Review: The Griffin of Literature: Three New Books of Prose Poetry Print E-mail

Knossos fresco in throne palace(TriQuarterly January 31, 2014)

I’ll admit it: I’ve never understood the prose poem, although it seems to be going strong in its third century. It’s the griffin of literature—an amalgam of the two literary arts that neither enhances their respective purposes nor makes the result stronger at the fused place. A definition is not much help; here’s the clearest definition I’ve found in a poetry handbook: “The point seems to be that [any] writing in prose . . . is a poem if the author says so.” It’s at odds with itself, which, I realize, may be the point. But when I reflect on the prose poem’s formlessness, I find it leaves me cold. A few descriptors may explain the chill: the prose poem is blocky, spatially inelegant, print-dependent, unmetered, and unsyllabic.

The prose poem is an inland sea, bordering continents; it is a poem become a paragraph, the apotheosis of free verse, the incantation of poetic diction flattened by sentences. Why does the poet need prose? What’s wrong with verse? (I note that only rarely does a writer of prose break into poetry. The author may add/quote poems, but not in midstream discourse.)

We know what a poem is and what to expect of its line allegiance. What happens when a poem’s vestigial calling is abandoned or disenjambed? Where does the idea of the poem go? In its page-wide box, the prose poem behaves differently than verse does. What is that behavior? Prose poetry rejects the line—which may say something about the poet and his or her psychology. In a volume of poems, some authors scatter a few prose poems and thereby unpattern the spatiality of verse—perhaps to upset our expectations. Is it any more than that? I think not.

And yet, because of the digital era, a few crafty poets are pushing this griffin toward its graphic possibilities, making the prose poem work—precisely as a nonelectronic, handheld, print form. When I say “graphic,” I’m thinking as much about the revolution in design as I am about a text whose layout embodies or enacts its theme. What intrigues me with two of the three books under review here is how they require the book—the book’s physicality—to achieve their purpose. This literal bookishness plants the prose poem where it may grow and prosper. Not only does the printed text possess a unique layout, but the layout manipulates the reader to interact with, or page, the book, thereby activating the reading, rather like swiping our digital screens.

Case in point: Continuous Frieze Bordering Red by Michelle Naka Pierce (Fordham University Press). The book is square, measuring 8.5 x 8.5 inches. The text covers the top quarter of 68 pages. Each page has 5 lines, justified. The text moves on line 1 of page 1, line 1 of page 2, and so on, through 68 pages; then, returning to the beginning of the book, we continue on line 2 of page 1, line 2 of page 2, and so on. (There’s also a poem, with its own irregularities of line and placement, that roams the bottom white space of pages 21–32.)

Two things happen as you read. One, your eyes drop from the first line to the line below it, as is customary. To resist this automatic response, I lap-balance the book so I can keep turning the pages. Which move quite fast. Two, you feel that, because the lines of print are at the top of the page, the text is buoyed above the blank space below. The lines feel propped up or floating in the air of the page, air that otherwise would have been distributed in and around traditional verse. The blank space feels solid and yet also lacks elegance.

I mention this because Pierce wants us to traverse the piece as though it were piled, the text like geologic strata visible in highway road cuts. As with any text, we cannot ignore what is above or below a given line. The optical companionship between lines of a poem or sentences in a paragraph is here completely changed from what we’re used to. One needs to adjust. The idea is intriguing, reminiscent of a narrative frieze  or story told horizontally across the entablature of a temple, requiring a reader to walk the tale.

To help us through her work, Pierce refers to an actual wall-mounted set of two-dimensional paintings. She has patterned her “continuous frieze” after Mark Rothko’s 1959 Seagram Murals. In her acknowledgments she writes that she recently toured a gallery of these large paintings at the Tate Modern. Having received the commission from the Seagram Company for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, Rothko finished the murals but did not deliver the collection due to a political dispute. He is reported to have felt that the merchant kings of capitalism, while eating their chichi meals, would scoff at his meditative work. The Seagram space was all wrong; he kept the work and returned the money. One of the murals, Black on Maroon—blocky shapes with rough borders—is reproduced on the book’s cover.

Midway, Pierce links her work to Rothko in the following sentences (the forward slashes indicate page breaks). “Squares inside rectangles inside squares and suddenly electrical / outlets and heating radiators materialize. Followed by soft edges, blurry. Like water damage.” Later: “If you cannot establish how the tessellating pieces interlock, how can you / record it?” On the experience of touring the gallery: “And so you must move closer then farther away in / order to understand what it means to border the borders.” Throughout, Pierce seeks to “de-territorialize” herself from “the symptom of color.”

Rothko’s blocks of color with tattered edges are echoed in the prose poem’s squarish form. The soft borders he exploits recall those Pierce negotiates: biracial, bicultural, binational. Pierce, who has a Japanese mother and a white Canadian father, confronts her otherness in this book. Her sensitivity is hardened and softened by her looks, history, and parents; her experience of trans-Pacific air travel; her familiarity with being tagged (sometimes by the TSA) and scapegoated in race-obsessed America. Calling herself “you,” she is hyperaware of the “borders” “your” mother crossed; she is “as white as a non-white girl can get”; she is or never has been “white girl pretty”; she suffers from “internalized oppression”; and she is an outcast: “You locate . . . the idea of beauty in a culture that does not value your currency.”

Is her self-talk querulous? At times. But adding in Rothko gives a larger, choral way of engaging self-oppression. After all, Pierce is using the second person to make herself the other: “Your struggle is to see (and be seen) from both perspectives at once.” Such lines arrive quickly as each line-per-page turns: “Can you / begin with this shift: see yourself as different, not as illegitimate, to reverse the vibrations and their effects.” By the end, having recast her victim status, she has moved meaning through the text and finally dislodged her brooding tone. “You are finally breaking down any [mis]perceived symmetry. / Destroying nations of [self] [other] [inside] [out]. You used to know your range through someone else’s.”

Here’s the line/sentence that solidifies the work for me: “You are this continuous sequence with adjacent elements not perceptibly different.” Yes. That’s it. The key discovery in the poem lies in Pierce’s ameliorating her adjacencies, disenthralling her marginalization, which, unchecked, might result in even more suffering.

On to the monolithic pillar, Obedience, by Chris Vitiello (Ahsahta Press). Again, the layout matters. I’m reminded that these books, like installations at a museum of modern art, call for me to operate the book manually to unlock its essence. Almost square in size, Obedience has two front covers and two frontmatter sections. We choose one direction and, at the end, turn the book over and continue in the other direction. I found I often put the book down and picked it up turned over. But I didn’t lose the thread. Because the book is a seamless whole, starting here as much as there and continuing anywhere, I can restart it where I like. Interactive, indeed.

Though the book is omni-enterable and barely holds a narrative, its style and argument—style as argument—do gain traction. Vitiello emphasizes the text’s  syntactic play. Commands and statements constitute his rhetoric, the expository graying the whole with more “is” verbs and verbals than any book ought to  have. Vitiello is playing with the code of “profluence”—the notion that a book needs to get somewhere. And that’s his point: the self-reflexive nature of  language is enough of a plot. At least for him.

We know we’re in the school of L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry because of the book’s dedication: “For the word, ‘this.’” And, sure enough, that wily pronoun gets the most attention: this, and these, which Obedience enacts. Someone I read recently remarked that and is the most useful word in the English language. This comes a close second. This has the definiteness of the thing at hand: Is this your purse? I’m holding up this alligator-print handbag, and  yet this may not be the one, assuming a sea of purses. Which of these is yours?

But listen to a few of Vitiello’s madcap variations on this pronoun: “This begins and ends with this.” “This line is the moment of its being read.” “The this that this is is immaterial.” “This does not have to end as much as it has to stop.” (It may be our third most useful word.) Such sentences remind us of President Bill Clinton’s 1998 deposition, when, testifying in the Paula Jones lawsuit, he stated memorably: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Vitiello exploits each line’s aloneness, its isolation, often with a deconstructionist’s wit: “The dictionary definition for the word ‘the’ itself contains the word ‘the.’” The book’s arrangement of these pithy nuggets is just the opposite of Pierce’s. Vitiello likes the scattershot as much as he rambles on against or circles around or sniggers at poetry’s touchstone, namely, that a given line has more weight and meaning, based on its context and placement, than another line. 

Like the ambiguity-savoring Gertrude Stein, Vitiello seeds his field with as many flowers as weeds. Some of his best shoots are barbed, the wordplay cloyingly pertinent. A few checked favorites, which I get to by spinning the pages, maybe turning the book over, maybe not:Every line or sentence in Vitiello is given equal space—one line, one vote.

            A poem is not an idea but is often said to have ideas in it
            Some of the numbers will never be used
            Water has no color but always appears to have a color
            Stairs contain stairs
            One’s usage of words depletes no resource or supply

The substance of Obedience is watery: putting your foot in is to touch its placelessness, its anti-narrative, its nowhere (utopia) of unnumbered, often lookalike pages, which I flip-flop my way across, more awake than I am with many books of contemporary poetry. Vitiello’s is a wonderment. And, like the graphic treadmill of Pierce’s book, unique. Vitiello aestheticizes language insecurity, riddles his grand non sequitur with monadic avowals, maxim-like, yet congealing—as I say, more liquidy than earthy. Perhaps a liquid sense of earth.

Less noteworthy as prose or poetry is Jessica Baran’s Equivalents (Lost Roads). Because her writing is undeveloped and heavily atomized, her several prose poem failures loom larger than her few successes. My main criterion as a reader is that something grab me. Nothing here much does. This, from the laconic and recondite numbered sequence called “On Dailiness.” Number 14.

The miracle of Maytag. There’s no comparison to potted plants. Obsessional hoarding breeds security, keeps you running from place to place. The burden of reticence. What does silence strive for? The project has been identified; it’s called: please listen to me. What is the nature of your time—considerate, sportive?

If I study these sentences, questions pulse and pain. What of its nonlinkages draws me? In what waiting room do I have time or inclination to stand around, in order to grok its meaning? I sense no sensibility here, and—to steal George Trow’s 1980 article/book title—scant meaning “within the context of no context.” Little there is to warm or prick or delight or seduce. “The miracle of Maytag.” Really?

Contrast that with one from the second sequence, “On Dissonance,” a more crafted and elastic and less cute work. Here’s number 22 of 30.

Call it a void. The sea, the lack of sea, the highway periphery’s expanse of crops, the forced announcements that tell you anywhere is actually anywhere else. You live here. A blank map charting air, dark as a closed closet.

With its associative elements—sea and lack of sea, void and anywhere, anywhere and anywhere else, blank map, charting air, closed closet—this one causes me to tingle a tad with the static energy of its contrasts. It feels crafted, unlike “the miracle of Maytag.” I join the roughhousing, where something is pinned and widening, and I participate in the poet’s shaping.

Baran’s title, an ekphrastic turn, recalls the penumbral sky photographs Alfred Stieglitz took between 1925 and 1934, also called “Equivalents.” Stieglitz’s pictures are majesties of cloud-and-light drama, abstract textures that had never before been seen in painting or photo. The game of equivalency is ironic because Stieglitz’s photos were not that which the camera saw. They disclose a new light, one darkroom-processed into reverse-lit exposures. They resemble sky reflected off an ocean’s surface. Tangible yet intangible, the penumbral captured and seen through.

Is this Baran’s aim? What might she capture with prose to see through the mystery of poetry? A beguiling question—and yet her book avoids this equivalency. Obscurity marching in close ranks through the Red Square of a paragraph will not do. Something has to ring. Something more than self-consciousness or the randomized trial. Something that might pay homage, for example, to Mallarmé’s 1897 prose implosions, “Divagations,” a fount of possibility for poets. If prose is to be poetry, than we should hear or see or touch, in the artist’s making, evidence of the transformation from one literary varietal to another. The taste of one should taste in the other.

Marshall McLuhan, in his 1962 book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, explored how electronic media, especially television (a prototype of the computer), would push literature away from the linearity of print and return it to spoken and interactive forms. His famous line—“We shape the tools and the tools, in turn, shape us”—noted that any language is dependent on the medium of its expression, a medium that, invariably, the message must adapt to. In the age of digital authorship, this reads like a prophecy.

The work of the writer, published and engaged, is morphing from a self-conscious, learned, literary style to one performative, shared, everyday, heard, and instant—the speaker the equivalent of the writer. What I will examine, in this series of essays, is who and what is lifting writing off the page and making it auditory and multimedial, where this out-loud movement originated, how its performative character is developing, and to what end.

Technology is transforming the writer into an author—that is, the private persona of the print-based writer is being overtaken by the public persona of the multimedia author. To be heard in the news din of our culture (internet and cable TV), writers add audio, video, and, if possible, a TV presence to their kit bags. They target niches of the public and cultivate venues where they might speak their work aloud. Nowadays, writers search for stages where their voices can first be heard so they can then link audiences to their writing.

Pushing the writer to be “out” with his work are the readers—active, immediate participants in, and sometimes co-creators of, an author’s material. Writing is expanding to include broadcasting the writer’s speaking voice or using video to enhance his text, while reading is expanding to include hearing that voice or seeing text counterpointed by images and hyperlinks. Increasingly, readers are presented with the writer’s physical being, accompanying her page-bound words with the author’s sensory actuality.

The trailer opens up her honest, revealing nature—certainly one reason the memoir form continues to draw a crowd—and a sort of Elizabeth-Gilbert friendship, we hope, ensues.

Here’s an example: the book trailer for Dani Shapiro’s memoir, Devotion. It’s a classic soft sell in which we see pastoral images, hear New Age music, and feel the author’s self-presentation. Shapiro is sharing herself with us, making eye contact, projecting the persona of the thoughtful writer. (I’m not suggesting she’s faking it; on the contrary, the relational hominess is the point.) The goal, I think, is to warm her place beside the communal campfire, so we feel invited to cozy up with her book’s emotion.

With this self-offering, Shapiro hopes to involve herself in the reader’s experience in a new way. To experience her, prior to reading the text, is to smooth the way for what may be a distressing or painful endeavor. In addition, the author’s sociability is heightened. The trailer opens up her honest, revealing nature—certainly one reason the memoir form continues to draw a crowd—and a sort of Elizabeth-Gilbert friendship, we hope, ensues.

In book trailers, some writers are oilier, others softer, still others more mysterious than Shapiro. Most employ this video-audio presence to induce potential readers. A few may even do so as an antidote to the text. If an author’s style is “too” literary, academic, or experimental, making the writer likable may thwart her work’s stuffiness or difficulty so that its demand on a reader’s emotion and time becomes easier for that reader to bear.

Alongside book trailers are other spoken-text media—video book reviews, lectures and readings as podcasts, and the living author, like Dan Brown, who gets to discuss his new novel for twelve minutes on Charlie Rose. Many authors can articulately discuss their books; but those other photogenic qualities—youth, vitality, good looks—that accompany the media spotlight are often as important, in our celebrity culture, as the writing’s immersive appeal.

The personal text or tweet assumes a response, seeks to converse, initiates debate or dissent. Text and tweet initiate responses, which, for the medium to work, must talk back.

There’s something about the author’s actual presence that makes him authentic to readers, and more readable because of it. I think of my attraction to Sam Harris in 2005. His Book-TV lectures on atheism, featuring his distrust of Muslim fundamentalism, brought a huge audience, myself included, to his book, The End of Faith. I wanted to read him because I first heard him speak. It was the passionate evenness of his voice that led Americans, skittish about being overtly anti-religious, to access his message. His reasoning voice encouraged others to write, to speak out, and to read him.

Even texting, which seems quiet and internal, the reverse of public speaking, is closer to (or a simple recording of) written speech than it is to writing. It’s almost dialogic speech: the personal text or tweet assumes a response, seeks to converse, initiates debate or dissent. Text and tweet initiate responses, which, for the medium to work, must talk back.

Whether we engage in this dialogue or not, much of digital culture is already charged with the unique spokenness of an “I” who is telling a story, reporting, confessing. News, documentaries, video blogs, poem-image-music collaborations, podcasts, and much short fiction and nonfiction emphasize the delivery of the “I,” the voice of the speaker. Christopher Hitchens’s syntactic command with improvised speech pulled us in. We expected its provocation and wit, which his writing possessed but his speech seemed to risk far more often.

Multimedial books, for example, those created by Vook, build off of the author’s voice. The audible book is no longer an adjunct to printed texts, but rather a new beast of its own. Audible books—read by authors or actors—engage a busy public of subway riders and bicyclists who live in earbud space. Text read aloud captured the attention of the editors of The New York Times Book Review: in May the Review devoted much of one issue to critiquing audiobooks as performance, books that had already demonstrated, via prior reviews, high quality as prose.

I note the popularity of Byliner and Atavist where short and long literary works, fiction and nonfiction, are available as audio, text, and more. Each piece avails itself of a garden of technological options, as the illustration below shows.

The Atavist has many more ways than Kindle or Nook for consumers to interact with a story: read, listen, musically adorn, hyperlink, comment, resize, share, review, etc. What’s the point? In part, it’s to displace the notion that there’s only one way, reading, to imbibe a text. When text rattles this many bells and whistles, it becomes as multiple and distractible as we are. The presentation of the writing begins to resemble our various personas, which shift and adapt depending on with whom and how we’re communicating.

I have toggled back and forth from audio to text and to other modes with several Atavist pieces. I find this performative side of the literary equation, which the device offers and whose buttons I press, is doing a number on the writing side.

Though stand-alone works of long-form journalism, nonfiction, and fiction are still being published, these pieces have grown shorter than their predecessors, in the ten-thousand-word range. This shrinkage displaces some text for the spatial and sound enhancement of photos, audio, and video. Last year, at the San Diego Reader, where I’ve been a staff writer for 14 years, we got the editor’s memo telling us to beef up our stories with audio-taped interviews, photographs, and voice-over video—without upping our pay. (I note the Chicago Sun-Times has just laid off its entire photographic department; they’re asking reporters and the occasional freelance photographer to take the pictures.)

There are a couple of ways to think about these changes. Is writing becoming an adjunct to the creation of products begun in and emphasized by other media? Is writing integrating its voice with other media to accentuate and redefine the purely textual?

At random, I found online The Five Love Languages: book, e-book, audio, DVD, free study guide, and mobile app. The author, Dr. Gary Chapman, a Christian, offers the product on an all-things-to-all-consumers website. One dropdown menu says, “Interact”—blog, podcast, videos, stories, links. Why the multiplicity? My sense is that he and his production team designed a lifestyle worthy of electronic proselytizing—and the book is just one part of that sell. If you want to read about these “love languages” in-depth, here’s the book. But these other tacks are just as valid. (As of late August, 2013, Chapman’s book is number one on The New York Times “Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous” print bestseller list.)

The writer must lean in to an audience whose communication devices are either already set or quickly expanding. The writing must adapt because in digital storytelling scenic writing can be videoed and sounds can be sounded.

This broadening of text and voice and image is indicative of the social author (who works in any media) who is encouraging social reading (by any social media available) with an audience (ears as wide as eyes) who may be interested in the author’s writing, but is probably more drawn to the multi-channels of the author’s delivery.

It’s not that the writer writes less—or less passionately. It’s that the writer must lean in to an audience whose communication devices are either already set or quickly expanding. The writing must adapt because in digital storytelling scenic writing can be videoed and sounds can be sounded. We now expect the writer/producer to include such admixtures.

I watched the recent HBO film, Behind the Candelabra, about the embattled love affair between Liberace and Scott Thorson. Such a biopic dramatizes the summarizing voice of the biographer, and a TV series, like House of Cards, challenges the singular voice of the novelist. Both are spectacularly economic narratives. In Candelabra, I marveled at the filmic use of the actual cars, costumes, homes, and jewelry of the real Liberace, which, in turn, carries the description for the screenwriter and for the audience. And does it instantly.

What has this done to the novelist’s placing of a character into a descriptive milieu, of having her interact with that milieu for the sake of verisimilitude? It’s unsettled the visual authority of the writer and driven the author inward.

I don’t mean that a writer can’t elaborate details of place and era; of course, she can. But because of the all-at-onceness of film, the capacity to move and detail objects, the author seldom feels the need for such depiction. The fact that rival forms today accomplish what narrative writers once had to do—the arduous job of scene-painting and context-creation, erecting such epic stages as Sister Carrie’s Chicago or the Joads’ trek from Oklahoma to California—is pushing them to plumb other wells of literary art: the inner world, the meditative, the analytical, the linguistic. And the collage. Each of which is scenically and sensorially magnified with video and image.

E.L. Doctorow once said that “the whole enterprise of literature is writing in silence and reading in silence.” While many writers still work this way, others use audio and video to highlight the inner, the meditative, the analytic elements to which writing is uniquely prone.

Kristen Radtke is an intriguing—and young—video essayist. In “That Kind of Daughter,” she reads a fragmentary prose poem, in three parts, while the video slowly assembles recognizable images, in herky-jerky silhouette, the whole taking six minutes. She builds her images by constant addition or subtraction—fingers one by one form a hand on which a bird appears and is held and then disassembles.

The options for expression technology also expand the idea of authorship. The new author can choose to socialize his ideas and voice with technology as well as with new venues and new audiences.

Watching and listening, I experience the spoken words and the erected images in counterpoint. Words and images merge and resist merging, the ensuing structure a kind of “visual voice.” On occasion, text and video fuse and harmonize. But it’s never simple. The spoken words push the visual puzzle into known images that do and do not illustrate the text. Once those images suggest a meaning for the words, they begin to dissolve. Radtke achieves a kind of levitating effect: the video defers to and buoys the voice, the unchanging tone of which, in turn, keeps the jittery images anchored.

The writer is quickly being socialized by technology, forced out of Doctorow’s cloister and into the mediated arena where silence is not allowed. Writers are fashioning new forms from the easy availability of companionable technologies. Ten years ago, the novelist or the nonfictionist had no access to such interplay: the door to imagining collaborative possibilities for new pieces had neither been built nor unlocked. Suddenly, such teaming-up makes the writer as enhanceable as the writing is. The options for expression technology also expand the idea of authorship. The new author can choose to socialize his ideas and voice with technology as well as with new venues and new audiences.

It’s important to remember that I am not implying the abolition of print-exclusive prose, literary fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry. What I am suggesting is that the vast sea writing has filled for five centuries is, with our eyes and ears, swelling anew, becoming multimedial and multidimensional—its practitioners, in a word, transliterate. The writer better find his oars, for his dinghy is small, and the waves are splashing over the gunnels.