From The Mind
Listening To Your Poem
by John Riley
Ever since Baudelaire spent the last ten years of his life writing the prose poems collected in Paris Spleen, French poets have had a special relationship to unlineated poems. While prose poems have flourished in most languages many readers are drawn back to the prose poems of Baudelaire and Max Jacob and Francis Ponge and other French masters of the form. While Jacob and Ponge wrote prose poems exclusively, others wrote both types, which gives rise to the question: What prompts a poet to write a poem with or without line endings?
Of all the French poets in the first years of 20th century Paris, Pierre Reverdy is perhaps the most interesting. He was said to be a quiet man who once prayed he would never be well known. If that anecdote is true, the prayer wasn’t answered. Reverdy was one of the most prominent poets of the Paris fin de siècle avant-garde. Breton said he was the “greatest poet of his generation.” He was friends with Picasso and Braque and dedicated himself to writing “Cubist poetry” at one point. Then, in 1926, Reverdy left Paris with his seamstress wife to live in a monastery town far from Paris. He said he was committing his life to God and was giving up poetry, but we know now he continued to write. However, his life at the forefront of the new and different was over.
Regardless of his efforts to escape poetry Reverdy was a poet deep in his bones. When reading his work, you know instantly that he wrote poetry because he had to write poetry, not for fame or with hopes of leaving a legacy. This is why he is a good subject to use to answer our question.
In the volume of his poems translated (I don’t read French but I’m working on it) and published by the NYRB Poets series the prose poem “Journey to Greece” begins:
I shall have paid out all the knots of my destiny at a single go, without so much as a call at port; my heart filled with travelers' tales, my foot ever poised on the springy gangplanks of departure, and my overcautious mind ever on the lookout for reefs.
Reverdy was close to the Surrealists and the opening of “Journey to Greece” is evidence of this. What are the “knots of destiny” and is the sea an actual sea, not a metaphoric one? Despite the opening’s focus on movement and travel, the long sentence wraps around the reader, slowing our eyes so as best to ponder the narrator’s experience. The narrator is trapped in motion, but it is a slow motion growing around him like vines. He may want to get out but isn’t yet desperate to do so.
Contrast this with the beginning of “Endless Journey,” another poem in the volume:
All those seen from behind who were moving away singing
Who has been seen passing along the river
Where even the reeds repeated their prayers
Which the birds took up louder and farther on
They are the first to arrive and will not go away.
“Endless Journey” is determined, even a little desperate. The reeds say the same prayers over and over and the bird calls are growing louder and louder. The scene and voice are loud, not welcoming. While “Journey to Greece” invites the reader into the journey, “Endless Journey” is warning us to stay away and has to be lineated in order to march on into the next line.
Here is the simple answer to our question. Reverdy chose the form he knew was best for the poem. When a poem needed longer lines to wrap around the reader and pull us in, he didn't hesitate to do that. If he wanted to move the poem quickly down the page or drive home a scene that moved to a louder conclusion, he used the forward drive of linear poetry. Reverdy was a master at giving life to both types of poems and in the process let us know that he knew how to first listen to his poem and to then develop it in the direction the rhythm led him.
John Riley has published poetry and fiction in Smokelong Quarterly, Better Than Starbucks, Connotation Press, Fiction Daily, The Molotov Cocktail, Dead Mule, The St. Anne’s Review, and many others. He has also written over thirty books of nonfiction for young readers.
From The Mind is our editorial page, for topics related to poetry, creative writing, and literature. Please feel free to submit your editorial for this page, putting From The Mind in your subject line. Usually 300 to 700 words including your bio. We’d love to hear from our readers and contributors here. — Vera Ignatowitsch