On Context: Prose Versus Poetry. A Race For Medal?
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 9/10/02
Recently I have tried my hand at writing prose, although I do not consider myself a prose writer as my primary artistic outlet, as I do with poetry. I have enjoyed writing it, however, and feel that some attempts have been fruitful. Jason Sanford, the fiction editor for the online magazine storySouth, and also a regular attendee of the Uptown Poetry Group, once told me this interesting fact, which in turn helped to inspire this essay. I asked him once to email me a copy of a bad short story submission. With the name deleted, he did. While not an expert on distinguishing a great short story from a very good one, I could tell that the story was terrible. The opening line was something like: They knew they’d be together forever…or something not far off. Jason told me that he is able to skim through the stories and can tell if they are worth reading entirely or not. With getting so many submissions, one would not be able to read thoroughly every single story. So I asked how can he tell that certain stories are stinkers and not salvageable as opposed to some that may only need a good editing. He said that generally, the worst short stories tend to be shorter, i.e., there is no character development and the situations are clichéd and predictable. So here comes the quote: “maybe that’s why so many bad writers turn to poetry.” Bingo. With that in mind, I got to thinking that there is some truth in that. If you think about it, most poetry books fall into the typical MFA cookie-cutter format. Well, sadly, you don’t really need to think about it at all. Most are about 40 pages long, some poems are short, some can take a full page. Usually there is no more than one poem per page. Of course exceptions exist, but for the most part, this is the case. I don’t really care about how the publisher wants to prepare the layout, per se, if the poems were good. But we all know they’re not. Water Becomes Bone, by C. Mikal Oness, published by New Rivers Press, is a book that has 70 pages, one poem per page, and not a single poem goes beyond 14 lines. In fact, most of them are between 4-8 lines, all mediocre to bad. Let’s consider the complexity of this masterpiece, entitled Syllabus.
You must write a poem a day-seven, not five,
per week. They must be typed. They must be
stapled. Place the one you want taken most seriously
on top when you hand them in. What’s said in class
is more important than what’s in the book.
Or how ‘bout this one, with the same title:
All poems are open to interpretation as long as you
Ignore what they are saying. For your final address
The following question: if this is a literature course, why are we
Writing poems? Support your thesis. Your grade will be
Determined. Remember, you can’t learn this anywhere else.
was only going to include the first poem, but then the 2nd one was
even worse, so I had to share it with you, my dear readers. Let’s see, why are
these poems bad? They are both very prosaic, there is no music, and don’t say
anything really interesting that hasn’t been said in a better way before. The
line breaks are solid, and you can see he is trying to make each individual line
an idea of its own, (especially more in the 2nd poem). The problem
is, however, that these poems are dull, dull, dull. They literally read like
prose and aren’t really poems to begin with. But the point of this essay is
not to show that they are terrible pieces of trifle that one might write on the
back of a grocery list or in a diary as a passing thought, but that certainly
one would realize that they were trifle and not publish them for god’s sake,
let alone PLACE EACH ONE ON ITS OWN PAGE! These poems are so ridiculous in
themselves, and to have each on it’s own page for supposed “breathing
room” is just absurd. Hyam Plutzik often has shorter poems of similar lengths
on individual pages, but here’s the kicker: they’re actually good. Just look
at some of his poems on the Neglected Poets page.
And with this in mind, are these poetry books really that difficult to write? Sharon Olds writes about 1 book every 2 years, roughly. In seeing her bad line breaks, clichés, and overall sloppiness, the answer is no. Publishing companies are ripping you off by charging $13.00 for a book of 50 pages, one poem per page, not to mention a separate page to divide the poems into “sections”. And the poets who write this garbage are also ripping you off, fooling you into thinking what they are writing is anything above doggerel. Everyone always rips on Romance Novels, V.C. Andrews, Jackie Collins, and Danielle Steele. The truth is, I think higher of all 4 of these, simply because they are not trying to pass themselves off for great art. If you asked me which is better: a book of Sharon Olds’ poetry or a John Grisham novel, I’d have to take Grisham on that. At least his books, in paperback, are only about $7, as opposed to twice that amount for a book of Olds’ doggerel. Do I think V.C. Andrews is a good writer? Not really. Are all those Romance Novels just crap? Sure, but at least they know they’re just mindless entertainment with no pretense involved.
So this brings me back to my initial point. Which is harder to write, a book of poetry or a novel. By harder I mean more time-consuming, what needs more revision, what needs more precision, etc. The truth is that it depends on the level of quality one is dealing with. I think of writing a novel as running a marathon. It takes a long time, you need to prepare yourself months before hand, and you need to pace yourself throughout. Novels can take a while, this we know. But poetry, that is, Great Poetry, is like an Olympic Gymnastics Meet. You also need to be prepared, in good shape, agile, and heavily trained on the moves. Shannon Miller won the Olympic Gold Medal for the U.S., and doing so involved many complex moves along the parallel bars, and knowing just how to land on her feet. This is what it’s like in poetry. But in an Olympic event, one who is competing in the marathon will take about 2 hours, if not longer to finish. Everyone goes at a certain pace. The Gymnastic event may only last 2-4 minutes, but no one could dare say after seeing what those people do, that their work is any easier than completing a marathon. In fact, many would claim it was harder. Just think of all the people you know who have run marathons. Now how many of those are gymnasts? Not many, because it takes a special agility and strength that few possess. Just because something is shorter in duration does not mean it is easier. Poetry, like gymnastics, is much more planned and complex than running a marathon, or writing a novel.
But here’s the problem: the judges have been fooled. You now have people competing in gymnastics who are out of shape and cannot balance themselves. Adrienne Rich walks out to the parallel bars and does a chin lift. Whoopee. Give her a Pulitzer. James Tate can’t even do a cartwheel. He flops on his side in what looks like what’s supposed to be a round off. Sharon Olds walks out and starts French-kissing the floor mat, and then does a somersault. Give her a Silver for that one. Meanwhile, all these Marathon Romance Novel Runners are maybe not finishing in top time, but at least they are breaking a sweat. They may have to walk the whole way and it might not be too exciting a finish, but at least their feet ache in the end from their efforts. The same cannot be said of these sloppy gymnasts. People in the audience think “hey, I can do that too, that’s not so hard.” And do you know why it is they think that? Because it’s not that hard, and by charging stupid people outrageous prices to witness this mediocre output, people who understand little about the sport begin to think they too can be gymnasts while eating pizza 7 nights a week. It just doesn’t work that way. It would be nice to think that things work themselves out, like how someday there will be a Revelation and everyone will wake up one morning and realize they’ve been fooled. Sadly, people like to believe what they’re told, and often if something is published and “in a book”, that is good enough reason for them to think it’s good.
The quality, then in point, is what determines the difficulty. Leaves of Grass, in it’s own right, just as good as Tolstoy’s War and Peace (and in my opinion, better). The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers is also, in my opinion, better than Hemingway’s total output. Not that what I believe to be the lesser does not possess qualities of Greatness in their own right, they do. Then ask once Sharon Olds has her Selected Poems available for publication, what took more efforts? Lets’ just say I’ll be there cheering the runners home in their final last mile.
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