Saturday, May 17, 2014

Letter to a Young Prose Poet

Dear Paul:

When I was 18, already aware that literature was my life, I came upon Paul Auster's anthology of 20th century French poetry. The first pages of that collection, after a brilliant selection of translations of Guillaume Apollinaire, presented a poet I’d never heard of: Max Jacob.

Jacob, a prose poet, worked in the Parisian milieu of Apollinaire, Picasso, the Montmartre Bateau-Lavoir crowd. His life was a study in contradictions: a gay Jewish man, he converted to Catholicism after a series of mystical experiences. His writing was extraordinarily odd. Something hypnotic and dull and irreverent in the voice stuck in my crop, and I immediately started writing pieces in a similar tonal register.

Two years later I was in university learning French so as to be able to read Rimbaud and this fellow Jacob. By sheer chance, my university’s French department happened to include Sydney Lévy, an Egyptian emigre who’d written a book on Jacob. Lévy’s short book, The Play of the Text, revealed to me some of the subtlety of Jacob’s rhetorical tricks. Lévy himself, a chain-smoking Jewish man of Mediterranean cast, was astounded that out of nowhere had appeared a hulking Midwestern boy interested in the obscure French joker-poet Jacob. What’s more, this milk-fed country boy had appeared in his office befuddled, indignant even, that Jacob’s most important work, a collection titled Le Cornet à dés [The Dice Cup], had yet to be fully translated into English.

I remember complaining to him--how was it possible, so many books on Picasso, the surrealists, Apollinaire, how was it that only Jacob was still untranslated? Why didn’t our library have more?

“Well,” he said with a soft laugh, “in fact there isn't much in any library. Not much has been written on Jacob. And believe me, I agree, it's a serious lack.”

Though still quite an amateur (!) I offered to begin work on a new translation with Lévy. And he was gracious enough to agree. Of course he knew my French wasn’t up to the undertaking. But we soon settled into a rhythm: we’d meet every two weeks and he would edit the drafts, catching my worst missteps. As it turned out, we got off to a promising start, but only completed about a third of the book. The following year Lévy opted to take a new post in Santa Barbara, and continuing our work by post, in those pre-Internet days, wasn’t feasible.

It is perhaps part of Jacob’s sad fate (arrested by the Gestapo, he died en route to a concentration camp in 1944) that his major work may forever remain only partly translated into English. Still today, decades later, Le Cornet à dés, his most important collection, has never appeared in an English edition.

Modigliani's portrait of Max Jacob, about 1916

My attempt with Sydney Lévy was one of three that I know of. The results, a rough start, are here: One decent collection of Jacob's work in English containing many pieces from The Dice Cup is William Kulik's Selected Poems of Max Jacob. John Ashbery has done some of the best translations, but his collection is long out of print.

But why do I send you this letter? Because you complained about not being able really to get into any of the writing projects you started; about not having enough faith in any one project to go through the grind of seeing it through. You asked me if I had any advice.

I’m hoping possibly to infect you with the same bug for short prose that I got.

I recommend journal writing, muttering to yourself on the bus, writing things on folded sheets of paper kept in your pocket--writing down the things you mutter and then elaborating on them. And of course: You must constantly be reading literature, every day, reading the writers you most admire, to keep your head in the rhythmic state suitable to making good sentences of your own. Journal writing, muttering to yourself, scraps of paper always to hand, reading, muttering, scraps of paper, elaborating, journal writing. This then is a basic starting approach.

Some of the scribblings you come up with will, hopefully, develop into short but sharp prose pieces. Certain of them, sharpened further, may be worked into prose poems. Or may have been rough prose poems from the first scribbling. Which is of course the best.

The genres on the border of which the prose poem can flourish are legion: rant, fable, folk tale, menu, editorial, plea, query, public service announcement, romance, fait divers, news report, joke. Many have tried to define the genre as it emerged (mainly over the last century) but most critics, in my view, have wasted too much time trying to pin it down in relation to verse poetry.

I have my own theory of the genre, but won't bother laying it out here.

I began above with Max Jacob. Another writer well worth reading, who worked in a similar register during some of the same years Jacob was active, is the Russian Daniil Kharms. Here are some links:
Or if you want to buy one of the collections in print, there's Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms.

Of course I've no idea if this odd genre called prose poem will get under your skin and engage you to take up the pen. But this is my response to your writer's dilemma.



P.S. There's now been quite a bit of work in English in the prose poem too. There's an excellent anthology out: Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present. The American writers who’ve most impressed me are Russell Edson and Gabriel Gudding. The latter especially is one of a kind, a verbal prankster of the first order. Some of the poems and passages in A Defense of Poetry and Rhode Island Notebook are stunning. Unfortunately, Gudding is also a New Atheist, and ended by convincing me that, like most in that camp, he was incapable of dialogue with those who think the universe is more than what empirical science can tell us. A sad story, but not one that’s worth retelling here.

Both Gudding and Edson have work online, if you don't want to buy the book right off. And in any case I shouldn't throw too many voices at you all at once. Just start with Jacob and Kharms and see where it leads.

Update 2015: My own work in the genre: Idiocy, Ltd..

No comments: