A Poet and Prose
A Poet and Prose
The tradition of dividing literature into poetry and prose dates from the beginnings of prose, since it was only in prose that such a distinction could be made. Ever since, poetry and prose have customarily been regarded as separate areas-or, better yet, spheres-of literature wholly independent of each other. To say the least, "prose poems,' "rhythmical prose," and the like indicate a derivative mentality, a polarized rather than integral perception of literature as a phenomenon. Curiously enough, such a view of things has by no means been imposed upon us by criticism from without. This view is, above all, the fruit of the guild approach to literature taken by literati themselves.
The concept of equality is extrinsic to the nature of art, and the thinking of any man of letters is hierarchical. Within this hierarchy poetry occupies a higher position than prose, and the poet, in principle, is higher than the prose writer. This is true not so much because poetry is in fact older than prose, but because a poet in narrow circumstances can sit down and produce a piece; whereas in similar straits a prose writer would hardly give thought to a poem. Even if the prose writer has what it takes to write a decent verse text, he knows full well that poetry pays a lot worse, and more slowly than prose.
With few exceptions, all the more or less eminent writers of recent times have paid their dues to verse. Some, like Nabokov, for example, have tried to the very end to convince themselves and those around them that even if they were not primarily poets, they were poets all the same. Most of them, however, after once yielding to the temptation of poetry, never addressed themselves to it again except as readers, still, they remained deeply grateful for the lessons in laconism and harmony it taught them. In twentieth-century literature the only case of an outstanding prose writer becoming a great poet is that of Thomas Hardy. In general, however, it can be said that the prose writer without active experience in poetry is prone to prolixity and grandiloquence.
What does a writer of prose learn from poetry? The dependence of a word's specific gravity on context, focused thinking, omission of the self-evident, the dangers that lurk within an elevated state of mind. And what does the poet learn from prose? Not much: attention to detail, the use of common parlance and bureaucratese, and, in rare instances, compositional know-how (the best teacher of which is music). All three of these, however, can be gleaned from the experience of poetry itself (especially from Renaissance poetry), and theoretically-but only theoretically-a poet can get along without prose.
And only theoretically can he get along without writing prose. Need or a reviewer's ignorance, not to mention ordinary correspondence, will sooner or later force him to write in run-on lines, "like everyone else." But apart from these, a poet has other reasons, which we will attempt to examine here. In the first place, one fine day a poet may simply get an urge to write something in prose. (The inferiority complex that the prose writer suffers vis-a-vis the poet doesn't automatically imply the poet's superiority complex vis-a-vis the prose writer. The poet often deems the latter's work much more serious than his own, which he may not even always regard as work.) Moreover, there are subjects that can be treated only in prose. A narrative involving more than three characters resists almost every poetic form except the epos. Reflections on historical themes, as well as childhood remembrances (in which the poet indulges to the same degree as ordinary mortals do), in turn look more natural in prose. The History of the Pugachev Rebellion, The Captain's Daughter *-what could be more gratifying subjects for romantic poems! And especially in the era of Romanticism ... However, what happens in the end is that the novel in verse is replaced more and more often by "verses from a novel."] No one knows how much poetry loses when a poet turns to prose; it is quite certain, though, that prose profits from it greatly.
The prose works of Marina Tsvetaeva explain this better than anything else. To paraphrase Clausewitz, prose for Tsvetaeva was nothing but the continuation of poetry by other means (which, in fact, is what prose historically is). Everywhere-in her diary entries, essays on literature, fictionalized reminiscences-that is just what we encounter: the resetting of the methodology of poetic thinking into a prose text, the growth of poetry into prose. Tsvetaeva's
*Prose works by Pushkin.
**Allusions to Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, and to the poems concluding Pasternak's novel, Doctor Zhivago.
sentence is constructed not so much in accordance with the principle of subject followed by predicate as through the use of specifically poetic technology: sound association, root rhyme, semantic enjambment, etc. That is, the reader is constantly dealing not with a linear (analytic) development but with a crystalline (synthesizing) growth of thought. Perhaps no better laboratory can be found for analyzing the psychology of poetic creation, inasmuch as all stages of the process are shown at extremely close range, verging on the starkness of caricature.
"Reading," says Tsvetaeva, "is complicity in the creative process." This most certainly is the statement of a poet; Leo Tolstoy would not have said such a thing. In this statement a sensitive or at least a reasonably alert ear can distinguish a note of despair, greatly muffled by authorial (and feminine at that) pride, coming specifically from a poet sorely fatigued by the ever-widening rift-growing with each additional line-between author and audience. And in the poet's turning to prose, that a priori "normal" form of communication with a reader, there is always a touch of slackening tempo, shifting gear, trying to make oneself clear, to explain things. For without complicity in the creative process there is no comprehension: what is comprehension if not complicity? As Whitman said: "Great poetry is possible only if there are great readers." In turning to prose, and dismantling almost every other word of it into component parts, Tsvetaeva shows her reader what a word, a thought, a phrase consists of; she tries, often against her own will, to draw the reader closer to her: to make him equally great.
There is still another explanation of the methodology of Tsvetaeva's prose. Since the day that the narrative genre