance her theatrics.

She then proceeds in a hysterical tone on how it was and it will be when it happens. She the opus, the valuable and the pure gold baby melts and burns into ash and all that will be left of her are objects such as soap, wedding ring and gold filling. She proceeds to make a threat especially the male ego and warns them that she eats men like air.

M.L. Rosenthal asserts the importance of words and the choice of words not only to evoke a certain mood or tone of the poem instead she believes that:

Words are rooted in private association and their subjective meaning from the matrix of experience. Words make the complex of subjective awareness “publicly” available only when taken over by an aesthetic design that seems to transcend them by using them for its own purposes, “impersonally.” The process repeats in a more encompassing way what happens at a primitive level when a word comes into being as a socially shared symbol or private experience.[16]

And I believe that it is due to this process that a personal experience when fashioned into confessional poetry cease to be private instead becomes a shared experience.

According to M.L. Rosenthal that a “genuine confessional poem has to be superbly successful artistically if it is to achieve this fusion of the private and the culturally symbolic, but it must at any rate be far more highly charge than the usual poem.”[17] And it is with great conviction that I say all three of the poems that I’ve discussed (if we follow Rosenthal) are all genuinely confessional.

Self-Indulgence and Sentimentality

A confessional poet must always watch out from being self indulgent and extremely sentimental. Since the poems are based on personal experiences they also have a high risk of being very sentimental. To a certain degree sentimentality isn’t bad but it should be handled with utmost care because there’s a great chance that the poet will tip it over and it will work against him. If the poet succumbs to it, his poem will sound like will reek of self-pity and non-stop whining. When a confessional poet whines, he should get away with it.

There must always be a higher reason for making poetry than giving into one’s desires and be engrossed with the self. Poetry should give us an insight, at the least, of the self and in the long run gives us a clearer view of the pervading culture which molded this “self” and of our humanity.

Let’s look into one of the poems which I wanted to include in the collection but sadly didn’t make the cut. This poem is dear to me because it is my first attempt in writing prose poetry. I was trying to imitate a poem by Julia Vose which is entitled “Let Me.” I wrote this for my erotica writing class with the title I Thirst.[18]

The persona of the poem is a vampire. Actually, the title comes from the movie adaptation of Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire.” The character of the little girl played by Kirsten Dunst said that line in the movie. The poem shows how the vampire’s senses are tickling him into eating or rather devouring a poor innocent girl. But that is not just the case. The vampire is in love with this girl which is what stops him from devouring the girl.

Even if I used the pronoun “I” throughout the poem, it doesn’t follow that it can be called confessional. The poem is also self-indulgent to that you can’t clearly see what it wants to achieve and the tension that it builds is very flimsy. Unlike the poems I have earlier discussed, this poem never goes out of the literal sense it just informs us of a beast who suffers with the thought that to truly love sometimes means you have to be bereft of the one you love. The persona is stagnant unlike that of the persona in Skunk Hour. The persona in that poem came to understand in the end how lowly he is compared to his skunk companions who weren’t mindful of his woes instead they just try to survive.

Although there is an attempt to make human the vampire in the poem, it’s not like that of Lady Lazarus where we feel there is a transforming energy where it goes from the literal self and at the end she was “pushed into the depths of hatred of the whole matrix of family, cannibalistic erotic love, and society that she is destroying symbolically by destroying herself, she promises herself a rebirth.” [19] It doesn’t even have the range of issues that Plath’s poem addresses and the range of emotions and intensity that it also possesses.

Controversy 

Young poets like me should always keep in mind that when one’s poem talks about sex, insanity or manic depression, it wouldn’t immediately be called confessional. With the way I dealt with the images in the poem, there is no question that there is sexual connotation because of the way the persona in the poem yearns for the body of the “you” But even if it sounds controversial, one must look on the literary merits of a poem and not only because it’s talking about something controversial.

Good poets shouldn’t bank on shocking it’s readers with controversy so it could attract their attention. It doesn’t mean that when you should use vulgar words just for the sake of shock value. There must be method in using controversy and shock value for your poems. If we compare this with Her Kind and Lady Lazarus which were talking about events and things which were considered as taboo during their time. They even played down the seriousness of the poem because of the way they carefully chose everyday words and the light tone that they both maintain throughout their poems. It even helped the poems in heightening the tension it has because of the difference between the gaiety tone and the very serious themes.

The Question of Authenticity

Since confessional poetry is largely based on the lives of the poets themselves, people raise question about the authenticity of their experience. Just like in Lady Lazarus, Plath uses allusion to the holocaust where she associates her experience of suicide to that of the Jews in concentration camps. She is not a Jew but this does not diminish the authenticity of the Jewish persona she employs in the poem instead. What Plath has accomplished by the use of this historical and biblical allusion is to universalize her personal conflict. [20]

David Yezzi, in his essay Confessional Poetry and the Artifice of Honesty, he says that “What they have in common, what sets them apart from other poems that incorporate details from life, is their sense of worn-on-the-sleeve self-revelation and their artful simulation of sincerity.” Truly we will notice that when we use the three poems as representing the works of three of the well-known confessional poets we find that they have different versions of the self. Lowell utilizes the literal self while Sexton uses a mirror or a projection of a self; and lastly Plath uses generalized figures of a self. And he further states that, “By relying on facts, on real situations and relationships, for a poems emotional authenticity, the poet makes an artifice of honesty. Confessional poems, in other words, lie like truth.”[21]

Why is there a need to lie? We must take not that poetry is still an art. It is still a conscious effort to put into words one’s thoughts. As in the case of confessional poetry, it is a mix of both the experience and the imagination. We may connect this to the comment that Sylvia Plath made herself about the manipulation of experience.

I think my poems come immediately out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathize with the cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle and a knife or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying – like madness, being tortured, this kind of experience – and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and intelligent mind. I think that personal experience shouldn’t be a kin of shut box and mirror-looking narcissistic experience. I believe it should be generally relavant, to such things as Hisoshima and Dachau, and so on.[22]

III. The Poesy in Prose

 

            Prose Poetry sits very delicately between poetry and prose. It’s very difficult to define because we have to determine the difference between the two kinds of literature which is prose and poetry. Peter Johnson, the editor of “The Prose Poem: An International Journal” likened prose poetry to black comedy and he said, “Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy so the prose poem plants one foot in prose and the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels.”[23]

Walking the Line between Prose and Poetry

To further understand it we must go to France in the nineteenth century where in 1842 Aloysius Bertrand published his book Gaspard de la nuit.. It contains highly imagistic prose passages and was arranged in sections. This work by Bertrand was said to be very peculiar and was not classifiable but it sets the basic formal strategies for the prose poem which was terse, musical sentences, with paragraphs functioning as stanzas, and syntactic recurrence providing shape and cadence as rhyme or metrical recurrence might in formal poem. It was also described as having malleable and lawless quality. But it was Charles Baudelaire in 1862 who popularized the form.. His prose poems were collected in a book entitled Spleen de Paris which he termed “petites poemes en prose” which meant Little Prose Poems. Although it was published posthumously, unlike the Gaspard, Spleen had a powerful impact on the following generation of poets like Arthur Rimbraud and Stephanie Mallarmé. The prose poem formed an important part of the canon of French poetry because it was embraced by many of its greatest poets. It was through them that prose poem spread its influence to other European writers. [24] That’s why we shouldn’t be shocked that we find the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe writing prose poems.

It took time before the Prose Poetry became popular in America and Karen Volkman has a reason for this in her essay Mutable Boundaries: On Prose Poetry where she proposed that it maybe because of the question of canon formation. The radical poets of America like Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson didn’t gravitate to prose poetry instead their formal inventions were on remaking the poetic line except for Gertrude Stein who worked extensively in prose poetry. It was only during the post-War period that the American poets gave notice to the prose poem which boomed in the seventies with the works of Surrealist poets.[25] Nevertheless, it still stands on very shaky foundation despite the fact that it is around for a long time.

Another reason maybe found on the language itself because the English language wasn’t as strict as the French at that time. It was only with the advent of Strunk and White’s writing style guide did the English language become as strict as the French.

And of course the greatest reason why people have not fully embraced the form is its very sense of being a hybrid form. The emergence of this form shakes us to the point that we begin to ask what essentially makes a poem a poem and we try to differentiate it with prose.

Joan Malerba-Foran wrote about why she doesn’t like prose poetry she said when a poem is paraphrased into prose “the terror is removed, the sensation of being encased is gone – the prose-flow cushioning against the suffocation of the words chiseled into a poetic structure.” She believed that the line breaks are critical because it signals the reader to prepare for the poem which required a different reading skill from prose reading. Breaks also require some analysis to figure out their placement in relation to the whole. In metered verse it’s done by counting-off-your-steps and turn while free verse demands an oral reading for both the structure and the music of the language to unfold. And lastly, she said that form and free verse are not opposites any more than brothers and sisters are opposites. They belong to the same family but possess their own traits. She feels that connecting prose poetry to free verse is erroneous because it is wrong to assume that free verse is formless, with willy-nilly line breaks mimicking real poetry. She even asserts that if the next logical step from free verse is prose poetry, we do poetry a grave disservice.[26]

What is a Poem?

First, I have to think what poetry is for me. How will one really know what poetry is? Literature is divided in two big categories which are prose and poetry. It was said that the tangible difference with the two is the form. But John Hall Wheelock says that it is a wrong way to start because the difference in form is not the essential difference of the two.[27] How then could be categorize prose poem then?

Most people think of poetry as obscure and hard to understand. They think that if it easy to understand it isn’t poetry. Wheelock said that “A poem is a way of knowing and feeling that requires, for its understanding, a modicum of imagination, and some familiarity with the conventions of the art.”[28] One must possess imagination for a person to understand a poem. Sometimes the reader’s knowledge is inadequate hence that can only be filled by the reader doing his own research. Does this mean that a poem is relative? Basically it does. Sometimes people tend to see some works differently especially with the coming of “prose poetry,” “short short” or “flash fiction” distinction among the three made it double hard.

Maybe the poet can help us determine when a work should be considered a poem because according to Lehman even if writers have no obligation to classify their writings, their intentions, if articulated, could be thought as decisive.[29] But the problem is that responsible readers tend to question the assertions of the writer themselves and sometimes this is true especially when the writer’s intention isn’t clear. In connection to this, the poem when printed and published assumes a life. It will then be subject to interpretation of the reader and as Gregory Corso states, “A poem may take a generation to yield its full secret. One might even say that a poem’s meaning varies from age to age, since though fixed in its outer form as originally established, it has an existence in the public mind, and develops there like a living thing.”[30]Our view of art also changes with the time and even changes from culture to culture.

Robert Frost said that “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” Wheelock asserted that one “cannot translate the words of a poem in such a way as to translate their meaning and yet reproduce their original rhythm and color, their identical associative and aural values, all the nuances of sound and of symbolism that are the poem’s very essence.”[31] In addition, syntax differs from language to language and some words have no exact translation into other language.

Stéphane Mallarmé asserted that “a poem is not made of ideas or feelings, but of words.”[32] This is how important words are to a poem and it will help us define what the essential difference is between prose and poetry. Wheelock believed that “A poem will result when the genius of a language – its words, their sound and their sense – offers the genius of a poet an opportunity to perform a miracle.” And so in the end he said that “In poetry, words are employed more as an end and less as a means merely, than is the case in prose.” [33] But I’m still not convinced that the way words are used draws the distinction between prose and poetry.

Poems have different structure and one of the structures that we commonly find them in is the form in which they take shape into whether it be prose poem, sonnet, sestina or the likes. They are following the grammatical order as in the ordinary composition.

Maybe it is the rhythm that defines the difference between prose and poetry. In poetry, the rhythms are more regular and more recurrent while in prose, they will have greater variety and complexity. [34]. But this becomes a problem because we find that some prose are poetic. Even fiction uses some of figurative language which we find in most of our poetry. Even the use of images isn’t exclusive to poetry.

Prose uses a language meant to convey meaning in a less condensed way and it uses logical and narrative structures. While poetry desires to escape the logical and the feelings are expressed in a tight and condensed manner. So does this mean that brevity is to poetry while length is to prose? But how will we account for the “short short” and “flash fiction” which are relatively short and how about the epics which are quite lengthy compared to the former.

Maybe it is spelled to us in the book of Professor Jose Dalisay, Jr, a renowned Filipino fictionist, where he differentiates good fiction and from good poetry. He says, “Good fiction invites us like a shop with an ever-open door, where no clerk or saleslady will bother us while we poke around the corners and maybe even handle the merchandise, and we can always leave if nothing strikes our fancy, or return some other day for a closer look.” And he thinks, “Good poetry seduces us, enchants us, holds us in its thrall, reduces us to a state of willing and blissful powerlessness.”[35]

Sarah Manguso, on the other hand, wrote an interesting essay on the prose poem by extending Eliot’s Reflections on Vers Libre to include prose poems. In that particular essay, Eliot claimed that “free verse” is a fallacious category because its apparent divergence from so-called “formal verse” is only an illusion. Manguso believes that this is also applicable to prose poetry. Using Eliot’s argument, there is no such thing as prose poetry either because its divergence from verse poetry is discernible only via logics via negative which is the description of what it isn’t. She feels that the genre or form eludes the assignment of an industry-standard definition for even Prose poets like Russell Edison have balked at the term “form” in his 1976 Parnassus essay “The Prose Poems in America.” He said that, “I hesitate to use the word form when speaking of prose poems, because for all the interesting poets who have written them, the prose poem has yet to yield up a method.” But then again Gustave Flaubert once said, “To seek to imitate the methods of geniuses is futile. They are geniuses for the very reason that they have no methods.” Finally, Manguso said that poetry’s differentiation from verse poetry is cosmetic. People might argue that line breaks exists in verse poetry and none in prose poetry but poems may have relatively many line breaks or relatively few line breaks or in the case of some poems, no line breaks at all. The prose poem works in a succession of sentences that moves faster than verse. [36]

But Lehman suggests that there is such a way to cut this debacle quickly. He said that:

As soon as you admit the possibility that verse isn’t an adjunct of poetry and not an indispensable quality, the prose poem ceases to be a contradiction in terms.[37]

 

Now that we have tried to legitimize the existence of prose poetry let’s try to define it. Prose poetry appears as prose but reads like poetry. It is similar to free verse because it does not follow any set rules of rhyme or rhythm, however, free verse utilizes line breaks and prose poem does not. What it lacks in line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality often utilizing techniques common to poetry. These include fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. Lehman’s gave the shortest definition for it: The prose poem is a poem written in prose rather than verse.[38] Professor Dalisay said that, “there are always intersections between prose and poetry.” Is this one of those intersections? So what is it then? Is it more a prose or more poetry?[39]

Let us study one of the prose poems of Mark Strand In the Privacy of the Home. He begins with a man who stands in front of the mirror and starts to undress. After the last piece of clothing was taken off he examines himself in front of the mirror and has the feeling of being lost. What’s exquisite for me is how the poem ended, “There you are, you are not there.” The persona wanted to find himself in his nakedness instead he finds nothing. He searches himself as he looks at his naked self in the mirror but he doesn’t find himself there.

How does the poem operate? Is it even a poem to begin with? These are the characteristics of the prose poem according to Lehman, “It acts like a poem. It works in sentences rather than lines. With the once exception of the line break, it can make use of all the strategies and tactics of poetry. Just as free verse did away with meter and rhyme, the prose poem does away with the line as the unit of composition. It uses the means of prose toward the ends of poetry.”[40]

I noticed that in this poem by Strand was that the punctuation marks were very vital and were put to good use. The period signals the reader that a whole thought is finished. Four out of seven sentences, in this one paragraph prose poem, begin with “you” and followed by a verb – “You want.., You stand.., You take off…, You remove…” This is one technique in poetry that this particular prose poem utilizes. The comma in the second sentence was used to separate actions done in front of the mirror thus giving us a list of things the “you” did which we also find in verse poems. In the last sentence, we find the comma in between two phrases to give emphasis of the presence and at the same time nothingness of the “you” Without the comma it will make it harder for us to see the juxtaposition of being there and not being there at the same time. Thus we see that through this example that it looks like it is a poem.

For the prose poem to be successful we should try to look into what Suzanne Bernard suggested in 1959. According to her, the four requirements that every prose poem had to fulfill, “It had to embody the poet’s intention, it had to have an organic unity, it had to be its own best excuse for being, and it had to be brief.”[41] David Lehman also gave tips for the prose poets on how to manipulate the sentence. He said, “The poet in prose must use the structure of the sentence itself, or the way one sentence modifies the next, to generate the surplus meaning that helps separate poetry from ordinary writing.”[42]

What was Mark Strands intention when he wrote the poem In the Privacy of the Home? Why did he choose to write it as a prose poem instead of a verse poem? Is it unified? Is it brief? These are the questions we need to ask in order for the poem to pass the requirements that Bernard is suggesting. Let’s start with last question working our way to the first one. It’s a very short poem and it just one block of paragraph with seven sentences which are usually short and basic thus that covers brevity. I also believe that it’s unified because it just tells us the story of a man undressing in front of a mirror inside his home. Now we’ve come to the difficult question, does it really have an excuse for being a prose poem? I believe that it does since this action that the persona takes is very fluid and spontaneous, it’s complementary to the form of the prose poem. Let’s say we try to convert the poem into a verse poem and let’s see how it will sound.

You want to get a good look at yourself

You stand before a mirror

You take off your jacket

Unbutton your shirt

Open your belt

Unzip your fly

The outer clothing falls from you.

You take off your shoes and socks,

Baring you feet

You remove your underwear.

At a loss

You examine the mirror.

There you are

You are not there

Looking at it like that it seems to me that the persona is doing something very robotic. The way one will read the poem if it looks like this also differs because there will be longer pauses between the lines unlike shorter ones between the periods. It’s not also aesthetically pleasing because it also loses the compact appearance of a block paragraph.

As to the intention of the poet, I can’t speak for him but in my own opinion the form of the poem was intentional and for the reasons I’ve mentioned above. He wrote this poem in 1964 long before he won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry on December 1978 for his book The Monument. The poem In the Privacy of the Home[43] was included in the earlier collection of Strand, Sleeping with One Eye Open in 1964 thus the intention of it being a poem is very much evident.

Propagation of Prose Poetry 

Even if the prose poem was slow to arrive and gain acceptance in America it is said to be currently flourishing because it was said that its ambiguity is what attracts writers to it. The unexplainable nature of the form gives rise to unanswerable questions like “Is it poetry or is it prose?” Major poets like John Ashbery, Lyn Hejinian, Charles Simic, and John Tate have written prose poems as well including many of the young poets like Thalia Field, Harryette Mullen and Elizabeth Willis and we also can include James Wright, Russell Edison, and Fanny Howe. The publication of anthologies on prose poems helped in gaining acceptance for the form or genre in America. Some of these are The Prose Poem: An International Anthology by Michael Benedict published in 1976; Models of the Universe in 1995 by Stuart Friebert and David Young; Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present by David Lehman; and 24 American Prose Poets by Ray Gonzales. The journals which include prose poems or are devoted to it also helped it gain acceptance. Journals like Cue and Sentence are devoted to the form and are still alive and well. It also spread in literary circles in other countries like Rainier Rilke and Frank Kafka in Germany; Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz in Latin America; and also William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein in the United States. But each great poet included their own flavor thus expanding the definition of the prose poem.[44]

In the Philippine Setting, a young poet, Conchitina Cruz came out with a collection of prose poems entitled “Dark Hours” which was published by the University of the Philippines Press. But before this she already came out with a chapbook published by High Chair Chapbook Series entitled “Disappear.” Her poems also appeared already in anthologies like the Likhaan Anthology of Prose and Poetry.

She teaches creative writing in the University of the Philippines Diliman and she studied and taught at University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania while on Fulbright grant where she received her MFA in Writing. She is married to Manila Times business section subeditor Robert JA Basilio, Jr. I have the privilege to have met Professor Cruz. She was my teacher in all my poetry class. And it is no doubt that almost all the things I know about poetry came from her.

Few of the poems were seemingly arranged to look like couplets but when you look at them intently they are prose poems because the last word from the line flows smoothly to the next line as in “I must say this about the city.” Another reason why the lines in this poem glide smoothly is because of the lack of punctuation marks. There were few poems in verse like “Notes on the recurring dream” which utilizes two columns of verse which are written simultaneously. “Geography Lessons” and “News on the Train” are two poems have no body but only a barrage of footnotes. Professor Cruz certainly loves to play with the page and it is evident in her collection, the “Dark Hours”.

But aside from this it is notable also that she dedicated much of the pages of her collection for prose poems. The first poem in the collection is “Dear City” which follows the form of the prose poem. It is looks like a letter addressed to the City because the title acts like a salutation then it is followed by one block of paragraph. The sentences acts like line breaks. The persona in the poem blames the City as the culprit for the flooding and misery that the folks who live there suffer. He said that it is not the rain which is to blame because it is not his fault that when he visits there is nowhere to go. The persona also asks where the rivers are which was described as “passages ways to your (city’s) heart.”

There are many recurring images in the poem. The image of the city is seen in the poems “Dear City” and “I must say this about the city” among others. There is also a recurring image of the tree in the poems “Geography Lesson” where it is a pear tree, in the poem “Smile” where is outside the patient’s room, and in “Tourist” where it was seen in the backyard. There are also recurring images of the world of medicine particularly in the poems “Smile” with the presence of a doctor and a patient and also in “What is it about tenderness” where there is presence of a cadaver and scalpel.

It is also interesting that not only the images are recurring but also the titles of the poems. The titles which are repeated are “What is it about tenderness,” “Geography Lesson,” “I must say this about the city,” “Tourist,” and “It has come to this.” Some of the poems’ titles do not follow the standard form which is capitalizing the first letter of every words except for articles instead some of them just have the first letter of the first word capitalized like in that of the first letter of the first word in a sentence.

In the collection, I particularly liked Smile. The presence of characters like a doctor, patient, and nurse in the poem and the setting of a hospital bed may seem to have come from the personal experience of Professor Cruz who was once a student of Intermediate Medicine in University of the Philippines Manila. This can also explain her fascination with the world of medicine with the presence of cadaver and scalpel in one of her poems. The reference of the doctor as Virgin Mary and the patient as God can be attributed to the Roman Catholic religion which is dominant in our society.

Smile draws me to the relationship of patient and the doctor, of the one who thinks he is God, and the one who he thinks is the Virgin Mary. The patient sees the doctor but the doctor doesn’t see the patient. It is the patient returns the smile of the doctor but the doctor doesn’t see the patient returning her smile. It is the patient who catches the doctor’s eye not the other way around. And so it is apt that the poem ends with “a man and a woman in the middle of a sweet misunderstanding.” The poem although at first glance may seem like a flash fiction or a short short story of some sort is more aptly a prose poem because it utilizes the elements and tools of poetry. One of this is repetition as in the repletion of the sentence “I forgive you” thrice in the poem where the other two even rests beside each other. It also uses a list or enumeration of things in the line “his heart, his pulse, his lungs, inspects his ears, checks his reflexes” which are often utilized in poems like a litany.

Influenced by Form

The next poet that I’m about to discuss came as a surprise when I encountered his work as part of the collection of Great American Prose Poems which was edited by David Lehman. Aside from the fact that I liked the poem he wrote, it was actually the surprise of finding a work of his which doesn’t follow most of his writings. I’m talking about T.S. Eliot whose poetics is well known due to his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent which I have was thoroughly discussed to me during my poetry class. Eliot insists on tradition, continuity and objective discipline over indulgent romanticism and subjective egoism. He rejects the English Romantics and the Victorians.[45]

His poem, Hysteria, begins with laughter and speaker of the poem is drawn to the laughter. Eliot then proceeds to describe this laughter and goes as far as describing the insides of the throat in order for the reader to have a feel of the loudness of the woman’s laughter. It was so loud that even they were even asked to instead have tea outside. The speaker of the poem then tries to collect himself and wishes that the woman’s breast stop shaking so he’d be able to do so. When I first read it I thought that the title of the poem refers to the woman in the poem because of her uncontrollable and loud laughter but when we look at the actions of the speaker we notice that he is too drawn to the laughter that he panics and needs to collect himself.

Surprisingly the use of the pronoun “I” is commonplace to confessional poetry. I don’t have any information whether this was based on his personal experience thus we’re not sure if such an event really did happen to Eliot. I also want to draw your attention to the title suggests strong and intense emotions which are evident in confessional poetry.

IV. The Marriage of Form and Style

            I observed how the form seems to influence the style of the poem in Hysteria. I wonder if it was really like so. I also noticed that In the Privacy of the Home the content and intent of the poem seem to complement the form.

 

The Romantics

The answer may date as far as the eighteenth century England during the time of the Romantics. An essay written by Dena L. Moore states that William Wordsworth must be recognized as to have significantly contributed to the creation of the poetic form of prose poetry because of his revolutionary techniques. She said that these techniques have affected directly and indirectly the creation of prose poems because he influenced poets in the contemporary times and shaped the history of poetry in the last two hundred years. The French poet Louis “Aloysius” Bertrand may be directly or indirectly influenced by Wordsworth but it is certain that Wordsworth influenced Byron and Scott. And it’s through these two that Wordsworth may have influenced Bertrand because he was a steady reader of the translations of Scott’s Ballads. He also said about the poetry of Scott in a French newspaper, “the epic of the present, moreover, will not be written in poetry, but in prose as exemplified by Walter Scott.”[46] 

To further her stance, Moore said that Wordsworth contributed to prose poem because of his use of “long sentence.” He gains greater syntactical freedom by not choosing to rhyme in his works. He “adds, modifies and repeats” to expand his sentences. His frequent use of “and” is also similar to prose in form. He also proposes that “there is, nor can be, an essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition.” He also stated in Preface to Lyrical Ballads that the “language of prose may yet be well adapted to poetry” and the language of a poem, “can in no respect differ from that of good prose.”[47] This may well be the graying of the lines between what we call prose and what we call poetry.

Another reason is the textual identity and by incorporation the “without and within” where he creates a paradox between the relationship of the writer and the reader. The use of binaries such as this was also utilized by Bertrand as well where there is duality in the ego and the unconscious of the writer. And in itself the prose poem is a paradox and making both interact in one single form creates the question of whether what each of the term really means. [48]

It was said that without the use of self-examination and comparison and contrast through dialogue with other characters, Bertrand could have not invented prose poetry. It is “I” or “dialogizing of the self” which is evident in the works of Wordsworth and Coleridge help give way to the form. And in addition, both Wordsworth and Bertrand sought to overthrow the neoclassic poetry with its rigid rules and practice. But despite this they both use history in their work but incorporate them in new styles of writing.[49]

Even the confessional style of writing has influence the confessional poets because of they adhere to the use of simple diction which Wordsworth asserts to be the language of literature and how ordinary things should be given a whole new dimension.

The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect…[50]

Confessional poetry follows the tradition of the Romantics because Wordsworth believes the “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”[51] which confessional poets even extends to include insanity, hysteria, and depression among others.

A Lowell in Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop who is a contemporary of Lowell has a very interesting prose poem called 12 O’Clock News where I see glimpses of Lowell. They were contemporaries and very good friends that’s why there is no doubt the each influence each other in their writing. Both of them like the other confessional poets have lived a life where nervous breakdown and insanity isn’t unusual.

12 O’Clock News works very interestingly because on the left side you have an enumeration of everyday things you’d find on a writer’s desk: gooseneck lamp, typewriter, pile of mss., typed sheet, envelopes, ink-bottle, typewriter eraser, and ashtray. But then again these objects stand for very different things.

On the very literal level the description that Bishop uses to describe these objects works very well. The lamp is faint that’s why it is likened to a night sky lit by a full moon which gives very little light. My favorite is how beautifully she describes the keys of the typewriter who are like terraces. The pile of manuscripts seems to her like a pile of earth which slid. The typed sheet is a man-made rectangular field with dark-speckles. The envelopes are signboards. The ink bottle is a secret weapon of natives. The typewriter eraser is a unicyclist-courier. And the ashtray is a pile of dead soldiers.

If we up the level a bit and look at these things as representations of something that we will hear on the news, the description still works. She starts of with the weather forecast and then proceeds to a survey of the land where he finds terrace, landslide, rectangular field, and signboards. There is also the story about natives who harbors a secret weapon and the capture of one of the natives. And lastly there is the story of the dead soldiers.

The title even suggests something. Since the lamp describe to us a dark night, we then realize that Bishop was talking about twelve midnight. After midnight starts the dawning of the morning and the start of a new day. This poem was written in 1976 which was a year after the last American soldiers evacuate Saigon. If we bring this historical context into our reading we view the landscape as Vietnam just after the evacuation of American troops from the country. The poor visibility can be accredited to the lack of electricity in the country. The terraces may be the rice paddies that most Southeast Asian countries have. The landslide may be brought by bombings from the air attacks of U.S. troops. The man-made field may pertain to ports controlled by the U.S. government. The natives are the Vietnamese people and the cigarettes on the ashtray stands of the fallen soldiers who risked their lives for the war.

I cannot help but think of Lowell’s For the Union Dead when I read the poem. Maybe it’s because they both address war. What makes it confessional is the fact that she used personal experience as a writer and uses it as commentary for the U.S.-Vietnam War.

Simic

There is no one more apt to use as a model for combining the confessional mode and the prose poem form than Charles Simic. He validated prose poem when he won the Pulitzer in 1991 for his collection of prose poems The World Doesn’t End.

I choose to study one of the poems from The World Doesn’t End where he tells of the story about Dr. Freud and his grandfather who were in love with the same black shoe but neither of them got to buy the shoe because there was always a sign at the door saying the storeowner is out to lunch or that there’s death in the family. There was only one encounter with Dr. Freud but they just glared at each other and went their separate ways.

The shoe may be a metaphor for a woman whose heart that the two neither won because she was always preoccupied. Dr. Freud is a famous psychiatrist and neurologist who co-founded the psychoanalytic school of psychology. It is his name where the term Freudian slip came from which is an error in speech, memory and action that is said to have been caused by the unconscious. And I believe that his name is also used here as a metaphor for the unconscious where the persona, presumably, in some estrange dream got a glimpse of his own unconscious or superego. There is a constant battle between the ego and superego the two must constantly keep each other in check.

Lehman describes Simic’s prose poems as dream narratives that sometimes they can be treated as prose fiction but due to its brevity, ambiguous ways they achieve resolution, and the author’s poetic intent, they are considered poems.[52]

Simic’s poetics greatly influence the young writers who are following his lead. He said that his collection of prose poems “came from a place where the impulses for prose and those for poetry collide.” And that they are poems because they are “self-contained and once you read one you have to go back and start reading it again which is what a poem does.”[53]

When ask about confessional poetry like that of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton he said:

Both Plath and Sexton are great poets, but not because of what they had to confess-but almost despite their exhibitionism. The problem with playing the role of the victim is that one ends up by telling the world, I suffered more than anyone else, I was always misunderstood and yet I’m so deep, so sensitive, so kind, etc. It’s embarrassing. Who would want to have a friend like that? Nevertheless, there are clearly readers who enjoy the spectacle of someone making an ass of themselves There’s also envy involved. If only I could whine like that in public and get away with it, they say to themselves.[54]

And when he was asked about his reaction when he won the Pulitzer Prize he said:

Surprise, of course. Prose poetry is a fraud, and here it gets a prize. A lot of literary people are still very upset about that.[55]

 


[1] Eberhart, Richard. “How I Write Poetry.” Poets on Poetry. New York and London: Basic Books Inc., Publishers, 1965, 17-39[2] Copyright owned by Hallmark Inc. This is one of their “Between You and Me” line of cards. For the poem, check the appendix.

[3] Hamilton, Ian ed. The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry in English. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1966, p 97.

[4] Rosenthal, Macha Louis. The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967, pp 26.

[5] Lowell, Robert. From “On Skunk Hour,” in Robert Lowell: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Thomas Parkinson (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1968),131-132. (www.americanpoetry.org)

[6] Reed, John. From “Going Back: The Ironic Progress of Lowell’s Poetry.” Modern Poetry Studies 1.4 (www.americanpoetry.org)

[7] Breslin, Paul. From The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry Since the Fifties (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987), 68-70. (www.americanpoetry.org)

[8] Rosenthal, Macha Louis. The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

[9] Mills, Ralph J. Jr. Contemporary American Poetry. New York: Random House, Inc., 1965, p 218.

[10] Gill, Jo. Textual Confessions:Narcissism in Anne Sexton’s early poetry. Twentieth Century Hall, Spirng 2002. Date Accessed January 2006. <http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-124000602.html&gt;

[11] From “Poets of Weird Abundance” Parnassus (1985)

[12] Mills, Ralph J. Jr. Contemporary American Poetry. New York: Random House, Inc., 1965, p 231.

[13] Johnson, Greg. From “The Achievement of Anne Sexton.” The Hollins Critic 1984 (www.americanpoets.org)

[14] Rosenthal, Macha Louis. The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967, p 79.

[15] Aird, Eileen M. From Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Work, 1973 (www.americanpoets.org)

[16] Rosenthal, Macha Louis. The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967, p 40.

[17] Rosenthal, Macha Louis. The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967, p 80.

[18] Refer to appendix for a copy of the poem.

[19] Rosenthal, Macha Louis. The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967, p 81.

[20] Rosenblatt, Jon. Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation. Copyright © 1979 by University of North Carolina Press.

[21] Yezzi, David. Confessional Poetry and the artifice of honesty. June 1998. <http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/16/jun98/confess.htm&gt;.

[22] Hardy, Barbara. “The Poetry of Sylvia Plath.” The Survival of Poetry: A Contemporary Survey. London: Faber & Faber, 1970., p 170.”

[23] From the definition of Prose Poem by poets.org <http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5787&gt;

[24]Volkman, Karen. Mutable Boundaries: on Prose Poetry <http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5910&gt;

[25] Volkman, Karen. Mutable Boundaries: on Prose Poetry <http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5910&gt;

[26] Malerba-Foran, Joan. “A Thought or Two About Prose Poetry.” Date Accessed: January 2006.

<http://www.expansivepoetryonline.com/journal/cult112002.html&gt;

[27] Wheelock, John Hall. What is Poetry? New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963.

[28] Wheelock, John Hall. What is Poetry? New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963.

[29] Lehmanm, David. Great American Prose Poems:From Poe to the Present. New York: Scribner Poetry, 2003, p. 15.

[30] Corso, Gregory. “Some of My Beginning and What I Feel Right Now.” Poets on Poetry. New York and London: Basic Books Inc., Publishers, 1965, 172-181.

[31] Wheelock, John Hall. What is Poetry? New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963

[32] MacLeish, Archibald. Poetry and Experience. Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1960.

[33] Wheelock, John Hall. What is Poetry? New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963.

[34] Wheelock, John Hall. What is Poetry? New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963.

[35] Dalisay, Jose Y. Jr. The Knowing is in the Writing: Notes on the Practice of Fiction. Quezon City: The University of the Philippines Press, 2006.

[36] Manguso, Sarah. “The Fallacy of Prose Poetry: an Extension of Eliot’s “Reflections on Vers Libre” Date Accessed: January 2006 <http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5902&gt;

[37] Lehmanm, David. Great American Prose Poems:From Poe to the Present. New York: Scribner Poetry, 2003, p 14.

[38] Lehmanm, David. Great American Prose Poems:From Poe to the Present. New York: Scribner Poetry, 2003, p 13.

[39] Dalisay, Jose Y. Jr. The Knowing is in the Writing: Notes on the Practice of Fiction. Quezon City: The University of the Philippines Press, 2006.

[40] Lehmanm, David. Great American Prose Poems:From Poe to the Present. New York: Scribner Poetry, 2003.

[41] Lehmanm, David. Great American Prose Poems:From Poe to the Present. New York: Scribner Poetry, 2003

[42] Lehmanm, David. Great American Prose Poems:From Poe to the Present. New York: Scribner Poetry, 2003

[43] From the Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keilor in the April 15, 2003 entry <http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/programs/2003/04/14/index.html&gt;

[44] Volkman, Karen. “Mutable Boundaries: on Prose Poetry.” Date Accessed: January 2006

<http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5910&gt;

[45] From the Island of Freedom website <http://www.island-of-freedom.com/ELIOT.HTM&gt;

[46] Moore, Dena L. “William Wordsworth’s Contribution to Prose Poetry” Date Accessed: January 2006. <http://www.authorsden.com/visit/viewarticle.asp?AuthorID=3247&id=5659&gt;

[47] Moore, Dena L. “William Wordsworth’s Contribution to Prose Poetry” Date Accessed: January 2006. <http://www.authorsden.com/visit/viewarticle.asp?AuthorID=3247&id=5659&gt;

[48] Moore, Dena L. “William Wordsworth’s Contribution to Prose Poetry” Date Accessed: January 2006. <http://www.authorsden.com/visit/viewarticle.asp?AuthorID=3247&id=5659&gt;

[49] Moore, Dena L. “William Wordsworth’s Contribution to Prose Poetry” Date Accessed: January 2006. <http://www.authorsden.com/visit/viewarticle.asp?AuthorID=3247&id=5659&gt;

[50] Wordsworth, William. Preface to the Lyrical Ballads by <http://www.bartleby.com/39/36.html&gt;

[51] Wordsworth, William. Preface to the Lyrical Ballads by <http://www.bartleby.com/39/36.html&gt;

[52] Lehman, David. Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present. New York: Scribner Poetry, 2003, p 12.

[53] Lehman, David. Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present. New York: Scribner Poetry, 2003, p 12.

[54] From the interview of Carlye Archibeque for the Independent Reviews Site December2001/January 2002, Vol. 2, issue 5. <http://www.theindependentreviewssite.org/v2_i5/v2_i5_index.html&gt;

[55]. Spalding, J.M. Charles Simic: Interview by J.M. Spalding Copyright © 1999 The Cortland Review Issue FourThe Cortland Review <http://www.cortlandreview.com/issuefour/interview4.htm&gt;


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