Title Menu: 10 Books that Might be Poetry
When I was in first grade, I had a fight with a girl in my class about the difference between the “blue-green” and “green-blue” Crayons. She insisted that blue-green was more blue and green-blue was more green. I vehemently argued the opposite. For one thing, her simplistic assumption based on word order was contradicted by the fact that “blue-green” was evidently the greener of the two shades. But further, I argued, the hyphen was acting as a placeholder for the suffix “-ish,” as in “bluish green”: bluer than green, but not blue as greenish blue.
On a recent flight, I had an epiphany about the labels “prose poetry” and “lyric essay.” The latter term is especially misunderstood and confusing for readers, who expect an “essay” to have a thesis. (This expectation seems to come out of the term being hijacked for academic purposes.) But when we say “lyric essay,” we’re really talking about poem-like prose. When you see a piece of writing, in isolation, that is something like a poem and something like an essay, which label you apply is almost arbitrary. It’s only when you compare the two genres – like putting the blue-green and green-blue crayons side by side – that you might see the differences.
The label on a book and the section where it’s shelved in the library of course affect the way you approach the text. But I like books that bleed between multiple genres, defy conventions, are greener than poetry but bluer than prose. Of the following books, some have been marketed or received by history as lyric essay, other as poetry, others as something else entirely. But all are worth reading with your poet mind.
The Jacob Needleman introduction to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition calls the Tao Te Ching “a work of metaphysical psychology” that “is not readily translatable into any language, including Chinese!” A text that can’t be translated into its own language sounds like a pretty good definition of poetry to me. It helps that the chapters look exactly like poems. I think I might like Needleman’s intro more than the Ching itself, but it’s instructive to read this ancient spiritual text as a poem-like hybrid work that forces you into confrontation with a world “beyond description.”
The French are masters of the prose poem, and though Baudelaire is the most famous of their ilk, I prefer the work of Jacob, who was also known as a painter. Jacob’s poems, many of which could also pass for microfiction, zig-zag between mystical and zany. (See a few of his poems in a previous issue of Open Letters.)
They’re called poems right there on the cover, but calling a large, typeface “m” with an extra hump a “poem” feels as revolutionary as R. Mutt’s “Fountain.” Saroyan’s little language experiments, most published originally in the ‘60s and ‘70s, are endlessly delightful. The poem that reads in its entirety “lighght” can be held in one’s mind forever like an image.
Of some books in this list, you might say, “If they’re not poems, they’re art,” or “If they’re not poems, they’re essays.” If Edson’s poems aren’t poems, they’re jokes. But these bizarre, monkey-obsessed anti-poems are both hilarious and, as Jorie Graham once said of James Tate’s work, in their own way terrifying:
Killing the Ape
They were killing the ape with infinite care; not too much or it runs past dying and is born again.
Too little delivers a sick old man covered with fur …
Gently gently out of hell, the ape climbing out of the ape.
This seminal work of language poetry, a school that argued you can’t use the language of oppression to fight oppression, works through extreme parataxis – that is, juxtaposition without clear connection. Each sentence is coherent in itself, but they do not adhere into argument. Meaning is achieved instead through accumulation of intelligence and beauty: “Here I refer to irrelevance, that rigidity which never intrudes. Hence, repetitions, free from all ambition. The shadow of the redwood trees, she said, was oppressive.”
The prose poems in this chapbook (made available free and without copyright by Boise State through the Free Poetry series) inherit formal traits from My Life, but the result is dirtier and funnier. Though it’s obvious by now that language poetry didn’t “work,” its poets’ concerns didn’t go away, and they’re present here as a constant agitating force: “I wrote yet another revolutionary email.” “I was paid to tell him nothing, just a few utopian jokes.” “What is the polis, a mild surrealism or non-medicinal plant?”
Julia Story is one of a handful of young poets whose work in hybrid prose made me want to write a different kind of book. Post Moxie is tight, distilled, wry, clenched. Every little blocky, justified “poem” is torqued with the tension between intense emotion and ironic self-judgment: “In late fall I am not very smart. I am not very smart at the beginning of spring, when even the sidewalk has hormones. One little girl peeks out from behind a factory wall far far away from a backyard. She says This is how you make it, and shows a handful of silver springs and looks at him with blond eyes.”
Bluets has become a kind of shibboleth among writers who traffic in prose poems and lyric prose: a contemporary cross-genre classic. Ostensibly a long essay in numbered paragraphs, it creates a space for itself where “everything is admissible,” as in Emerson’s “panharmonicon”: “philosophy, ethics, divinity, criticism, poetry,” etc. The I in Bluets is voracious, consuming energy in every form of blue (Yves Klein, Goethe, pornography) and spewing luminous reference and confession back out like a quasar.
Peculiar indeed, and deliciously confrontational: Khadijah Queen’s second book concludes with a three-act absurdist play including characters such as The Brown Vagina (“I am an animal to you”), The Blonde Institution (“I can never be invisible”), The Fondled Hair, and The Exultant Exotifier. The second section, titled “Animus,” is a series of prose poems about an estranged lover/husband/father-of-child with shades of slave-owner: “He gave me nothing to eat but photographs of other people eating meat. […] In the photographs the people looked relaxed and not very hungry. But first they were killing the animals with their careful machines. […] He did this in order. In order that I might see how feeding is done.”
This strange, quiet admixture of confession, memoir, and fragmentary poetry interspersed with visual art gives you the feeling of reading someone’s diary, something never meant to be “finished,” a glimpse of the artist at work and at life. In a museum, Greenstreet notes: “My affection for the work is partly based on imagining the making, my empathy for the maker.” Young Tambling, in 160 or so pages, enacts that empathy, seduces it from you.