Weaving Images into Verse: Prose for Poets

September 7, 2016 | 4 min read

Power of Words

Poets should write prose. I say this as a former poet, someone whose first two books were poetry collections. Someone who spent hours drafting poems on sheets pressed against an old clipboard before typing and sending them to literary magazines, where they appeared next to other little poems in the silence of print. I say this well aware that suggesting how another should write is akin to telling someone how they should raise their children — and as a stubborn Italian from New Jersey who is the father of twin daughters, I can appreciate the resistance.

And yet. Poets, hear me out. I think that prose and poetry are sisters. My 3-year-old daughters sleep in the same bed. They have separate beds, but they sleep together, sometimes arms intertwined, other times their bodies perpendicular. They are united and identical, although when they have moments of disagreement there is a swell of emotion, like the smallest slight is the deepest betrayal. Poetry is attached to prose in the way that one daughter is attached to the other: connected and yet independent. When Olivia is in another room for more than a minute, Amelia lifts her head from a puzzle, and asks, simply, “Where is she?” Poets will their lines to stop before the margins. To lineate a poem means to make formal and aesthetic decisions about phrases, sounds, and sentiment. And yet the margin remains — and I’ve never known a poet who isn’t drawn toward that space.

Sisters, poetry and prose. In his essay “How Do You Write Poems?” Donald Hall, says “it is considered cold and calculating to write a prose draft of a poem before versifying it.” He rather thinks that “poets usually write a draft in prose when they are too stirred by their subject to pay any attention to metrical art, when they are overcome with excitement and must get something on paper quickly.” Another possibility is that a poet “afflicted by the critical will may write a prose draft because he can stand the sight of bad prose, but not of bad verse.” We like to romantically think that verse, in its ambiguity and passion, is somehow closer to our real emotions — but Hall reminds us that sometimes practical concerns are foremost. Poets are a forgetful bunch, and to lineate an idea for the sake of not writing a paragraph seems almost sinful.

Elizabeth Bishop wrote prose drafts for most of her poems, among them “True Confessions” and the classic “One Art.” Bishop said she wrote prose “on a typewriter,” because “for poetry I use a pen. About halfway through sometimes I’ll type out a few lines to see how they look.” Each handwritten, lineated poem was essentially a second draft for her.

Bishop would trade many drafts with Robert Lowell within their correspondence. Lowell said that he first wrote out some of his later poems in prose, although a “written prose draft of the poem doesn’t seem to do much good, too little pain has gone into it; but one really worked on is bound to have phrases that are invaluable. And it’s a nice technical problem: how can you keep phrases and get them into meter?” In fact, in as early as a 1949 letter to Bishop, he speaks of stopping his writing “when I have the first draft of a stanza or first get it so as it looks like poetry,” suggesting some massaging between forms. (Rodney Jones calls this process “translating” prose into poetry).

Emily Dickinson might have gone a step further, as Ellen Hart describes: “Dickinson did not visually separate prose and poetry in her letters. Her prose lines and the lines of a poem are similar in length, she did not consistently divide poetry from prose through spacing, and she did not vary margins.” While this is not universally true with Dickinson — as Harold Bloom notes, an 1880 letter contains tightly lineated verse among epistolary sentences — Hart is correct that there “are no easily drawn periods in Dickinson’s writing.” Letters and words drift and blend.

W.B. Yeats wrote prose statements for his much of his verse. “Among School Children” began as this plan: “Topic for poem — school children and the thought that life will waste them perhaps that no possible life can fulfill our dreams or even their teacher’s hope. Bring in the old thought that life prepares for what never happens.”

For “Coole Park:” “Describe house in first stanza. Here Synge came, Hugh Lane, Shaw Taylor, many names. I too in my timid youth. Coming and going like migratory birds. Then address the swallows fluttering in their dream like circles. Speak of the rarity of the circumstances that bring together such concords of men. Each man more than himself through whom an unknown life speaks. A circle returning into itself.”

Even the obscure “Byzantium” began in prose: “Subject for a poem. Death of a friend. Describe Byzantium as it is in the system towards the end of the first Christian millennium. A walking mummy. Flames at the street corners where the soul is purified, birds of hammered gold singing in the golden trees, in the harbor [dolphins] offering their backs to the wailing dead that they may carry them to Paradise.”

Imagine Yeats — that somnambulating Free State senator — sitting down with his notebook and being so declarative in one sentence and so surreal in the next. In an essay about symbolism, Yeats wrote about how he “weaved” images into verse — likely meaning that he was transforming a prose draft into poetry — and it was at that moment he entered into a trance. “In the making and in the understanding of a work of art,” particularly if that art “is full of patterns and symbols and music,” the poet is “lured to the threshold of sleep.” The poet, actually, “may be far beyond” sleep, arriving at some poetic space. Perhaps Yeats was being melodramatic. Perhaps this was merely a revision of his drafting in the service of the narrative in his essay. But I am optimistic that he was on to something. Maybe I’m still a poet after all.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

is a contributing editor for The Millions. He is the culture editor for Image Journal, and a contributor to the Catholic Herald (UK). He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and the Kenyon Review. He is the author of Longing for an Absent God and Wild Belief. Follow him at @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at nickripatrazone.com.