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Talking Poetry in Letters. Robyn Sarah and John Unrau on Free Verse vs. Chopped Prose
by Robyn Sarah

25 June 2001
Dear Robyn,
I've just read your review in the Globe* and¨feeling some sympathy for Hilles despite the awfulness of those lines¨wonder if you could give me a clearer idea than I can work out for myself about the difference between "chopped prose" and most unrhymed poetry in English.

How about this from Ondaatje?
For 14 years of marriage
each of them claimed he or she
was the injured party.
Once on the Colombo docks
saying goodbye to a recently married couple
my father, jealous
at my mother's inarticulate emotion,
dove into the waters of the harbour
and swam after the ship waving farewell.
My mother pretending no affiliation
mingled with the crowd back to the hotel.

For 14 years of marriage each of them claimed he or she was the injured party. Once on the Colombo docks, saying goodbye to a recently married couple, my father, jealous at my mother's inarticulate emotion, dove into the waters of the harbour and swam after the ship waving farewell. My mother, pretending no affiliation, mingled with the crowd back to the hotel.

Or this from Coles, from Kurgan, the best book of poetry I've read in a long time:
Turgenev, a contemporary and of course
a countryman of Gorky's, would never have
recorded such a thing. He would have felt
this was beneath him.

But Gorky recorded it, and I, who admire
Turgenev a lot and Gorky not much, have now
recorded it too. I think this is because
some images flower for me even though
it would be better, on balance, if they did not.

Of course we live in odd times. The Guardian
recently maintained that 'the weird and the stupid
and the coarse are becoming our cultural norm,
even our cultural ideal.'

As for Turgenev, he wrote, 'The honourable man
will finish by finding he has nowhere to live.'
(Flowers in an Odd Time)

Turgenev, a contemporary and of course a countryman of Gorky's, would never have recorded such a thing. He would have felt this was beneath him. But Gorky recorded it, and I, who admire Turgenev a lot and Gorky not much, have now recorded it too. I think this is because some images flower for me even though it would be better, on balance, if they did not. Of course we live in odd times. The Guardian recently maintained that 'the weird and the stupid and the coarse are becoming our cultural norm, even our cultural ideal.' As for Turgenev, he wrote, "The honourable man will finish by finding he has nowhere to live."

Recently I came across this in Borges:
"Often one hears that free verse is simply a typographical sham; I think there's a basic error in that statement. Beyond the rhythm of a line of verse, its typographical arrangement serves to tell the reader that it's poetic emotion, not information or rationality, that he or she should expect."

But does that help¨say, with Don's lines above? There's hardly any "poetic emotion" there¨though there is information and a lot of rationality.

Most of Browning's Ring and the Book, great swaths of Wordsworth's Prelude, and even chunks of Yeats look suspiciously like chopped prose to me, now that you've got me thinking about it.

How about Ted Hughes?¨
No, the serpent did not
Seduce Eve to the apple.
All that's simply
Corruption of the facts.

Adam ate the apple.
Eve ate Adam.
The serpent ate Eve.
This is the dark intestine.

The serpent, meanwhile,
Sleeps his meal off in Paradise¨
Smiling to hear
God's querulous calling.
(Theology)

Heaney:
I stepped it, perch by perch.
Unbraiding rushes and grass
I opened my right-of-way
through old bottoms and sowed-out ground
and gathered stones off the ploughing
to raise a small cairn.
Cleaned out the drains, faced the hedges
and often got up at dawn
to walk the outlying fields. (Land)

Prose chopped up into lines?
I stepped it, perch by perch. Unbraiding rushes and grass, I opened my right-of-way through old bottoms and sowed-out ground, and gathered stones off the ploughing to raise a small cairn. Cleaned out the drains, faced the hedges, and often got up at dawn to walk the outlying fields.

Purdy:
When my mother went to hospital
after a fall alone in her bedroom
I was eighteen miles away
trying to build a house
I visited her later
and something in my face made her say
"I thought you'd feel terrible"
and she meant that I'd be devastated
by what had happened to her....etc etc
(On Being Human)

My reason for asking: I started writing poetry in my late forties, and, having greatly revered the rhymed poetry of Blake, Keats, Hardy, Yeats, Auden, have often been perturbed looking at my own stuff to find that it could easily be described as chopped prose. Even a few I consider my best seem to stand condemned. I tend to write poems that are composed of complete sentences. When those sentences appear as lines of verse, it's damnably
hard to determine
in what way that, despite appearances
to the contrary, gives me the right¨
let alone privilege¨
of claiming them for poetry.

How can I be reassured that at least some of what I'm writing¨in complete sentences printed as verse¨is poetry? Back to rhyme? Sprung rhythm? Internal chiming?
I think it took a lot of guts in Canada's poetry "scene" for you to say what you said about Hilles (a Governor-General's winner)¨and¨if you have the time¨wish you could clarify my mind on the issue...
With best wishes,
John Unrau

Dear John,
Thank you for a thoughtful and thought-provoking letter on a subject that I think ought to be under discussion in an ongoing way by Canadian poets and critics¨yet hardly seems to come up.

Martin Levin asked me to cut my review by 200 words at the last minute; as a result the published version comes across much crisper (read: harsher) than the original. I agree I raised an issue that cries out for clarification, in a context where I could hardly begin to clarify it. Your examples make me realize how complex, indeed mysterious, the distinction is.

Certainly Hilles is not the only Canadian poet of whom I could have made the same complaint (namely, that the effect of his "text" is in no way served by breaking it into verse lines.) Of the examples you provide, my immediate response is that the lines from Ondaatje are chopped prose, too. Why? There's no real cadence, no natural rhythm or musical effect, no sense of inevitability to the line breaks¨you could break them other ways to much the same effect:

For 14 years of marriage
each of them claimed
he or she was the injured party.
Once on the Colombo docks, saying goodbye
to a recently married couple, my father,
jealous at my mother's inarticulate emotion
dove into the waters
of the harbour and swam
after the ship, waving farewell.
My mother, pretending
no affiliation, mingled
with the crowd back to the hotel.

Or:
'For 14 years
'of marriage, each of them claimed
'he or she was the
injured party. Once
on the Colombo docks, saying goodbye
to a recently married couple
my father, jealous at my mother's
inarticulate emotion, dove
into the waters of the harbour
and swam after the ship,
waving farewell. My mother
pretending no affiliation,
mingled with the crowd
back to the hotel.

I do not find my versions noticeably worse (or better) than Ondaatje's¨or than each other. (Do you?) Moreover, there's nothing poetic in the effect of these lines rendered as prose. It is merely serviceable prose, relaying¨and relying on¨content (anecdote) for its effect.

Not true of the lines you quote from Coles. Despite their apparently conversational tone, they make for a taut and elegant prose whose rhythmic effect is based on rhetorical balance: the 3 repetitions of "recorded", the repetitions of the names of Turgenev and Gorky, of "of course"; and the pivotal effect of the two short sentences "He would have felt this was beneath him" and "Of course we live in odd times" amid longer sentences. This culminates in the juxtaposition of quotes from The Guardian and from Turgenev, how those play off each other. Until the last sentence, the passage is equally effective as prose¨which legitimately raises the question of why it should be presented as free verse. But in the prose version, the effect of that last quote seems to me diminished, lost in the paragraph¨a dropping-off of energy¨whereas in the poem it is built to, and allowed to resonate freely, so that it rings like a verdict.

Coles is a poet whose thought-rhythm is undeniably a prose rhythm, yet whose poetry is poetry. How to explain why? I think it's partly a distinctive voice, one that projects conviction: you feel when you read his poems that he means them. But also, the line breaks have a kind of inevitability, a serendipitous quality. They pull the mind along the sequence of thoughts/ images with a special kind of tension that is somehow part of the poem's voice. It is a tension I find completely lacking in Hilles, whose line breaks, like Ondaatje's in your example, feel arbitrary.

I have in each of my poetry collections a few prose poems. Mostly these begin as poems whose line breaks keep giving me grief and just won't sit right on the page, no matter how I juggle them. When this happens, I try typing the poem as prose. If that feels natural, I let the thing evolve as a prose poem. I see no reason to present it as "free verse" unless such presentation actively contributes to its poetic effect...

That's a digression, though. Re. the quote from Borges: I think there is "poetic emotion" in Don's lines, carried by a thoughtful rationality that is part of his poetic voice, in fact that may characterize his poetic voice¨like a voice print. (Am I making any sense here?) I agree with Borges to the extent that "poetic emotion" may be conveyed, even engendered, in the kind of tension I've tried to describe.

The lines from Hughes are not chopped prose (though I'm not crazy about them as poetry.) They have a rhythm. Each quatrain has roughly the same rhythm. It is not regular or metrical but there's a pulse. If you wrote them out as prose, and read that prose aloud, you would still feel the pulse.

And Heaney: your prose version (like the Coles) yields a suspiciously compressed and elegant prose; moreover, a musically accented prose, characterized by internal alliteration, assonance, half-rhymes. Listen to the effect of these echoes: perch-rushes, unbraiding-way, out-ground-ploughing, stones-cairn-dawn-cleaned, raise-drain-cairn, dawn-walk. So¨no; not prose chopped into lines, but a sophisticated and subtle poetry.

Purdy: Chopped prose. Like much of Purdy. But he was trying to do something¨to see what he could do with raw vernacular¨getting away from the pretensions of traditional poetic diction. A reasonable move, because traditional poetic diction as applied by earlier Canadian poets tended to be stilted and overly rhetorical. Purdy let in some fresh air. Some of his poems have a kind of power. But we don't need to go on doing this. He made his point. If anything it's time to rebel against this influence, and the slackness of language it too easily exonerates.

How to sum up? I guess I accept free verse as poetry when it has rhythmic cadence, vowel and consonant music, line breaks that feel inevitable, a tension to the thought-progression or the juxtaposition of images that "pulls the mind along", strong authenticity of emotion and/or substance of thought, a "true voice" that is its own. It may not need all of these (very few poems have all of these), but it needs some of them. In the absence of all or most of the above¨suspect chopped prose...

I don't know how helpful I've been¨but I've tried¨and I thank you, again, for nudging me to think this through, instead of making claims based on what is essentially intuition.

Robyn Sarah

John Unrau is Professor of English at Atkinson College, York University, Toronto. His first poetry collection, Iced Water, was published in Dublin in 2000. He has also published two books on John Ruskin with Thames and Hudson in London.

Robyn Sarah is a Montreal writer. Her most recent poetry collections are The Touchstone: Poems New and Selected (1992) and Questions About The Stars (1998). She has also published two collections of short stories.

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