Since I began writing poetry seriously some 15 years ago(1992-2007) I have found that the line between prose and poetry is a fine one. The prose-poem is the primary poetry form of the twentieth century. This form allows me to blend the two forms into one whole. The following account from a journal called The Henry James Review1 helped me to reinforce what often feels like an artificial distinction between prose and poetry. I quote from parts of the article by one Philip Horne.
“I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death,” said John Keats in 1818. Henry James never went so far as to utter such a thought and isn’t literally, bodily that is, among the poets. Since 1976, however, there has been a plaque commemorating him in Westminster Abbey on the floor of Poets’ Corner which he once called “the great temple of fame of the English race.” He is next to Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot and at kitty-corners to Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Where I shall be is a completely unknown quantity. In all likelihood my grave shall be marked as is my wish in my will; in all probability I will be buried in a cemetary in George Town or Launceston Tasmania.
In the 1909 preface to The Golden Bowl Henry James speaks of the revising work of an author as the work of “a poet.” In case readers think he means only writers of verse, he makes clear “that the title poet is only a title of general application and convenience. It is intended for those who passionately cultivate the image of life and the art, on the whole so beneficial, of projecting it.” He goes on to say that the seer and the speaker under the descent of the god is the “poet,” whatever his form. He ceases to be a poet only when his form, whatever else it may nominally or superficially be, is unworthy of the god: in which event, we promptly submit, he isn’t worth talking of at all.
James and his fellow-writers are, in other words, “seers,” speaking under the inspiration of a god who descends on them; and whether a writer’s form is “worthy,” James finally declares, depends not at all on “so minor a distinction, in the fields of light, as that between verse and prose.” The mere fact that James writes in prose, then, is to him no disqualification for the noble title of poet. If a writer’s “form” is “worthy”—which I think means if it projects the image of life with a sufficient intensity or complexity—if its language attains a “poetic” weight or power, then the writer can be called a poet.
Edith Wharton tells us in her book A Backward Glance( Scribner’s, NY, 1964), “I never before heard poetry read as James read it; and I never have since. He chanted it and he was not afraid to chant it, as many good readers are, though they instinctively feel that the genius of the English poetical idiom requires it to be spoken as poetry. Many are afraid of yielding to their instinct for a special reading, a special production, of the poetry. The present-day fashion is to chatter high verse as though it were colloquial prose. James, on the contrary, far from shirking the rhythmic emphasis, gave it full expression. The stammer he had ceased as if by magic as soon as he began to read and his ear, so sensitive to the convolutions of an intricate prose style, never allowed him to falter over the most complex prosody. He was swept forward on great rollers of sound till the full weight of his voice fell on the last cadence.
James’s reading was a thing apart, an emanation of his inmost self, unaffected by fashion or elocutionary artifice. He read from his soul and those who never heard him read poetry knew what that soul was. For James, poetry was about commemoration and a means of keeping a value, a person, a part of the past, alive. Poems, to James, came to play a part in people’s lives and they rendered a service. They came to be a stimulus and an inspiration. One of the functions of poetry, he argued, was to communicate and preserve complex feelings and ideas, to sustain and unify a civilization. The language of poetry at its greatest intensity was a dazzlingly economical medium: it could trigger a complex set of compressed associations and powerful responses. “There were descriptive phrases and touches in some poetry which represented an extraordinary accumulation of sentiment, a perfect entanglement of emotion. To James this was the key to a civilisation. James’ prose can be felt as “poetic” and it is in this sense that he belongs “among the poets.” –Philip Horne, Henry James Among the Poets, The Henry James Review, Winter 2005.
It is some combination of a deep
passivity-activity need in me that
makes me want to go all the way,
something to compensate for the
gregarious theatrical side of life
that drives me to this prose-poetry.
–Ron Price 17 March 2007