Editor’s Note: Vincent Czyz began writing this essay in 2000 and completed it this year. His original use of present tense is left intact.
Every Sunday morning I spend a few hours with the colossal edition of the New York Times and its tendency to sum up because I don’t want to see the week coming; I’d rather watch it going. One Sunday I came across an article in the metro section that I found somewhat alarming: a cluster of businesses and residences in New Rochelle, New York, is going to be demolished to make way for an IKEA superstore. The city is claiming the land under eminent domain—the government’s right to take private land for public use. Although IKEA is neither a dam nor a highway nor a park, New Rochelle is labeling the area one of “urban blight,” which does in fact allow the city to invoke eminent domain. More likely, however, the municipality is already daydreaming over various ways to spend the $2.5 million in annual sales-tax revenue the IKEA is expected to generate.
Not surprisingly, the business owners, employees, homeowners and tenants about to be dispossessed have no desire to see a store the size of an army base built over the remains of their houses and workplaces. Understandably, they neither consider the neighborhood “urban blight” nor are they particularly interested in seeing the homes of their neighbors decked out with Swedish, assemble-it-yourself furniture.
Without ever having seen New Rochelle, knowing nothing about its furniture needs or what its political leaders had based their decision on (other than tax revenue), I sided with the soon-to-be displaced. Primarily, of course, it was simple identification: I wouldn’t want my house plowed under to make room for a furniture franchise. Secondarily, however, I thought that in this particular situation the poetry lost wouldn’t be worth the prose gained. This may seem an odd way of framing the situation, but the erosion of the poetic is one of the ramifications of the franchise, whether it’s a furniture outlet or a fast food chain.
There’s no animosity, of course, between prose and poetry. Like space and time, they’re different aspects of the same continuum. The conflict arises among readers who prefer one, often at the expense of the other. And, as in this instance, the text isn’t always composed of words. With the IKEA all but inevitable, with the runaway success of franchises in general, it seemed to me one more sign that we live in an age that is increasingly poetry-averse.
But before passing final judgment on the situation in New Rochelle, I needed to know more about the city. I opened up my 1972 Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia, and there, between Newport News and New South Wales, I found:
New Rochelle, city of New York, in Westchester Co., on Long Island Sound, about 17 miles NE of central New York City metropolitan area. Manufactured goods include transportation equipment, electrical and non-electrical machinery, chemicals and clothing. The city is the site of the College of New Rochelle (1904) and Iona College (1940).
Here we have prose doing what it was meant to: convey information as clearly, as efficiently, as unambiguously as possible.
The second (and final) paragraph reads:
Among the points of interest is the home of Thomas Paine (q.v.), which now houses the Huguenot and Historical Association. New Rochelle was settled in 1688 by the French Huguenots (q.v.), who named the site for the town of La Rochelle, France, where many of them had lived. The community was incorporated as a village in 1858 and as a city in 1899. Pop. (1960) 76,812; (1970) 75,385.
Composed of names, dates, numerical values, and fairly indisputable facts, the second graph is nonetheless a step in the direction of poetry. Once we read home of Thomas Paine, we have fuzzy recollections of third-grade book reports on the Revolutionary War, George Washington, Paul Revere, and their contemporaries. We may even recall “sunshine patriot” or some other memorable phrase from Paine’s writing. In another vein the bit about French Huguenots conjures up the account I had read in high school of the slaughter of the French Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1572.
Poetry tends to have more associations than does prose, that is to say, poetry echoes. Prose, in its purest form, is meant not to echo. It is meant, like those ice beers once so heavily promoted, to leave no aftertaste, to leave nothing that will get in the way of the next sentence, the next unit of information. Poetry is meant not to partition itself off, line by line, but to overlap, to leave behind an ink cloud that somehow intimates the cuttlefish that squirted it. The French Symbolist credo that “To suggest is to create; to name is to destroy” can be modified here, on more neutral grounds: prose denotes; poetry connotes.
• • •
When I asked a friend of mine about the city of Istanbul, where he was living at the time, he wrote back (in part):
It’s the once-and-future seat of empires, ruled over, inhabited by Turks, who speak a language not included on any Indy-Euro chart, unmapped linguistic waters, their island lies there, they go sailing about too much they can’t understand and can’t be understood. And so within the Ural-Altaic they remain, drinking their vodka-clear, licorice-sweet raki, which goes cloudy white when poured over ice, and therein see their uncertain and mostly unhappy futures, but as they sober up, they forget what they saw in their glasses, and so they’re back at it the next night in the Istanbul bars, learning the secret of all to come and forgetting it again. Undeterred, undisturbed, they go on speaking their impenetrable language & drinking their sweetish strong drink and answering the call of Allah five times daily.
I make no claim that this is poetry, but it’s closer to poetry than the Funk & Wagnalls entry. There’s not all that much of informational value here; rather, it’s a mood, an ambience being conveyed. Indeed, there is misinformation (I’m sure the Turks don’t really see the future in their drinks). The letter dodges empirical quantities and approaches the city from the right side of the brain, offering—instead of population statistics or square miles covered—a foreigner’s impression of the city.
When things fit neatly into their allotted spaces, when they are clearly delineated and crisscrossed with a grid of longitude and latitude (rigidly proud in its perfection of purpose), when they are countable or quantifiable, then we are closer to the prose end of the spectrum. When what we want to convey seeps under closed doors, when it descends as mist, when meaning refuses to take a definite shape or overflows the vessels in which we’ve tried to contain it, then we’re dealing with the pole where poetry has planted its flag.
One patron at the H & H Deli in New Rochelle was all for it. ‘They put up this IKEA, they have to buy my house. Then I got the money t’get outta this hole.’
I’ve mentioned a few general characteristics, the way a wanted poster without a photo or an artist’s sketch might list blond hair, blue eyes, height, weight, etc. Quite a few men or women may fit the description without being the one the authorities are hunting down. I would need much more to pin down precisely what distinguishes prose from poetry. Fortunately, pinning it down precisely is well beyond the scope of this essay. In fact, if T.S. Eliot is right, no one is likely to pull that off. As he said in his introduction to Paul Valéry’s The Art of Poetry, “I have never come across a final, comprehensive, and satisfactory account of the difference between poetry and prose.” What I’m hoping to do is simply to point, to suggest the likely direction in which our elusive quarry has fled.
Returning to my friend’s description of Istanbul . . . not at all practical. If you were Mehmet the Conqueror, who took Constantinople (the future Istanbul) from the Byzantines in 1453, and, if, prior to your siege of the city, a scout had returned with a report like this, you would have had him beheaded on the spot. (Ottoman sultans were renowned for their impulsive executions for what seem in retrospect rather minor failures.) As Sultan Mehmet, you would have wanted to know the height and thickness of the city’s walls, the armaments on those walls, the Byzantine army’s approximate numbers, weak spots in the defenses—in short, you’d be looking for practical information reported in good old-fashioned prose.
• • •
Encyclopedia entry about New Rochelle exhausted, I thought I’d drive up to see the place. On a clear Sunday morning, I got in my road-worn Honda and put about 25 miles on the odometer in a northerly direction. Forty-five minutes later I was greeted by a sign that read
Welcome to New Rochelle
Queen City of the Sound.
Antiquated nickname notwithstanding, I didn’t see much that conjured up royalty. Instead, there on the outskirts, the streets were lined with dilapidated houses and begrimed brick buildings. As I drove on into the heart of the downtown, I saw numerous yellow-and-purple banners:
Monroe College Salutes the City of New Rochelle.
It was a centennial celebration (my Funk & Wagnalls was clearly outdated; it had only mentioned Iona and the College of New Rochelle. And where were their banners?).
I had no idea where the city planned to construct the new IKEA (the Times article failed to mention street names), so I stopped in the New Rochelle Donut Shop, where I spoke to one of the owners.
“They’re building an IKEA? I don’t live in New Rochelle, I work here. I didn’t hear about it. Was it in the Times? I didn’t see anything like that.”
Fortunately for me, Jo McCarthy, a waitress, had. “I think it’s going to be up by Labrett’s Hardware on 5th. That’s on the border of Larchmont. Stop in the hardware store and ask there.”
I followed 5th Avenue as it wound toward the Larchmont-New Rochelle border only to find Labrett’s closed (it was Sunday after all). I continued on to the H & H Deli. The black woman behind the counter flaunted a smile both disarming and infectious. All of the patrons were black, and one of them—wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and a fedora—was sitting on a chair on the front porch. He spoke in an accent I’d gotten to know growing up in East Orange, New Jersey, and it was clear he wasn’t there to do any shopping: this wasn’t a 7-Eleven; this was a neighborhood hangout. These people all knew each other, and some had tabs (I overhead the woman behind the counter joking about the credit she was giving out). The H & H, I learned, was slated for the wrecking ball, too.
One patron was all for it. “They put up this IKEA, they have to buy my house. Then I got the money t’get outta this hole.” He left, an arm wrapped around a grocery bag, to a chorus of mild complaints (“Aw man . . . you the only one . . .”).
Needless to say, the woman behind the counter was able to give me clear, accurate directions.
• • •
The area where the IKEA would go was a symbiosis of businesses and homes, not unlike some of the neighborhoods I knew in urban New Jersey. Unassuming, tree-lined streets. Tires cut into rubber blooms used as planters for flowers. Fences dividing parking lots from backyards. One- or two-story brick rectangles diademed with rusting signs as though with family crests. I found Ruth McGruder on her front porch, pretty much where Joe Berger, the Times reporter, had left her.
The 62-year-old, five-foot Mrs. McGruder thinks the house she rents for $600 a month with her sister Willie Mae and where she has helped raise a dozen nephews and nieces has been a fine home. Sure, it’s not the princely Victorians she cleans for a living, but she has filled it with touches that have meaning and that tell of her battle to eke out some beauty in a life of two failed marriages and other harsh moments.
When she moved here 30 years ago, she painstakingly enveloped her front porch with the baby hedges she had carried with her from her mother’s yard in rural Alabama. The hedges are now nine feet tall. She has added pots of zinnia, petunias and geraniums, and a maple she found as a sapling in the nearby lake where she fishes.
Her front porch could not be taken in by the eye alone, unlike, say, an IKEA wall unit, which certainly is not more than the sum of its screw-together parts. To fully appreciate those nine-foot fountains of greenery, you’d need to know the story behind them, whereas the story behind the IKEA wall unit is an assembly line. Her front porch had its own atmosphere, its own climate, with an average temperature I’d say of about 98.6 when Mrs. McGruder was there. Exuding age, it was something of an attic open to view—as opposed to a dusty storehouse for undisposed-of detritus—into which a woman’s personal history had seeped like a dark wood stain. It was not mere function; it was a bit of the South recreated in the North, a tar terrace (hers is not a raised porch) conducive to talking and watching evening settle, to passing the time with neighbors. Or a curious writer. She mentioned an Italian woman a few doors down who was equally alarmed by the impending IKEA and spoke admiringly of her impressive collection of antique furniture. “What’s she gonna do with all that?” Mrs. McGruder wondered.
Why do we painstakingly preserve ruins, pay exorbitant fees to wander in them, snap our photos beside them, if not because of the poetry we find?
By now it should be clear where I am headed: formula—IKEA, the franchise, the uniform—tends toward prose. The inimitable—a collection of antique furniture, the H & H Deli, Mrs. McGruder’s front porch—the spontaneous or whimsical, the heterogeneous or the unorthodox, tends to be poetic. I say “tends” because I have no confidence I can create verbal equations with mathematical precision. In general terms, prose in its purest form is smooth as a steel ball-bearing. It allows nothing to take root (other than the crop meant to be grown), it has nothing to catch on, to snag your clothes (or your imagination) as you slide down its unblemished surface. It is legal language with as little room as possible for misinterpretation. You don’t want the ambiguity in which poetry delights; you don’t want double meanings, puns, elasticity. You want to know the precise conditions under which you’ll inherit that fortune from Uncle Jack. You want to know exactly where to place the jack under the car.
Numerous novelists, essayists, short story writers, authors of creative nonfiction will be quick to object that they don’t write textureless sentences. They, too, use puns and double entendres and end sentences, paragraphs, stories ambiguously. Why shouldn’t they? They’re not writing legal contracts or instruction manuals. Again, I’m only staking out a pole, an extremity, and there’s room for every variety of prose and poetry within this spectrum.
At its pole prose has a practical purpose. Even in a novel, particularly a commercial one, prose is often there mainly to move a story along. We don’t want the unique in pure prose. We want the easily reproducible, the predictable, the commonplace, the accessible. This is why we go to franchises. As my brother put it when I urged him during a cross-country trip to stop at Grandma So-And-So’s Country Kitchen for breakfast, “I’d rather stop at McDonald’s. At least I know what I’m getting.”
Particularly for those who abhor labels or categories of any sort, let me try to illustrate what I mean by practical. Let’s take a pitcher from the Attic region of Greece, fired in the kiln around 400 B.C. Our hypothetical pitcher may have a stunning painting of Hermes in black against a burnt orange background, but the painting is utterly unnecessary to the holding and dispensing of water; the lovely Hermes likeness is not practical. The pitcher, however, is. Poke a hole in the bottom—a big one—and even though the pitcher can no longer be used to pour or store water, it’s still a work of art. Similarly, if we throw some paint remover on the pitcher and smear the figure of Hermes beyond recognition, we still have a pitcher that can be used, but it may no longer be a work of art—certainly it’s been drastically devalued as a work of art. When Valéry, a consummate poet as well as a master of prose, pointed out that prose is to poetry as walking is to dancing, he was making the same point. Walking, especially in Valéry’s day, gets you from one part of Paris to another. Dancing is something else altogether, a mood transformed into movement. It might be what you do when you have spare time and energy enough to give something back to the cosmos or feel like adding a flourish to your travel through the day.
William Gass, whose preternaturally scintillant style puts to nought any facile attempt at categorization, backs up Valéry without apology: “Unlike prose, poetry is not a kind of communication, but a construction in consciousness.” Coming to terms with the second half of this statement requires bringing more of Gass’s oeuvre to bear, but the first half is clear enough.
The opposition between the pragmatic/prosaic and the unnecessary/poetic is also, at least on one level, what Sylvia Plath seems to have had in mind in these lines from her brief but stunning poem “The Night Dances”:
And how will your night dances
Lose themselves. In mathematics?
Such pure leaps and spirals—
Surely they travel
The world forever
Here, mathematics stands in for prose, while the poetry—coincidentally enough echoing Valéry—is mirrored by dance. But Plath has taken her metaphor a step further; night conjures up the shadowy, the unconscious, the instinctive. It’s unlikely though that she’s emphasizing a general antagonism between instinct and reason, as what she emphasizes is the visual beauty of the dance (“the pure leaps and spirals”) and because dance, while certainly closer to the instinctive than statistics or calculus, suggests something more refined.
One of the things that makes Basho’s haiku poetry is that nobody asked him for it.
William Blake drew a similar distinction: “Grecian is mathematic form. Mathematic form is eternal in the reasoning memory. . . . Gothic is living form.” We in the 21st century are too far from architecture as a study and Gothic as a style to fully appreciate Blake’s assertion, but Victorian art historian John Ruskin was not. In his essay “The Nature of Gothic” he observes, “Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent.” Hence, Gothic builders didn’t bother to make perfect angles or circles that only compasses and fish eyes could compete with. Nor did Gothic builders adhere to “ideas of outside symmetries and consistencies . . . . If they wanted a window, they opened one; a room, they added one; a buttress, they built one; utterly regardless of any established conventionalities of external appearance.” And, tellingly, Ruskin writes, “A useless window would rather have been opened in an unexpected place for the sake of the surprise, than a useful one forbidden for the sake of symmetry.”
Gothic demotes the practical while elevating the useless. In other words, Gothic is a more poetic style of architecture than the one we find behind the Classical Greek temple. In fact, part of the attraction of ruins—what is poetic about them—is the amalgam of unique visual effects we see when artifice returns to the organic. Think of a statue blotched with lichen and grimed with moss, its pedestal disappearing under fallen leaves in a forest. Think of an abandoned city, such as Chichen Itza, crumbling in the viny arms of Mexico’s jungle. Of nature reclaiming the line that’s too straight, the paint that’s too bright, the shape that’s too geometric. You can’t invent the shape of a melted candle. You can’t foresee how a building or a city will give in to the elements. In a sense the demise of the Classical is the beginning of Gothic—the erosion of the ideal, which is often more beautiful to us flawed humans than perfection. Ultimately, maybe, we love best what mirrors ourselves.
• • •
If an instruction manual is a paragon of pure prose, I would say haiku is a paragon of pure poetry. Why haiku? Why not the sonnet? I suppose because if a triangle is the simplest closed geometric figure, haiku is about the simplest poem. Let’s look at one by Basho, the Japanese master (which loses the five-seven-five syllable count in translation):
No one is traveling it
Now, let’s compare it to a similar piece of prose:
Going down the hall,
Look for a door on the left:
You have found the john.
There is the traditional haiku form but zero poetry. In fact Basho’s haiku is pretty much prose right up until the last line. And what makes it poetry is, again, misinformation; twilight doesn’t travel. Basho’s fib is not for the intellect, it’s for what religions term the soul—or wherever it is that we feel longing, nostalgia (a brand of longing), a sense of belonging in the world (or alienation), among many other sensations.
If Mehmet the Conqueror had asked one of his scouts if he’d seen any sign of the enemy on the road ahead, the scout very well might have replied, without fear of losing his head, “No one is traveling this road but us.” He could probably add the misinformation for dramatic effect and still be on safe ground, but only because Mehmet would know it was a bit of metaphorical exaggeration. One of the things that makes Basho’s haiku poetry is that nobody asked him for it. Like our hypothetical painting of Hermes on the Attic pitcher, like dancing in a forest glade, it doesn’t have a pragmatic purpose; it’s an elegant extra, a lovely superfluousness.
While we often choose prose over poetry, poetry is still important to us. It’s just that we often fail to recognize it when it’s not in print. The atmosphere in a restaurant, for example. It won’t satisfy the gnawing in your stomach or even make your food taste any better. You can’t use it to grease the pans. And you won’t find it in McDonald’s. Yet who would take a date to McDonald’s? Only someone who doesn’t want a second date.
If you walk into a Bennigan’s, a Casey O’Toole’s, a Houlihan’s—names meant to call up the Irish pubs they’re modeled on—you’ll see imitation poetry: fake street signs, turn-of-the-century photos of families who have nothing to do with the establishment whose walls they’re decorating, false nostalgia, manufactured history. The bartender didn’t inherit the place from Papa Houlihan to whom he was apprenticed as a lad; he’s a graduate student at Rutgers University who took a night course at bartending school and will be gone as soon as he earns his MBA. The point is, the corporation that turned Houlihan’s into a franchise recognized that people will, under certain circumstances, pay a little more for poetry (read: atmosphere). When it comes to furniture, however, we are willing to go to IKEA and take the hit on workmanship and quality (it’s mostly particle board rather than wood) probably because furniture is a much larger outlay.
A measure of incertitude (a principle prose labors against . . . you want anyone to be able to change that tire, to be able to follow the directions) is another component of poetry. Dusk and dawn are generally considered the most poetic times of day. Time seems to be in a holding pattern, to have stilled itself long enough for a grainy photo or a hazy recollection. Solidity is flattened and hollowed out into silhouette, and because we are in two worlds at once, because clarity has been sacrificed, we are striding away from prose. Similarly, fog can turn even the most prosaic building into something worth looking at for the same reason: edges blurred, form is now unreliable.
And there is poetry in the thing left unfinished—a founding tenet of the Impressionist painters. The pragmatism of meticulously reproducing line by line some external scene or object was replaced by a more whimsical aesthetic. In one of his exquisite fictions, Guy Davenport put it rather succinctly, “With Cézanne and Van Gogh European art gave up three centuries of taxidermy.” The mind was invited—relied upon—to participate, to fill in what had been left out, to reconstitute the whole.
Fog, smoke, deterioration, the accidental all contribute to the inimitable. There is something appealing to the eye about the rusting farm machinery abandoned in the Midwest, the rain-faded cafés gone to ghosts, the gas stations given over to weeds and crickets. Why do we painstakingly preserve ruins—Greek, Mayan, Hittite, what-have-you—pay exorbitant fees to wander in them, snap our photos beside them, if not because of the poetry we find? Their uses are clearly at an end, but we seem to love them no less; in some cases, more.
And when we say a place has “character,” we mean it bears visible marks of its own history. Even those Soviet-style cement apartment blocks—as sterile as a hospital corridor scoured by fluorescent light when they were new—look better when they begin to weather, when soot streaks their concrete facades with black tears, when they look lived in. In some sense, poetry is a contact map of forces at play in the universe. “And the unseen,” Whitman writes in “Song of Myself,” “is proved by the seen,” much as the disfigured surface of the moon is testament to a hyperactive and hostile universe that has thankfully mellowed with age.
If we translate the analogy to boxing, prose would be a Russian with a piston-like jab, a powerful right hand, and a standard left hook behind his right cross. Guard high, he plods straight forward. He’s formidable, certainly, but somewhat predictable. Poetry would be a kid who can dance like Fred Astaire, whose rhythm is as important as his punching power, who bobs, weaves and hooks off his jab—an unorthodox move—slips punches instead of blocking them. His hands are dangling near his hips, his head is a frustrating target.
Poetry thrives on the intuitive leap; prose is supposed to virgil the reader along. With poetry, the bubble in your level is always somewhat off. It makes you think the way the punch-line of a joke demands that you find the right pair of wires and connect them. It’s an overseas girlfriend who rings the phone once, just before you leave for work, turning that alarm-like sound into an “I love you” or an “I’m thinking of you.” It’s an oblique approach.
Of course, while a foggy night shares some elements with poetry, it’s not a poem. Nor is a restaurant, no matter how colorful its history or how intoxicating its atmosphere. The moon is not a sonnet or a haiku though it’s inspired many of both. A poem is a gestalt, a strange collection of elements that, when they perform together, create a particular aesthetic whole. The point is that boxing, restaurants, furniture, and myriad other things that are not poetry can still partake of the poetic.
I’m not trying to say poetry is better than prose any more than soul—supposing each of us actually has one—is better than body: “lacks one lacks both,” to call on Whitman again. Without a body you wouldn’t know you had a soul; without a soul you wouldn’t want your body. It all depends on the situation at hand. If you need to defuse a bomb, and you really aren’t sure how to go about it, you’d trade in your whole collection of Beat poets to get your hands on a guide diagramming the process. I’m not saying prose can’t be poetic; I’d be denying the lyricism of countless novels and short stories by some of our most gifted authors. My aim here is to suggest that the poetic shows up in more places than we think, we need it more than we think, and we don’t have to exchange it at every opportunity for the mass-produced and a few dollars in savings—figuratively speaking of course.
I began this essay when the debate over the IKEA store had just begun. It has since ended, and, surprisingly enough, the underdogs won. Mrs. McGruder’s home with its one-of-a-kind front porch, the homes of her neighbors, the H & H Deli, and all those other mom-and-pop businesses dodged the wrecking ball. This time.
This essay is part of BR’s special package celebrating National Poetry Month.