Ear, Voice, Vision

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These three quite physiognomical and somewhat clichéd metaphors are often invoked while discussing the work of a poet more so than of a prose writer. Here, I’ll try and single out prose works to which these metaphors can be applied.

The first line of Verlaine’s ‘The Art of Poetry’ goes “You must have music first of all.” The ear of a writer can be seen as the first rung in a ladder of maturity. Ear is also the most technically grounded of the metaphors, dealing with the conscious or intuitive arrangement of stress-syllabic patterns to create sound echoes and rhythms.

The fiction writer Steven Millhauser crafts sentences of such a neatness that his language—free of unnecessary elements—is pleasurable to read. For instance, in the evocative vignettes of the story ‘Cat ‘N’ Mouse’:

The cat is chasing the mouse through the kitchen: between the blue chair legs, over the tabletop with its red-and-white checkered tablecloth that is already sliding in great waves, past the sugar bowl falling to the left and the cream jug falling to the right, over the blue chair back, down the chair legs, across the waxed and butter-yellow floor. The cat and the mouse lean backward and try to stop on the slippery wax, which shows their flawless reflections. Sparks shoot from their heels, but it’s much too late: the big door looms. The mouse crashes through, leaving a mouse-shaped hole. The cat crashes through, replacing the mouse-shaped hole with a larger, cat-shaped hole. In the living room, they race over the back of the couch, across the piano keys (delicate mouse tune, crash of cat chords), along the blue rug. The fleeing mouse snatches a glance over his shoulder, and when he looks forward again he sees the floor lamp coming closer and closer. Impossible to stop—at the last moment, he splits in half and rejoins himself on the other side. Behind him the rushing cat fails to split in half and crashes into the lamp: his head and body push the brass pole into the shape of a trombone. For a moment, the cat hangs sideways there, his stiff legs shaking like the clapper of a bell[1].

With voice, the metaphor broadens to include perspective and worldview, which translate into form, syntax, vocabulary and other linguistic elements clubbed under style. The voice of a writer is to be found in the singularity of his expressions and the ability of his language to remain explicable only in its own terms. Voice, in its broadest sense, is “language speaking man” (in Heidegger’s phrase.) Here’s a randomly chosen passage from the singular novel Paradiso, by José Lezama Lima:

That night, without the least surprise, as in his vigil on other occasions, when he woke up he found the rocking chair, the guffaws, and the door opening onto the patio, instruments all well tuned for his trio. Above the patio the moon’s baby goat framed with white the center of loving irrigation of the house, which was the emptiness of a square. The strength of a square was generally absorptive, was a space which, like the mouth of some serpents, drew toward its center the calm development of that family, both the strollers and the visitors. The space of the patio in a house is its most telling part, it is, we might say, its verbal whole. It is a space which can be discreet, stealthy, or terrifying. When the family goes on a trip, lingering abroad or spending a weekend at the beach, its face becomes swarthy and looks as if it hadn’t shaved[2].

Vision in the sense of “visionary” refers to the ability of looking into the future. But if we collapse this metaphor with what physics tells us, that looking far is looking into the past, we derive a richer meaning. A writer or a work that displays vision is able to look, Janus-like, both into the past and the future and takes tradition and experimentation in the same stride. A test of a work’s vision is its ability to preserve its newness, to startle and shock, to provoke and inspire through several generations.

The bizarre work of Lautréamont—which was to inspire the haunting landscapes and visceral collages of Max Ernst’s—is a case in point. Chants de Maldoror is infused with undiluted vision, on which the surrealists thrived for a long time.

There exists an insect which men feed at their own expense. They owe it nothing; but they fear it. This insect, which does not like wine but prefers blood,

from "Une semaine de bonté"

from Max Ernst’s “Une semaine de bonté”

would, if its legitimate needs were not satisfied, be capable, by means of an occult power, of becoming as big as an elephant and of crushing men like ears of corn. And one has to see how respected it is, how it is surrounded with fawning veneration, how it is held in high esteem, above all the other animals of creation. The head is given it as its throne, and it digs its claws solemnly into the roots of the hair. Later, when it is fat and getting on in age, it is killed, following the custom of an ancient race, to prevent it from suffering the hardships of old age. It is given a magnificent hero’s funeral, with prominent citizens bearing the coffin on their shoulders straight to the grave. Above the damp earth which the grave-digger is shrewdly moving with his spade, multicoloured sentences are combined on the immortality of the soul, the emptiness of life, the incomprehensible will of Providence, and the marble closes for ever on this life, filled with such toil, and which is now but a corpse. The crowd disperses, and night soon covers the walls of the cemetery with shadows[3].


[1] http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/04/19/040419fi_fiction

Millhauser’s beautiful novella Enchanted Night is particularly noteworthy for its overall rhythmic quality.

[2] José Lezama Lima, Paradiso, translated by Gregory Rabassa, Dalkey Archive Press, 2000.

[3] Lautréamont, Maldoror and Poems, translated by Paul Knight, Penguin, 1978. A new translation of this work has appeared recently and is published by the eclectic press Exact Change:

http://exactchange.com/shop/lautreamont-maldoror-the-complete-works/

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Notes from the beach

Semblances proliferate on the seaside. The sea itself takes on numerous metaphors, rippling silk or the embodiment of love’s contradictory forces. Straight lines resolve into curves. The horizon – seen from the bather’s perspective – is forever being hauled to the heights of the surrounding hills, whose crests and troughs are imitated by the wave and finally shattered in radiant foam on the beach. And the sand—what else is it but an exact replication of a pattern the water dreamt of and never repeated. Cloudlines fade into the outline of distant hills, undulating like the curves of basking women. It is the sea’s primal invitation to change and keep changing that the landscape takes and soon turns into mirrors—glistening bodies, scorching blue sky, all sweeping in its undertow.

Conversation with Sharmistha Mohanty

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Sharmistha Mohanty’s latest book Five Movements in Praise was published in the beginning of 2013, by Almost Island Books. I was fortunate enough to have been able to engage Sharmistha in a conversation about various things related to her book and to writing in general. Following is a transcript of our conversation. 

7th May, 2013

Grotto Apartments

Snehal: Let’s begin with your new book, Five Movements in Praise. Could you speak about how it evolved?

Sharmistha: I basically began the book without any kind of structure in mind at the outset. I knew that there were certain things I wanted to write about. I wanted to write about a very small town and the kind of contradictions it holds.  I wanted to write about, very specifically, Pahari miniature paintings, which I’ve studied for many years. I also wanted, somewhere, to write about the Ellora and Ajanta caves. That much I knew. And I think I knew that it would be a book where these things would stand next to one another and any relation between them would not be obvious, that it would emerge slowly from the writing. I should also say that I was concerned with both extreme beauty and suffering and wanted to place these side by side as well.

SN: So you did not have a scheme or a blueprint for arranging the stories within each section of the book?

SH: No, not at all, not at all. I basically wrote them as independent ‘movements.’ I prefer to call them ‘movements’ rather than chapters. I wrote them independently and later on I put them together, at least in a certain way which made sense to me. There are other unities besides ‘narrative’ unity. In a work like Five Movements in Praise, or in my first work, Book One, the unity emerges from the consciousness that holds everything together. It is a subterranean unity, a certain tendency of the soul, if you like, a gaze, which gathers and shapes the material.

SN: Even the arrangement of the stories inside each movement was not preconceived?

SH: Yes, I didn’t really plan the arrangement. Like if you take the movement called ‘City,’ I wrote all the sections in it separately, you know, and then I worked on how one flows into the other, in order to put them together. But in the movement ‘Forest,’ I just began at the beginning, you know. For me, when I say “began at the beginning,” it’s not a narrative beginning. I began with what I knew. So it’s a journey, really, from beginning with the known and then going and discovering everything else that is there beyond it. Obviously, I had certain feelings, certain ideas about these things. I feel certain things about these miniature paintings, or I felt certain things about the small town that I wrote about, that I visited many times. So obviously, those things are in your consciousness and you know you want to write about them. But I hadn’t plotted anything or made a blueprint or anything of the sort.

SN: On the inside jacket cover of Five Movements, it says that the pleasures of the work “are not in the fulfillment of narrative expectations.” Could you elaborate on this?

SH: You know, I think, to begin with, my interest, when I was writing the book, was not primarily in the fulfillment of a narrative arc, let’s say, as in a novel. I’m much more interested in bits of narrative and gestures, bits of dialogue. So I’m also very interested in what the fragment can do, how much the fragment can achieve. So, let’s say, if I have a girl in the second movement, ‘Forest,’ I’m not interested in mapping her life from beginning to end but I’m interested in looking at that moment, and really she’s there herself only momentarily over that movement. There is no narrative growth, in that sense of the term. But there are narrative bits, you know, like when she talks about her father and mother, that maybe they left her, that maybe her father was a cripple. So there are narrative bits, and the imagination is both working at a narrative level and a poetic level. So I’m interested in the coming together of these two things.

SN: So you mean you want to leave a lot unwritten, unsaid, about the characters, about the places?

SH: Not really, Snehal. It’s not like I know but I’m not saying. I’m just going in in a different way than a novelist would. In fact I am doing the opposite of keeping back. It is because I don’t have a narrative structure or plot, that something else is allowed to emerge. I follow that emergence, as it were. I like to make a distinction between writing about something, and writing from something. I like to do the latter. The ‘from’ is what I stand on to go further. And that ‘further’ is not a linear growth but a crystalline one, where there is a process of accumulation as it were.

SN: How did these fragments come to you? For example, just after one of the paintings, there’s this sudden shift in the scene. I think the person leaves the building where he was examining the paintings. And then there’s this description of what he sees outside the window. And the weight shifts on to the person. We realise that this person has a past, that he has memories. I’m very interested in the fusion and openness that exists in the movements. Like how the traveler walks into the painting and finds the girl there. The possibility of what may enter or leave each movement is very exciting for the reader. Are you constantly taking in some things and keeping back other things?

SH: Okay, let me step back a little bit and actually go back to your first question. You know, as I started writing the book, the only structural element that came to me was the fact that I wanted a traveler to be part of this book, and a traveler not as character but as consciousness. I like to make this distinction because you don’t come away from the book knowing anything about the traveler. You don’t know his circumstances, or his psyche. In some places, the traveler is a man and in some, a woman. So, if at all these five movements are connected, they are connected by the presence of the traveler or rather the traveler’s consciousness. Now, when I got this idea for the traveler, I thought, well, it’s the traveler who is traveling in the small town, inside the paintings, you know, in the city, in the caves. I mean, that’s how I sort of started situating the traveler. So, in a sense, and because miniature painting was a landscape for me, the landscape into which the traveler would go and explore, I thought, well, let’s take it head on. It must have just come to me one day, I don’t really know. You know how these things are, they just come, and I said, I’m going to have him go into the painting. The thing about these miniature paintings is that they have some of the greatest landscape painting we’ve ever seen. They also give me a feeling of tremendous serenity. So I started questioning, “Where does this serenity come from?” “How does it come?” And I’ve actually gone into that, in the book, when I’m talking about how these paintings do not express suffering but try and understand it, accept it. I wanted the traveler to go inside this landscape and find out these things for himself, so to speak. And when the traveler went in, I thought—this is in the first painting with Radha and Krishna and the dark landscape—I thought, it’s night, and it’s so quietly illuminated there, and the traveler is walking and I don’t know why, but I thought probably the most unlikely person to be standing there is a child, you know. And that’s how the little girl came. These things are also hard to talk about because they bring out things in your own mind and in your own life. I’d been thinking a lot about my own childhood and what it was like for me to be a little girl and somewhere those thoughts must have been very present, you know. So they came and joined together.

SN: Okay. I wanted to read out a bit from what you write about the second Radha and Krishna painting, in the movement ‘Forest.’ You say, “It was the mistake that made him see, slowly, that brought him to a belief he never had before. That each thing in his painting was equal, as it was in the landscape in which he moved, none diminished by the other, freed from a hierarchy imposed only by the eyes.” I found this really beautiful and I think that, somewhere, you have also tried to put things next to each other so as to free them from this hierarchy in seeing. I found a relentless force juxtaposing things and placing them on the same plane: dream, painting, memories, present experiences all were brought to one common level.

SH: I’m very happy that you’re saying that. For me, one of the things I want to do in my work, that I’ve been trying to do for quite some time, is what I call the equality of the human and the non-human. To me, philosophically, and therefore also in the writing, what is important is that the inanimate and the animate are actually on the same plane. So I continue to want to make a book equally with light, architecture, human beings, gods, paintings, landscapes, because I feel them equally. So, this is, for me, something that is of primary importance when I write and incidentally, I think that that’s something I’ve learnt from a lot of poetry. Because if you look at the novelistic tradition, it’s always about the human being and everything else is backdrop. I don’t want to do that. I’m actually working against that.

SN: So do you think that ties in with not following the narrative arc through your book?

SH: Probably, yes, it probably does, though I haven’t thought about it consciously in that way. It probably does, because if I was following a narrative arc, then the human being would always be given primacy, which I don’t want to do, right. I think the reason why I’m not following a narrative arc is that all these other things the human being is surrounded by speak to me as much. I don’t need to go to the narrative because there’s already so much to look at and to understand, you know. So I would rather delve into that than go horizontally with a character. Also, I’m not any longer sure we can create characters in that way any more.

SN: How do you mean?

SH: I mean that I’m not interested in psychological characters. A lot of the novel, traditionally, has ridden on the discoveries of psychology. And I think that that’s limited, now. The conventional novel has become formulaic. You’re trying to create a character keeping to the logic of psychology. But the great character makers are those who completely step outside all logic and rationality and touch the mysteries of the human condition. Otherwise, you’re limited by that logic and it doesn’t interest me to think on those lines. I think I understand as much about a human being by seeing everything that surrounds him, like I’m trying to do here, as by following him. And maybe I’m interested in the world, not just in the character.

SN: You spoke about the importance of the non-human in your work. Throughout Five Movements, certain elements of nature like the sky, rock and light appear closely woven into the fabric of the book. Would you say that observation of nature, too, is something very important to your writing?

SH: I wouldn’t say “observation,” because observation means that there is an observer and an observed. I don’t even like that distinction. And I don’t like the distinction of nature and human, you know. There’s a place…Will you just hand me the book, Snehal? Where it says exactly what I mean. This may answer your question.

[As Sharmistha reads the following excerpt, the bells of a 19th-century Portuguese church nearby start tolling in the background, in counterpoint to her pauses.]

“Into the stone courtyard, the sun falls without a single interruption at noon. Inside the cave, only two stone feet, one crossed over the other. Meanings change as the sun moves, they contradict each other, are ploughed and overturned with the seasons. Light cleaves the surface of human intentions. At twilight, a shoulder, on which the evening will rest.”

So what I’m basically trying to express is that the human and the non-human have a much deeper connection than what we are aware of in our ordinary lives. They’re already merged together and it’s really for us to see that merging, you know. So maybe in my work, part of what I’m doing is looking at that merging or teasing it out. I remember this beautiful line that I read in a conversation between Charles Simic and Tomaž Šalamun, where one of them says to the other that poets talk about the weather outside, but the weather isn’t outside, it’s inside us.

SN: When you were speaking, I coincidentally thought of Charles Simic’s poem ‘Stone.’ It’s beautiful because it talks about how the stone feels, and seems to ask if we can move beyond personification in feeling for things. But when the distinction between the observer and the observed vanishes, there is nothing truly objective. How, then, are we to agree on anything?

SH: It’s like the agreement between Charles Simic writing that poem and you understanding it. That’s an agreement, you know.

SN: A poetic agreement of things.

SH: Yeah.

SN: I wanted to ask about the other arts, apart from writing, because they also figure in your work. Like the Pahari paintings and classical music, and sculpture, of course. How important are the other arts for you?

SH: I think because in my twenties, I had a lot of film-maker friends, and still do, I have musician friends, I had painter friends, I had sculptor friends and I was always learning a lot about these other things and, you know, I’m unconsciously probably taking from them, and that’s remained with me. I mean, the other arts are very important. I don’t think I know any great artist or any great writer who doesn’t have a strong relationship with one other art form, whatever it may be. Because I think they give us new ways of seeing that we then bring in to our own medium. I don’t really see a lot of contemporary painting or sculpture. I like the older Indian things very very much. So I’m drawn to the sculptures in the Ellora caves, and I’m drawn to miniature paintings and because they’ve meant a great deal to me, they’ve entered my work. It’s really like that. It’s not like I took a decision that I’m going to write about miniature paintings.

SN: Can you speak a little about your study of the paintings?

SH: I, actually, have been studying a lot of it on my own. I was introduced to miniature paintings in a particular way, by a film-maker called Mani Kaul, who I was very close to and who I worked with. With him, I started looking at miniature paintings, closely. And then I realised that I liked one school of Indian miniature painting very much. I started concentrating only on that school. It’s called the Pahari school, viz. from the hills, right.

With miniature painting, what happened in our country was, there was a tradition of palm-leaf manuscripts, which were miniature. Now, broadly speaking, that tradition merged with the Mogul tradition. When the Moguls came, they brought in the Persian miniature painting tradition. These two traditions merged and became Indian miniature painting, and what our miniature painters did was they took what they wanted from the Moguls. So it was a very rich merging of traditions, without them being colonised by any one style. So I just got very interested in this and I kept looking at these paintings. And, you know, the other kind of painting I have studied a lot is Chinese landscape painting, because again, I just feel very drawn to it. I think what was important to me was a kind of philosophy, a kind of world view that the Indian miniature paintings seem to express, that I feel very close to and which I also feel have elements of very deep Indian philosophical beliefs. So when I’m looking at them, they are not just beautiful paintings, they’re much much more than that.

SN: Since place is very important in your writing, could you speak a bit about how you see the writer and her milieu?

SH: When I was living abroad, I knew that I wanted to come back to India. Later, my living experience in Germany, at the Academie Schloss Solitude, I had already written the manuscript for my second novel New Life. But I think that place is very very important to me and I think that one of the things that I’m trying to do in this book is, actually, make landscape a kind of a character in a sense, you know. It’s very hard to express these things in speech, but I think that we’re living in times where place does not seem to be important. I think that it’s some strange sort of illusion that people are in and one day that illusion will shatter and they’ll think, oh my god, I didn’t realise where I was or where I was not. And to me, place is very very important. For me, to be in my own country is very important, not in a nationalistic sense. If I look out and I look at a certain kind of tree, or a certain kind of sky, it enables me to see into things better than when I’m abroad because abroad, I become an observer and there is the observed. Here, I’m contiguous with that tree that I’m looking at, outside. I’ve lived and am living that continuity. So that contiguousness of landscape and that continuum of human being, thing, light, architecture, is possible for me here. Because here is where those things won’t break down into their respective identities as easily. Whereas if I’m abroad, I will be only be identifying things according to their identities. Does this make any sense, Snehal, what I just said?

SN: Yes, I get what you mean. So the merging happens in many different things. Here, in your surroundings and yourself as a writer, the merging with the place is very important. And this would lead to the merging of the human and the non-human.

SH: Because that has to be unconscious, right? It’s coming from deep within your consciousness. You’re not saying that is equal to this, you are feeling that equality somewhere. And also, one more important thing for me in this book—related to place—was that I wanted to, and I have explored, as you probably have seen here, the idea of origins and the original, or the originary. People say globalisation, but it’s actually a certain way of living and being which has come from certain areas of our world. I feel, I want to go in the opposite direction, I want to discover what India had before globalisation, before colonisation, and I’m not saying it was all good, but I’m saying can I discover the incredible achievements of this country, as in the Ellora caves, for example? If I go back to that, can I discover the spirit, can I rediscover an originary spirit that can help me also to originate? Because when I look at my culture today, I see very few things that it has generated. It has not generated the cars we drive and the bridges we cross or the cell phones we use. We’ve done nothing. And again, this is not nationalistic. But if a culture cannot originate anything, that culture to me is a dead culture. So, as far as I’m concerned, we’re just imitating things. It’s fine to imitate but not only to imitate. And sometimes, of course, we can’t help it, it’s history’s flow. For me this book is also like saying let me just stop history’s flow and let me just look at what we have been given through the caves, through the miniature paintings, through the kinds of lives we’ve lived in this country, through simple encounters. So all of that, and as you know, there are many rough and sharp and painful things in the book, so when this violence happens in the Ajanta caves, that, too, is a part of our Indian reality. I don’t want to idealise it but I’m saying can we just look at our reality and keep looking at our reality, our history and see what we can get. When you said, things standing next to each other in my work, so for me it’s like Ellora stands next to me. It doesn’t matter if it was built in the 6th Century BCE. It stands next to me so it can give me sustenance today. And I think that’s how we ought to look at things that we have, that have been given to us from the past. And I was led to this in my seeking for the original. What is originary? What are we doing? What can we reinvent?

SN: How do you see contemporary writing in India? And where would you like to see it go?

SH: You know, this is something I say when I am teaching in Hong Kong. Don’t just put on your form as if you are taking a coat off a hanger. Form comes from a necessity within yourself, it arises almost from a crisis, a breakage within. And I think what happens is, in Indian writing in English, in fiction, what is happening is people are just doing linear narratives without ever having thought about any other way of writing. Without ever even having gone into our own, maybe older Indian traditions. Without having gone into the Eastern Europeans, the Latin Americans, you know, but just sticking to a very Anglo-Saxon mode of linear narrative. And I don’t see that going anywhere, frankly. And I don’t think it will. So, I have a lot of problems with where the novel in India is going. I think I have much more hope for poetry in India. Because I think I have seen and met and heard of many more younger people who are interested in serious poetry and are writing poetry seriously, rather than laying my hopes in fiction. And I think that’s also because poets are not distracted by this whole thing of advances and launches and money and all this kind of thing, which is bullshit, because it has nothing to do with writing. I mean, you can do it, but don’t ever tell me it’s literature, because I’m going to tell you it’s not. I’m very clear on that. And you know, you see new publishing houses popping up and they say they are a literary publishing house but it’s the same old stuff.

SN: What is it about the linear narrative that doesn’t work for you?

SH: Because I think it becomes writing to a formula, in some sense. You know, whenever I read these novels, they never lead to any kind of discovery. And I feel in India, the novel has two problems. One is that they are written by the elite. Now, what that means is they don’t seem to be able to accurately explore any kind of sociological situation, other than their own upper class situation, which I don’t find interesting. The other thing is, if you don’t do that, then you have to be inward and or extremely imaginative. You have to be able to create that much depth and inwardness and people don’t seem to have that either. So, you then are left with very very superficial narratives from which I discover nothing about the world. So why should I read a novel from which I learn nothing. I’m not interested.

SN: Would you say you are positively biased towards poetry?

SH: No, no. I mean, I, for myself. I don’t know, Snehal. Somewhere, I feel, if I had to be really honest to myself, I think I wish I was a poet. I do wish that. Because, and I’ve told you this before, I think that poetry is really the highest manifestation of human language, it really is. But having said that, there are novels that will always mean a great deal to me, which I have read and re-read many times, and without which literature would be much poorer. So people like Kafka, like Proust, Hermann Broch…The great novelists and that time of late nineteenth, early twentieth century is the Golden Age of the novel. I think great work was produced then. Work which broke the boundaries of the conventional novel, and took it in different directions. Definitely. There is work that I couldn’t live without.

SN: But when one reads your books, the condensation of matter into sentences brings it very close to poetry.

SH: That condensation that poetry has is very important to me. I’m quite happy that you are saying that. So I won’t waste pages and pages saying nothing. I’d rather have five sentences that say a lot, sound a lot, mean a lot, you know, packed sentences.

Proem

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So far, I have been avoiding any theoretical discussion of the form itself, choosing rather to highlight the most prominent characteristics of individual authors and suggesting a few general traits shared by various kinds of prose poem.

That discussion would necessarily begin by asking “How to distinguish between prose and prose poetry?” One could answer by conceding that a prose poem puts into effect certain poetic strategies, rhythm being a readily identifiable one, in its unfolding by means of certain elements of prose, like the sentence. Thus a prose poem would never be simply a vehicle for transmitting sense.

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, in his essay ‘End of the Poem,’ speaks about the existential crisis a poem encounters in its last verse, where the disjunction between the metrical and syntactical series, on which it thrived, threatens to come to an end in “the exact coincidence of sound and sense.”

Agamben construes both enjambment and rhyme as essential conditions for poetry, since both devices, often occurring simultaneously, play on the non-coincidence of sound and sense[1]. In the case that syntax equals metre and sense equals sound, the poem ceases to be. Agamben proposes rhyme as a remedy to this lapse into prose: “It is as if the verse at the end of the poem, which was not to be irreparably ruined in sense, linked itself closely to its rhyme-fellow and, laced in this way, chose to dwell with it in silence.[2]

Does the prose poem share the poem’s anxiety as it approaches its end? Its independence of enjambment and rhyme partly liberates it from the neurosis poetry undergoes. But the prose poem, like the poem, is an overlapping of sound and sense that must necessarily remain incomplete. As Agamben puts it: “poetry lives only in the tension and difference (and hence also in the virtual interference) between sound and sense, between the semiotic sphere and the semantic sphere.”

And the onus of keeping the overlap incomplete falls most heavily where completion occurs, namely at the ending. Thus, looking closely at the endings of a few prose poems may reveal mechanisms of creating and sustaining the tension required for poetry.

Kafka’s prose poems thrive on the turbulence created by the flow of the two opposing currents of syntax and rationality. The syntactical stringency with which the sentences proceed gradually achieves such antiphony with the irrational content that their very jarring becomes musical.

In the prose poem titled ‘The Wish to be a Red Indian,’ for instance, the setting up of an expectation of regularity, through rhetorical repetition—“until one shed one’s spurs, for there needed no spurs, threw away the reins, for there needed no reins,” —Kafka quietly states that the head and neck of the horse, too, have vanished.

It would have been a very different sentence had it ended with any other phrase, like for instance: “and saw that the horse’s neck and head were already gone when the land before one was smoothly shorn heath.” The quiet, and therefore destabilizing, emphasis on the horse’s head and neck comes naturally due to the position of the phrase within the sentence. It overrides the emphasis given in the content to the heath: “and hardly saw that the land before one was smoothly shorn heath…”

Another instance of Kafka’s syntactical hallucination is seen in this short piece, where he gets away with an equally paradoxical and impossible statement.

“The windless calm on some days, the noise made by those arriving, the way our people come running out of the houses to welcome, flags are put out here and there, people hurry down to the cellar to fetch wine, from a window a rose falls on to the cobbles, nobody has any patience, the boats, instantly gripped by a hundred arms, scrape the beach, the foreign men gaze around them and climb up into the broad daylight of the square.”

A busy, almost erratic, rhythm is maintained amongst the scenes or tableaux by the use of commas in quick succession, until we reach the end. Here, “the boats, instantly gripped by a hundred arms, scrape on the beach, the foreign men gaze around them and climb up into the broad daylight of the square.”

Kafka postpones the surreal shock, which is barely perceptible, till the last word: square. Didn’t the boats just scrape on the beach? This technique reaches its apotheosis in the Trocadéro piece. The parallelism between temperature and a judicial process would have struck us as disturbing and groundless had we come across, say, the last clause of the poem. Although when we read the entire piece, a phrase as strange as “litigation is going on at exactly the same pace, this way and that, lengthwise and across,” becomes almost inevitable and appears to follow from the logical, though irrational, necessity of the piece.


[1] Syntax is interrupted in enjambment due to aural considerations (no. of stressed syllables in English) and rhyme, viz. an equation in sound, suggests an equation in meaning.

[2] Ibid.

Kafka as prose poet

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Kafka’s oeuvre contains innumerable fragmentary pieces which can be placed into three categories — parables, aphorisms and story sketches (what we call “flash fiction.”). Of the latter, there are several that teeter on the edge of metaphor, or where the structure of the sentence is made to collide, in all its cold logic, with its hyper-real sense[1], or some which calmly radiate the luminosity of ephemeral worlds glimpsed in clouds during sunset, whose light however remains with us for long, guiding us through dimly lit streets on our way home.

The dexterity with which Kafka handles the sentence, making its stretch, accordion-like, from a short phrase to a lengthy paragraph, justifies revisiting him as a prose poet.

* * *

A cart with three men in it was slowly going uphill in the dark. A stranger came towards them and called out to them. After some brief exchange of words it turned out that the stranger was asking to be given a lift. A place was made for him to sit in and he was helped up. Only when they were driving on did they ask him: “You were coming from the other direction and now you’re going back?” – “Yes,” the stranger said. “First I was going in your direction, but then I turned back because darkness had fallen earlier than I expected.”

 

* * *

The windless calm on some days, the noise made by those arriving, the way our people come running out of the houses to welcome, flags are put out here and there, people hurry down to the cellar to fetch wine, from a window a rose falls on to the cobbles, nobody has any patience, the boats, instantly gripped by a hundred arms, scrape the beach, the foreign men gaze around them and climb up into the broad daylight of the square.

 

* * *

You know the Trocadéro in Paris? In that building, the extent of which you cannot possibly imagine from photographs of it, the main hearing in a great lawsuit is going on at this very moment. You may wonder how it is possible to heat such a building adequately in this frightful winter. It is not heated. To start by thinking of heating in such a case is something people can do only in the pretty little country town where you spend your life. The Trocadéro is not being heated, but this does not interfere with the progress of the case; on the contrary, in the midst of this cold, which radiates up and down from all sides, litigation is going on at exactly the same pace, this way and that, lengthwise and across.

 

The Truth Abut Sancho Panza

Sancho Panza, who, incidentally, never boasted of it, in the course of the years, by means of providing a large number of romances of chivalry and banditry to while away the evening and night hours, succeeded in diverting the attentions of his devil, to whom he later gave the name Don Quixote, from himself to such an extent that this devil then in unbridled fashion performed the craziest deeds, which however, for lack of a pre-determined object, which should, of course, have been Sancho Panza, did nobody any harm. Sancho Panza, a free man, tranquilly, and perhaps out of a certain sense of responsibility, followed Don Quixote on his travels and had much and profitable entertainment from this to the end of his days.

 

The Wish to Be a Red Indian

If one were only an Indian, instantly alert, and on a racing horse, leaning against the wind, kept on quivering jerkily over the quivering ground, until one shed one’s spurs, for there needed no spurs, threw away the reins, for there needed no reins, and hardly saw that the land before one was smoothly shorn heath when horse’s neck and head would be already gone.


[1] Mark Harman, in his Translator’s Preface to The Castle, gives a good example of this: “He moved about freely now, rested his stick here and there, approached the woman in the armchair, and was, incidentally, the biggest in the room.” This stylistic trait is visible again in the Trocadéro story.

John Paul Richter

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Neither the ‘Dream-Fugue[1]’ nor any of its five constituent transitions can be read as standalone pieces of prose or prose poetry: it is its overall structure, based on the model of the fugue, which brings the piece closer to poetry. The gradual introduction and interweaving of themes with the primary one of sudden death, the creation of contrapuncti between the moods of calm and terror, and the raising of pitch within the visions to attain a crescendo in nightmare and, finally, spiritual revelation, mimic the way melody and voice are handled in the musical form.

Since the sentence is the compositional unit of prose poetry, De Quincey’s prose, with its affinity to a classical organisation of sense and sound, becomes a natural candidate to the genre. But what distinguishes it from the writing of his precursors, especially Sir Thomas Browne and Jeremy Taylor, is its essentially dream-like quality. Although the former wrote a dense meditative prose, the philosophical strain was only to enter prose poetry via German writers, and that much later, after Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.

Meanwhile, De Quincey introduced his readers to a wonderful prose writer—John Paul Richter. Among his miscellany is an essay titled ‘John Paul Frederick Richter’ where De Quincey analyses the German author’s work and praises him for the “power which he possesses over the pathetic and the humourous,[2]” traits which other important prose writers like Kafka and Walser were to share. De Quincey provides his translations of several short prose pieces by Richter in ‘Analects from Richter’. Following are some excerpts[3]:

 

Imagination Untamed by the Coarser Realities of Life

Happy is every actor in the guilty drama of life, to whom the higher illusion within supplies or conceals the external illusion; to whom, in the tumult of his part and its intellectual interest, the bungling landscapes of the stage have the bloom and reality of nature, and whom the loud parting and shocking of the scenes disturb not in his dream!

 

Satirical Notice of Reviewers

In Swabia, in Saxony, in Pomerania, are towns in which are stationed a strange sort of officers — valuers of author’s flesh, something like our old market-lookers in this town. They are commonly called tasters (or Praegustatores) because they eat a mouthful of every book beforehand, and tell the people whether its flavor be good. We authors, in spite, call them reviewers: but I believe an action of defamation would lie against us for such bad words. The tasters write no books themselves; consequently they have the more time to look over and tax those of other people. Or, if they do sometimes write books, they are bad ones: which again is very advantageous to them: for who can understand the theory of badness in other people’s books so well as those who have learned it by practice in their own? They are reputed the guardians of literature and the literati for the same reason that St. Nepomuk is the patron saint of bridges and of all who pass over them — viz. because he himself once lost his life from a bridge.

 

Night

The earth is everyday overspread with the veil of night for the same reason as the cages of birds are darkened — viz. that we may the more readily apprehend the higher harmonies of thought in the hush and quiet of darkness. Thoughts, which day turns into smoke and mist, stand about us in the night as lights and flames: even as the column which fluctuates above the crater of Vesuvius, in the daytime appears a pillar of cloud, but by night a pillar of fire.

 

The Quarrels of Friends

Why is it that the most fervent love becomes more fervent by brief interruption and reconciliation? and why must a storm agitate our affections before they can raise the highest rainbow of peace? Ah! for this reason it is — because all passions feel their object to be as eternal as themselves, and no love can admit the feeling that the beloved object should die. And under this feeling of imperishableness it is that we hard fields of ice shock together so harshly, whilst all the while under the sunbeams of a little space of seventy years we are rapidly dissolving.


[1] The essay that includes the ‘Dream-Fugue,’ ‘The Vision of Sudden Death,’ is available at Project Gutenberg, along with ‘The English Mail-Coach’: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10708

[2] Ibid.

The English strand

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The story of the prose poem sketched so far is quite linear, and it is hardly the complete story. It lacks the tracing of interlingual exchanges which foster the evolution of a form. In considering Baudelaire’s poetry, we cannot overlook the artistic goal he shared with De Quincey, the goal of capturing and recreating through language states-of-mind other than the conscious.

Baudelaire’s famous interjection from Paris Spleen, “Get drunk! And stay drunk! On wine, virtue or poetry” and his intention to capture the “undulations of reverie” in that book reflect the ambition of his work. De Quincey’s prose, including the well-known Confessions of an English Opium Eater, is suffused with descriptions of visions and dreams, and much of his art was in imbuing those places he experienced in wakefulness with the tremendous suggestive power possessed only by the landscape of dreams.

De Quincey’s impressionistic language is also a clear mirror of the workings of his mind. His Latinate vocabulary keeps the prose dense with semantic and aural echoes of related words while the structure of his sentence—parentheses opening at every turn, as in Kafka and James—reflect the constant associative activity of his mind. 

The closest De Quincey’s writing comes to prose poetry is in the ‘Dream-Fugue,’ the concluding part, and the “ultimate object,” of ‘The English Mail-Coach,’ one of the most beautiful essays in the English language. This section occurs at the end of ‘The Vision of Sudden Death;’ De Quincey describes it as “an attempt to wrestle with the utmost efforts of music in dealing with a colossal form of impassioned horror (ibid).”

The Prose Poem

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is perhaps the most elusive of all poetic forms as it lacks any formal definition, unlike a haiku or a sestina, which can make it identifiable. Although like most other forms, the prose poem became naturalised in English through translation and inspired reading of foreign literature.

An obscure French book called Gaspard of the Night[1], by Louis Bertrand, is widely acknowledged as the first instance of prose poetry. Grotesque, gothic and macabre, the book made a strong impression on Baudelaire, whose poetry is replete with juxtapositions of the vile and the beautiful, the vulgar and the lofty, the downright despicable and the grandiose, so relentlessly practiced in The Flowers of Evil that the categories finally fuse and become inseparable.

Concomitantly with that defining work, Baudelaire wrote a book of “little poems in prose” called Paris Spleen, now available in a noteworthy translation by Keith Waldrop. In the dedicatory preface to Paris Spleen, Baudelaire describes his work and the idea of a prose poem thus: “Which of us has not, in his ambitious days, dreamt the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple enough and striking enough to suit lyrical movements of the soul, undulations of reverie, the flip-flops of consciousness.”

These fifty short pieces spanning a variety of genres from narrative to meditative, parable to fantasy, litany to essay, form the definitive collection of modern prose poetry. It was Paris Spleen and not The Flowers of Evil that inspired Rimbaud to produce yet another startling work in the form: Illuminations.


[1] Two pieces from which can be read here:

http://www.morningred.com/friend/1999/02/pages/idiosyncratica.html

 

Fear of the blank page

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I recently bought a pack of two notebooks in Rubberband’s new Slim Series. What attracted me was the unusual size, B5, and the thickness of the notebooks, all of sixty-four pages each. The format and style also made me change my opinion about the brand, which I had so far assumed to produce nothing different from affordable replicas of Moleskine notebooks. After unwrapping the plastic cover, I, like any bibliophile, touched the cover and inhaled the smell of the paper. The cover, made of kraft card, exudes a frail, musty smell. The paper is plain, smooth to touch and has a tinge of yellow that gives it its false age. Only last night, when I took out the as-yet-unused notebooks from my drawer and caressed the paper, the phrase “fear of the blank page” crossed my mind. This romanticism is uttered by many writers when, burdened by a thousand-year old tradition, they feel anxious about the individuality of their own writing while at the same time realising the utter impossibility of producing anything new.

Thomas De Quincey, in an additional prose piece to his Confessions, titled “The Palimpsest,” says that writing and printing on a large scale remained unfeasible until a durable and cheap material to inscribe on was found[1]. The Greeks and Romans, who wrote on parchment or vellum, erased older manuscripts to accommodate new writing. This piece of parchment from which the older writing was wiped off by the new is called a palimpsest[2]. On these palimpsests, the writing of various eras was deemed lost or completely over-written until modern chemistry devised a way to bring back its traces from oblivion. It is here that De Quincey stops and wonders at the presence of invisible things and layers concealed under layers. He compares writing on a palimpsest to information getting stored in the human mind and goes on to develop this metaphor, suggesting that, like a palimpsest, the mind can reveal all the information stored and stocked in it at the slightest impulse or stimuli.

Borges, who read De Quincey voraciously, and who was greatly influenced by his Latinate style, appropriated the metaphor and linked the writing, erasing and subsequent re-surfacing on a palimpsest to literature, thereby addressing the problem of tradition and individuality: any writer writes on a page where the echoes of past writing are always present, though they may remain invisible until an astute reader comes along and shows us its traces, which rise and dip “like the undulating motions of a flattened stone which children cause to skim the breast of a river…”

 

 


[1] De Quincey acknowledges one Dr Whately as the first to have “luminously expounded” this idea.

[2] He defines it thus: “A palimpsest…is a membrane or roll cleansed of its manuscript by reiterated successions.”