Can prose be poetry?

Longtemps, je n’ai pas aimé sortir le soir.

People are different at night.  Under cover of its camouflage, their true, lupine colours show through.

But after experiencing the giallonoir lights of Paris, I seemed to lose my fear of night and the city.  And over time, I learned to love to bathe in golden shadows.  For things other than fleurs du mal bloom at night:—I love the lights, which, like penetrating rays of consciousness, flashes of inspiration blossoming in the black soil of the subconscious, require the loam of deep darkness to spark the oneiric reverie of their fiorrific flames.

In time I understood, like reading the rebus of a dream, what the clairobscure image of night and light was telling me: the lonely tiges of these solitudinous sentinelles, aureoled in melting platinum and nodding in la notte, were images of my own sombre soul burning tygerbright fra le selve oscure della gente.

—Dean Kyte, “Nightflowers”

When I lived in Bellingen, I earned an epithet which never quite escaped me.

Every year, around the Queen’s Birthday, Bellingen hosts its annual Readers & Writers Festival, and the highlight is the Poetry Slam on the Saturday night, an event which draws as competitive a murmur around town as the Melbourne Cup. Form of certain contenders is compared and bruited abroad in the days and weeks leading up to it, a noise which gathers to a crescendo as the poetic nags prance up to the gate of the Mem Hall.

My first year living in Bello, I charged out of nowhere, surging out of the pack from six lengths behind at the turn, like a dark horse whose form was utterly unknown in those climes, to carry off the big novelty cheque bestowed upon the runner-up. It was a complete fluke, but after that night I was known around town as ‘The Poet’—an utterly undeserved appellation, as I had used up about half of all the poems I have ever written in my life that night.

Most of my ‘poetic output’ is, strictly speaking, not my own, but translations from French, Italian and Spanish. My reputation around town as a translator of Baudelaire contributed somewhat to the capital T, capital P appellation, and perhaps inheriting his credentials as a spiritual sire gave me the thoroughbred look of a literary man born to the saddle of poetry.

I have never regarded myself as being ‘a’ poet, let alone ‘the’, but I could never shake off the definite article designation after that, despite polite explanation that I’m a ‘writer’, not really a ‘poetper se. To my ear at least, the vocation of ‘writer’ has an all-around, tradesmanlike sound to it, one which indicates a general maestria of the manifold forms of written language (most of which are prose), rather than the specific expertise of the ‘poet’.

I admire poets enormously, but however masterful I am at hammering out a well-turned sentence, I don’t consider myself to be anywhere near their priestly rank in the hierarchy of writers. Poetry, it seems to me, is not something that you write: it is something that is written through you, a message from God that you channel. People who have their antennæ turned towards and tuned in to receive the celestial communication on a more than hit-or-miss basis have my admiration.

If I have written a dozen poems worthy of the name in my entire life, I would be surprised to discover such prodigious production from a soul who, like M. Flaubert, suffers to turn one golden word from the dross of his mind.

Most of the poetry I have ever written was written in a few months, on Parisian soil, when the fecund inspiration of ‘the reality of experience’, as Mr. Joyce calls it, interpenetrated the soil of my soul, made ready for it by thousands of hours of toil in another, antipodean atmosphere.

To carry on the metaphor, a poem is like a flower: it grows within you of its own volition, the natural product of soil and light and air, and you are the gardener charged by God with gathering this bud in the ephemeral fullness of its flowering. I have expressed this conviction more fully in a memoir yet to be published, recalling the moment, in the cours La Reine in Paris, when I felt the first thing I could honestly call a ‘poem’ germinate and spring to sudden life within me:

This was the truly rare thing, the thing which had made Orfeo despair of ever ‘being’ un poète rather than le prosateur he knew himself, aucœur, to be:—for he knew innately that this natural emergenza, this illuminating insight, this sudden, lucid pénétration de la conscience into la vraie nature des choses which takes sudden, stunning shape in a small number of perfect words perfectly arranged, could not be forced, could not be le produit d’un moi, of a mind consciously writing to ‘produce’ un poème, but was itself un acte gratuit de la Nature as rare, as long an odd as that interpénétration des individus which yet produces a third, equally unique, equally irreplaceable individu from that contingent comingtogether….

But now le miracle de la Nature was taking its course in him: the event longwaitedfor, almost despaired of, the spontaneous, paroozianic excrescence of something real, something that was meant to be, and to have une vie propre dans le monde indépendant d’Orfeo, the way any authentic poème which has survived to be repeated by successive générations des êtres humains as expressing in some perfect, immediately apprehendable way l’essence tragique de notre condition has lived, whether it emerges from la sensibilité unique of a Keats, a Coleridge, a Rimbaud, a Baudelaire, a Wordsworth, a Goethe, a Blake; and which we immediately sense, on the reading of it, the profound interaction of une conscience unique avec ce monde, such that these words in this form must be;—must take their life, separate de leur créateur and without propriety anymore than un enfant est la propriété de son parent; to strike their harmonious accord within him and then to vibrate outwards to touch des autres âmes à travers le temps as the apprehension—sudden, lucid, clear—of some vérité éternelle de notre relation avec la Nature.  Le poème was, in fine, necessary dans l’histoire du monde: it must be, just as those œuvres—les Manet, les Courbet—Orfeo had seen au musée d’Orsay,—et toutes les autres œuvres which he had been privileged to see all this extraordinary semaine de sa vie,—were fated by this same poetic inevitability to be.  They spoke to something essential dans la condition de l’homme, and those luminous, irridescent traits dans le bouquet de l’Olympia, no less rude and irregular than these crude lines taking spontaneous shape sous la main d’Orfeo, were, comme les enfants d’une vision formed in its own kink, et perversité de l’esprit, et particularité to see ces traits où les autres, avant Manet, could not, no less essential a fleuring in that concatenation de l’histoire than the flowering de l’orchidée rare qui était Manet luimême, budded up from the sterile staff d’un juge bourgeois out of the unpropitious field of une fille de diplomate.  Our presumptuous little hero had the grave and awful sense pour la première fois dans sa vie that what he committed here, en ce jour, dans le cours la Reine, would echo long into l’éternité:  The great grave bell had been struck, and the peal of his fame, that of our ridiculous little dandy, cloaked in the conspicuous sable of his ostentatious anonymity pendant sa vie, would resound from this moment of sincere sentiment when he had abased son âme devant l’Olympia, would echo, growing—ironically, paradoxically—louder, not dimmer and more muffled as this instant of time slipped further from him, the words he now committed à la page slipping further from his hand to become no longer his property, but something dans le patrimoine de toute humanité, to take its place, alongside the most essential art, in the vast, grand jardin du domaine public.  If he did nothing more with his life than what he did on this day, Orfeo had ascended, accédé à l’Académie des Phares with this cri which emerged, déchirant, de son cœur:  It would be taken up, cette torche, par mille sentinelles, par mille portevoix, passed, de main en main, d’âge en âge, only to flicker and die à la dernière syllabe of recorded time, at the last rippling ondulation of its écho, au bord de l’éternité.  Here was la poésie, in this osmotic interaction of that which was without Orfeo with that which was within him; it emerged, unforced, unbidden, by this mysterious alchimerical interaction, as rare a transubstantiation as lead into gold, and if the effect was rather, from a more objective standpoint, the imposition, by Orfeo, of his sensibilité sur la nature, as of a pathetic fallacy upon this indifferent scene, it had rather the effect upon him that he was discovering some profound truth latent in the design of what appeared to be un chaos harmonieux.

—Dean Kyte, Orpheid: L’Olympia

The babel of that quotation gives you some sense not only of how little I consider myself to be a poet, but, suffering like M. Flaubert from the knowledge that my antennæ are not turned, on balance, towards the celestial, poetic realm, but towards the prosaic, terrestrial world, how much, in compensation, I have sought to make my prose scintillate with that ‘speaking in tongues’ natural to the priestly poets.

With a deep bow of reverence to Howard Nemerov’s provocative entry on poetry in the Encyclopædia Britannica (which is worth repeated readings), one might almost say that prose is the ‘science’ of literature and poetry the ‘art’ of it.

Like science, prose is a purely descriptive account of nature. I often call written language ‘the algebra of thought’, and like the workaday symbology of algebra between scientists, prose is intended to get an idea, a descriptive account of external reality, out of one mind and as neatly, efficiently, and accurately into another.

Poetry, on the other hand, does something even more abstract with the abstract symbology of language than prose. It attempts to make music out of units of concrete meaning.

I have always been of the view that the highest demonstration of artistic genius is when an artist takes his medium and makes it do the opposite of what it is intended to do as, for example, when Robert Bresson suggested that the highest end of cinema was to ‘film the invisible’. In some sense, music (which it appears to have co-evolved with) is the contrary of language, and the poetic attempt to void words of their workaday meanings and make them into abstract sounds—the music of the spheres—is, in my view, the highest form of literary expression.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge proposed two neat equations, stating that ‘prose = words in the best order’ and that ‘poetry = the best words in the best order [my emphasis].’ The latter equation implies concision as a corollary, and concision seems to be a natural feature of poetry, from the haiku to the epic: If a poem constitutes the best words arranged in the best possible order, it naturally excludes from itself any words which do not cumulatively contribute to the peerless effect it produces.

I think this sense of concentrated concision native to poetry, which expresses the essence of living reality without superfluity, and yet transcends the purely descriptive account of prose, such that whatever description it does supply abstractly transcends the material so that multiple meanings operate simultaneously on multiple levels, is what makes even such fastidious craftsmen of prose as M. Flaubert and myself despair of ever being ‘poets’ in the priestly sense I have described above.

Though the modern prose poem was officially inaugurated by M. Baudelaire, arguably it is his contemporary, M. Flaubert, who is the first modern ‘poet in prose’. He suffered, as he wrote to Louise Colet in 1852, to write a style of prose ‘qui serait rythmé comme le vers, précis comme le langage des sciences’.

And as much as the recluse of Croisset was held, in the middle-class circles he despised, as a literary freak, dangerous to bon sens et bonnes mœurs, even M. Flaubert’s most tory critics had to concede that, despite the apparently insane ends to which he turned the French language, hardly anybody writing during the Second Empire had as firm a reign on words, nor could they polish each part of a prosaic sentence up to the point of being something akin to poetry.

M. Flaubert’s writing process has become legendary for its redundant exactitude, and when one reads of the tireless synopses, synopses of synopses, drafts and drafts of drafts that he went through, one almost feels as though the greatest writer of French prose in his day were conducting himself like an absolute neophyte, a perpetual student of bonne forme.

As his good friend, George Sand, wrote to M. Flaubert, chastising him for his grumbling over the negative reception of L’Éducation sentimentale (1869):

Au fond, tu lis, tu creuses, tu travailles plus que moi et qu’une foule d’autres. Tu as acquis une instruction à laquelle je n’arriverai jamais. Tu es donc plus riche cent fois que nous tous ; tu es un riche et tu cries comme un pauvre. Faites la charité à un gueux qui a de l’or plein sa paillasse, mais qui ne veut se nourrir que de phrases bien faites et de mots choisis. Mais, bêta, fouille dans ta paillasse et mange ton or. Nourris-toi des idées et des sentiments amassés dans ta tête et dans ton coeur ; les mots et les phrases, la forme dont tu fais tant de cas, sortira toute seule de ta digestion. Tu la considères comme un but, elle n’est qu’un effet.

In the final analysis, you dig, you work harder than myself and a whole host of other writers. You have acquired an erudition to which I shall never attain. You are a hundred times richer than the rest of us; you are rich and yet you cry poor! You want that I should dispense alms upon a beggar whose cup is full of gold, but who does not want to feast except on well-turned phrases and the choicest of words? Dummy, dig in your cup and eat your gold! Nourish yourself upon the feelings and ideas hoarded in your head and heart! The words and phrases, the ‘form’ over which you make such a fuss, will emerge naturally from your digestion. You consider ‘form’ to be an end in itself, but it’s merely an effect.

—George Sand to Gustave Flaubert, 12 January, 1876 (my translation)

Mme. Sand’s maternal whipping is a quote I come back to whenever I beweep my outcast state as a prosateur, aspiring, like le Grand Ours who predominates the firmament of French literature, to turn machine-tooled sentences as rhythmical as verse and as precise as the language of science.

Precision, by Coleridge’s definition, is the mark of both the prose stylist and the poet: both know the multifarious tools of written language to an extraordinarily intimate degree, and yet there is something altogether different—and missing in M. Flaubert’s sensibility, as in mine—between shaping the prosaic table of a sentence, which must bear all kinds of objects in carefully arranged orders upon the sturdy, yet elegantly turned, legs of grammar, and fashioning, as in Exodus 27, the high altar of a poetic strophe or stanza, which both comes from God and praises God in its infinitely rich design.

There is a certain point where precision turns towards analysis, and at this point prose and poetry would appear to diverge.

Though he had a poet’s command of his tools, M. Flaubert had an analytic sensibility, and he wielded words like a scalpel, not merely to gouge and dissect his eternal enemies, the bourgeoisie, but to layer on the tiny couches of colour which are the myriad details and objects he populates his canvas with.

The concision of the poet is, in some sense, a function of the holistic God’s eye view he taps into in a moment of inspiration. Analysis of detail is antithetical to this macro-level vision. But the writer of prose, the novelist or short story writer, is firmly on the ground. He gazes ahead and about himself, seeing a maze to be dissected by induction and deduction, not the mandala which the whole world forms when viewed from on high.

In this plodding, linear movement through the environmental and Balzacian social maze, the prosaic, purely descriptive account of phenomena is called for as a compass. Poetry won’t get you far when confronted with a Rastignac.

The modern poets of novelistic prose, M. Flaubert, Mr. Joyce, are very much in this naturalistic world which has its roots in the ‘social scientific’, analytic prose style of M. Balzac. Moreover, in the supremely artificial phenomenon of the City, these novelists no less than a prose poet like M. Baudelaire see in the multitude of details they microscopically describe and analyse some macrocosmic totality like unto the poet’s God. Mr. Joyce, of course, claimed to be an atheist, but the whole Dublin of Ulysses (1922) is pervaded with an atman-like oversoul which proclaims, echoing the throwaway pamphlet that Mr. Bloom sends sailing into the Liffey, that ‘Elijah is coming!’

It’s the great misfortune of a writer’s life to come upon Joyce and Ulysses too early, as I did at a tender, precocious age. You’re ruined for straight-talking, undemonstrative, definitely unpoetic, Hemingwayesque, prosy prose after that. When you see the peerless example that Mr. Joyce, battling both poverty and blindness, made to make every word of his prose shine with the celestial lustre of poetry, you must forge each word in the smithy of your soul under his heavy shadow, just as he forged words under M. Flaubert’s.

And it’s no disrespect to this all-around writer, this supreme homme de lettres who is the easy (and only) equal for verbal inventiveness to Shakespeare in our language, that he, like M. Flaubert, is not really a poet. There are a few charming lyrics in Chamber Music, and his long, Rabelaisian broadsides against the bourgeoisie of Dublin ought to be better known and widely recited for the comic masterpieces they are, but apart from “Ecce Puer”, almost none of Mr. Joyce’s poems are memorable.

We know Shem the Penman, il caro Giacomo, as the formidable maestro of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake (1939), two epic novels which render a city by day and again by night, and as the author of those vignettes in Dubliners (1914) which, in the tart cleanliness of their prose, out-Hemingways Hemingway well-avant la lettre.

In his exquisite workmanship with words, which do multiple functions and have multiple meanings even in the relatively straightforward short stories of Dubliners, Mr. Joyce follows the Flaubertian example of making every single word in every single sentence the best possible word in the best possible order. It is a mark of his poetic sensibility détourné de la poésie elle-même that Mr. Joyce finds poetry (which he called ‘epiphanies’) in the most prosaic moments of Leopold Bloom’s day—like letting go his bowels.

That analytic, microscopic, naturalistic vision of life, which parses reality and excludes no part of it, finding the poetic totality in the prosaic banality of describing everything, is where the great reconciliation between prose and poetry occurs in Mr. Joyce’s œuvre. He find the epiphanic God of poetry in everything: he has Stephen Dedalus call Him ‘a shout in the street’. He finds Him as present in Mr. Bloom’s merde as in the bar of Sweny’s lemon soap in his pocket.

Today we commemorate the 117th anniversary of Mr. Bloom’s immortal flânerie around Dublin (or equally, the 117th anniversary of Mr. Joyce’s first flâneuristic date with his future wife and muse, Nora Barnacle, the Galway lass who would ‘stick’ to him). In his encylopædia of Dublin on the day of June 16th, 1904, he shows us how prose—the unprosiest prose possible on what Arnold Bennett called ‘the dailiest day possible’—can be ineffably poetic. The God-like macrocosm is contained within the microcosm of Dublin, all time contained within the grain of sand of a single day, and poetic totality contained within the prosaic banality of everything.

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