Poets complaining about prose are like cobblers criticizing the pavement. With apologies to John Lennon, prose is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. Ah but prose style knows poetry full well and sometimes exceeds it. Here’s Evelyn Waugh describing of the first flush of youthful ardor (which is consciousness) in “Brideshead Revisited”:
“That day was the beginning of my friendship with Sebastian, and thus it came about, that morning in June, that I was lying beside him in the shade of the high elms watching the smoke from his lips drift up into the branches.”
When prose works like poetry it is compounded, attentive, circular, and spicy with particularities.
Here’s a small sample of Toni Morrison’s prose from her exquisite novel “Home”:
“A mean grandmother is one of the worst things a girl could have. Mamas are supposed to spank and rule you so you grow up knowing right from wrong. Grandmothers, even when they’ve been hard on their own children, are forgiving and generous to the grandchildren. Ain’t that so?
Cee stood up in the zinc tub and took a few dripping steps to the sink. She filled a bucket from the faucet, poured it into the warming tub water, and sat back down in it. She wanted to linger in cool water while a softly suffering afternoon light encouraged her thoughts to tumble. Regrets, excuses, righteousness, false memory, and future plans mixed together or stood like soldiers in line. Well, that’s the way grandmothers should be, she thought, but for little Ycidra Money it wasn’t like that at all. Because Mama and Pap worked from before sunrise until dark, they never knew that Miss Lenore poured water instead of milk over the shredded wheat Cee and her brother ate for breakfast. Nor that when they had stripes and welts on their legs they were cautioned to lie, to say they got them by playing out by the stream where brambles and huckleberry thorns grew. ”
Nicholson Baker once said poetry is prose in slow motion but I disagree. Prose is poetry given a chance to stretch after much confinement.
Coleridge said famously: “Prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in the best order.” Again I disagree. Here’s Salman Rushdie writing about becoming a writer, a passage from his memoir “Joseph Anton”:
“When the British ruled a quarter of the world they went forth from their cold little northern island and became, on the great plains and beneath the immense skies of India and Africa, more glamorous, extroverted, operatic personalities—bigger characters—than there was room for back home. But then the age of empires ended and they had to diminish back into their smaller, colder, grayer island selves. Granny May in her little turret house, dreaming of the infinite pampas and the prize bulls who came like unicorns to lay their heads in her lap, seemed like such a figure, and all the more interesting, less clichéd, because her story had happened not in the territories of the British Empire, but in Argentina. He wrote down a name for her in his notebook. “Rosa Diamond.””
This is poetry because the best words “are” in the best order and just so, the self to self dichotomy of the writer’s awareness grows larger, more supple and ironic, for he knows more having written this passage than he did beforehand. What should the best order mean but this?
Who, you ask, are poets who write excellent prose? Walt Whitman; Audre Lorde; Langston Hughes; Ingeborg Bachmann; Agota Kristof; Pia Juul; Pentti Saariksoski; Kenneth Rexroth; Mina Loy–best words, best order, circuits and surprises; sugar when its unexpected; iodine on the cuts; morse telegraphy on the wind.