Sunday, August 29, 2010

On Poetic Prose

Because The Folio Club is primarily devoted to artful prose narratives (in both fiction and nonfiction), it occurs to me that this blog might be an appropriate place to share the following short essay entitled “On Poetic Prose.” It first appeared in print several years ago, but revisiting it now I find that it still reflects my thoughts on the subject.

Like a genie emerging from an envelope on my writing desk, the phrase “poetic prose” swirls into the room, coloring the atmosphere, suggesting imminent possibilities of magic, wish fulfillment, and astonishment. As the sorcerous puffs hover in the incensed air, I recall the precise (though very general) question recently sent by friends at an academic journal: “What do you think of ‘poetic prose’?” This open-ended inquiry, distributed to a wide range of potential respondents, seemed intended to form the theme of an upcoming issue—and struck me as an appealing subject. After all, what lover of literature and composer of paragraphs can resist the idea that prose, far from languishing amid the prosaic, should attain to the virtues of poetry? This sentiment, I felt, might be delicately unspooled across blank pages and threaded into a pattern. But, now, within the deep green walls of this antique room, the initial phrase behaves more like the rubbing of a magic lantern.

The genie—who has, true to the dictates of enchantment, already crossed over from metaphor to embodied guest—stands before me, arms folded, chestnut skin gleaming. His turban, like the vest he wears over his otherwise bare chest, is golden; his wide belt and billowy silken pants are turquoise; his boots a darkling purple. His commanding presence—and he does have “presence” in every sense—sends through me a barely suppressed tremor: his black-brown eyes, sly under arched brows, suggest that some mischief, more than magic, is taking place.

Telepathically I imbibe his story. Having once been the indentured servant of a wizard, he had been promised immortality if he could solve a puzzle set for him by his master. Eagerly agreeing, he found himself promptly imprisoned, for centuries (or did it only seem like centuries?), in an ingenious but infernal box: a kind of supernatural cell. Or, more precisely, pseudo-supernatural. He finally solved its mysteries and escaped only after learning to use every facet of his own imagination to generate elaborate hypotheses. Upon finding the fictional scenario that held the key mixture of analysis, intuition, and invention, he immediately freed himself, then discovered that his mental abilities had been honed to such perfection that he could now manifest anything he visualized. In other words, he had become a genie.

As I stare at him I wonder if, given his remarkable expertise, he might answer my friends’ inquiry with a theory definite, substantial, and unassailable, something superior to my romantic notions about literary quality. But even as the idea flickers across my mind, the genie makes clear, in concise nonverbal language (only a split second of one of his remarkable glances) that this would be a foolish choice. And in the same instant I understand an alternative possibility.

Answering a question with another question is often more useful and poetic than serving up a more finite—and hence prosaic—response, just as the opening of doors is more intriguing, to a certain temperament, than the adept construction of boxes. And the door to an understanding of the secrets of “poetic prose” (and its mysterious dwelling place in the realm of imagination, fiction, and linguistic pleasure) is guarded, I suspect, by a riddle with a deceptively simple ring:

Why do we humans have such a propensity for discovering genies?

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Originally published in Yale Italian Poetry, Vols. V-VI (double issue for 2001-2002), as part of an “international inquiry on poetic prose.” Copyright © 2002 by Robert Pranzatelli.

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