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Monday, 21 November 2011

Work for Week 9:   Prose Poem

Here’s an example of a prose poem by the American poet, Robert Bly.    

for Mary

She comes and lays him carefully in my hand - a caterpillar!  A yellow stripe along his back, 
and how hairy!   Hairs wave like triumphal plumes as he walks.  
      Just behind his head, a black something slants back, like a crime, a black memory 
leaning toward the past.
      He is not as beautiful as my three-year-old daughter thinks:  the hair falling over his
 mouth cannot completely hide his face - two sloping foreheads with an eye between, 
and an obstinate jaw, made for eating through sleeping things without pain of conscience...
      He rears on my hand, looking for another world

 Prose poems are quite common these days, but go back into the nineteenth century.
There are no laid down ‘rules’ as to what a prose poem is like.   Many prose poems are about objects.  The poet both describes the object and thinks about it .  They may then move into wider ideas the object suggests to them.   It’s often an exercise in comparison – what the object you start with is ‘like’ in some way, or what it suggests to you, or means to you.

In  his poem ‘A caterpillar my Daughter Brought to me’,  Robert Bly starts off very straightforwardly by welcoming the gift and describing the hairy creature. His voice is that of a grown up talking to a child.   In the second paragraph he begins to make us think when he says “something slants back, like a crime, a black memory leaning towards the past”.   He sees the black colour behind the caterpillar’s head and then goes into his own imagination, expressing a sense of unease, but doesn’t put his finger on exactly what it is.  The description slips towards ideas – ‘the past’.  The 'something' is left unstated.

Then in the third paragraph he goes into straightforward comment.  “He is not as beautiful as my three-year-old daughter thinks”.     But the lack of beauty is all in the poet’s mind.  He sees the jaw as obstinate, and “made for eating through sleeping things without pain of conscience. . .”    Again general ideas like ‘conscience’ are slipped in.

Although the poem is mainly - as he'd call it  - an ‘object poem’ it is also very subjective.    He ends by going back to describing the caterpillar -  “He rears on my hand” as caterpillars do, no doubt wanting to get back to its own world, reminding us of the child’s ‘gift’ and the affection between the poet and her.  But Bly then  attributes a motive to the caterpillar, as  if it’s “looking for another” world.   

We are left free to make our own speculations about the caterpillar.  The world the caterpillar is now in - although it  doesn't realise this -  is the affectionate one of daughter and father sharing something strange and interesting, a typical bit of ‘nature study’.   The caterpillar suggest ‘another’ world in two ways.  First, this other world could be the caterpillar’s natural world of  grass and leaves;  secondly the other world might be a different ‘world’ in which the ‘world’ of daughter and daddy is threatened by the crime and cruelty the poet has already mentioned.
Write a prose poem.     If you can’t complete it write just a careful description of an object
 that in some way really interests you.  Then we can discuss possible ways of continuing.    
Bly says a prose poem is in many ways like a haiku, providing a moment of insight.  
It’s obviously connected to the ‘flash’ type of short story too, and of course to the kind 
of verse which is very free, and doesn’t really need to be set out in lines.

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