Everything I Know About Writing Prose Comes from Reading and Writing Poems

By Robert Polito

Poets Robert Polito and Gregory Pardlo co-led a retreat at the Garrison Institute entitled “Imagining Your Voice on the Page” on December 16 – 18, 2016. The essay below was originally delivered by Polito during the panel Genre-Crossing and Poetic Truth: Lyric Nonfictions, Reported Poems at AWP 2016 in Los Angeles.


Robert Polito speaking at AWP 2016

This is a short talk with a long list inside it, mostly in sentences, not lines, or in sentences that occasionally aspire to lines. Lines and sentences: even now, nonfiction—including nonfiction by poets—is approached by readers, and sometimes by writers, chiefly as information, argument, or anecdote, the formal aspects of language and prose a sort of ornamental afterthought, as though the real action of nonfiction transpired peripherally, perhaps reluctantly, through words. During an interview in a recent issue of Paris Review—incidentally only the ninth Paris Review nonfiction writer interview, contrasted to at least 99 for poetry and 227 for fiction—Luc Sante focuses some of the elusive idiosyncrasies here, remarking: “All writing is an activity that occurs on the page. It cannot merely be a transcription of something thought about in advance. Because it’s already dead at that point. If it’s been thought through, it’s a corpse. Ideas have to be wrestled with then and there.”

“Already dead. . . . a corpse. . . . wrestled”—Sante’s spirited phrasing shapes a hard-boiled reformulation of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous invocation of a poem as a mind thinking. Elsewhere in this Paris Review interview Sante signals that he too, the author of Low Life, Factory of Facts, and most recently The Other Paris, and although pretty much exclusively a nonfiction writer, is calculating poetry when writing prose. As Sante continues:

“I write prose with a poet’s head. . . . Without sounding utterly pretentious, I do think of almost everything I write as a poem—certainly all three of my big books. The chapters are strophes. It’s not an account. It’s not a history. I’m not a historian—I’ve never pretended to be one—and I’m not giving a definitive account of anything. It’s a very, very subjective approach to the past, to a certain time and place. It’s carved in a particular way. It favors certain narratives over certain others. It’s intended above all else to be an experience.”

For me, as a poet and also as a nonfiction writer—mostly of essays, biography, and criticism—Sante’s observations are immensely appealing, and instantly familiar. I read a lot of prose, fiction and nonfiction, watch a lot of movies, but everything I know about writing prose comes from reading and writing poems—and this is true of large organization conundrums, such as form, design, and structure, as well as local cavils, such as diction, sounds, pauses, breaks, and rhythm.

Increasingly, prose and poetry are experiences I find it difficult to distinguish in any ultimate way. Many of my favorite books, music, and films over the last few decades tend to operate along the seams of poetry, fiction, and essay. I’m thinking of work as various as W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work, James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, Hilton Als’s White Girls, Geoffrey O’Brien’s The Phantom Empire, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Frank Bidart’s Desire, Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio, Dodie Bellamy’s When the Sick Rule the World, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, Juliana Spahr’s That Winter the Wolf Came, Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office of Soft Architecture, John Ashbery’s Three Poems and Flow Chart, Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination, J. M.Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, Ander Monson’s Neck Deep and Other Predicaments, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée, Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, Robyn Schiff’s A Woman of Property, David Markson’s Reader’s Block, Jenny Boully’s The Body, Lydia Davis’s Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, Rachel Cohen’s A Chance Meeting, René Steinke’s Holy Skirts, Harry Mathews’s My Life in CIA, Dale Peck’s The Law of Enclosures, Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land, Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, John Haskell’s I Am Not Jackson Pollock, Honor Moore’s The Bishop’s Daughter, Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and The Argonauts, Robert Pinsky’s History of My Heart, Deborah Landau’s The Uses of the Body, Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue, Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping With the Dictionary, Steve Erickson’s Zeroville, Chantal Akerman’s News from Home, Jonathan Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Sophie Calle’s Suite Vénitienne, C. D. Wright’s One With Others, Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus, Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions, Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire, Douglas Kearney’s Patter, Lynne Tillman’s American Genius, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, Matthea Harvey’s If the Tabloids are True What Are You?, Maureen N. McLane’s My Poets, Fanny Howe’s The Wedding Dress, Teju Cole’s Open City, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, Solmaz Sharif’s Look, Nathaniel Mackey’s Splay Anthem, Eileen Myles’s Inferno, David Lang’s Death Speaks, Robert Ashley’s operas Perfect Lives and Now Eleanor’s Idea, Guy Maddin’s films Cowards Bend the Knee, Brand on the Brain!, and My Winnipeg, Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft” and Chronicles, Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others, Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies, Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland, and many books, whether cast ostensibly in lines or sentences, by my fellow panelists, Tess Taylor, Tom Sleigh, Camille Dungy, and Brian Turner.

Might this mongrel—or magpie—work be the signature genre of our time? Novels and poems and songs tracking essayistic impulses?—essays shadowing fictional and lyric designs?—many of these, nearly all of them, steeped in quotations, adaptations, allusions, borrowings, thefts, collaged. I’ve come to think of these books as dramatizing, even embodying thinking in sentences and lines, at least as Elizabeth Bishop (again) advanced the notion when she wrote that she wanted to write poems that seize the mind “in action” rather than “at rest.”

Here, for instance, is a paragraph by film critic and painter Manny Farber from his 1962 essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art”:

One of the good termite performances (John Wayne’s bemused cowboy in an unreal stage town inhabited by pallid repetitious actors whose chief trait is a powdered make-up) occurs in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Better Ford films than this have been marred by a phlegmatically solemn Irish personality that goes for rounded declamatory acting, silhouetted riders along the rim of a mountain with a golden sunset behind them, and repetitions in which big bodies are scrambled together in a rhythmically curving Rosa Bonheurish composition. Wayne’s acting is infected by a kind of hoboish spirit, sitting back on its haunches doing a bitter-amused counterpoint to the pale, neutral film life around him. In an Arizona town that is too placid, where the cactus was planted last night and nostalgically cast actors do a generalized drunkenness, cowardice, voraciousness, Wayne is the termite actor focusing only on a tiny present area, nibbling at it with engaging professionalism and a hipster sense of how to sit in a chair leaned against the wall, eye a flogging overactor (Lee Marvin). As he moves along at the pace of a tapeworm, Wayne leaves a path that is only bits of shrewd intramural acting—a craggy face filled with bitterness, jealousy, a big body that idles luxuriantly, having long grown tired with roughhouse games played by old wrangler types like John Ford.

Farber’s manifest insistence on criticism as language—his insistence, too, that his critical language arise from the details of the films he writes about—makes him the most adventurous stylist of American film criticism. No other film critic has written so inventively from inside the moment of a movie. His writing can appear to be composed exclusively of digressions from an absent center. One of his standard moves is a bold qualification of a qualification, in a sequence of vivid repositionings. There are rarely introductory overviews or concluding summaries; his late reviews in particular spurn plot summaries, might not even name the director of a film, and transitions seem interchangeable with non sequiturs. Puns, jokes, lists, snaky metaphors, and webs of allusions supplant arguments. Farber wrenches nouns into verbs and sustains strings of divergent, perhaps irreconcilable adjectives such that praise can look inseparable from censure. He will cast prickly epigrams, and his sentences will dazzle through layers of poise and charm, but Farber qua Farber typically arrives at a kind of backdoor poetry: not “lyrical,” or traditionally poetic, but original and startling. Farber, along with D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, is among the few critics of modernism himself to write criticism as a modernist.

More modestly, each of us up here today can suggest some different routes whereby our poems intersect our nonfiction—for me these might involve multiple, self-consuming voices, a search for language and structures that criss-cross or embody a subject, collage, fragmentation, and the open-endedness of multifarious perspectives and divergent points of view.

Tess suggested we read something of our own as illustration—I’ll end by reading a poem called “Riding With the King,” which along the way collages passages and episodes from an amazing instance of unreliable narration in nonfiction, Priscilla, Elvis, and Me by Michael Edwards. The poem started, of course, with my reading of Edwards’s strange, inadvertently Nabokovian memoir, but it really started when I wrote a short essay about it for the “Lost and Found” column in Tin House years later.

Riding With the King

You don’t know about me, without

back when my name was Michael Edwards
I was the most successful male model across

Europe and the United States, I wrote
a book, my ghost did,
perhaps you remember me.

Perhaps you know my nightmare the first night
at Priscilla’s—an enormous Elvis over the pool,
This is what it’s like to be God, Elvis said.

Perhaps you know my next date with Priscilla: Magic
Mountain with Lisa Marie and her little friends,
I vomited the beer I drank behind the Spin of Death.

Perhaps you know I carried Priscilla past a pedestal
showing Elvis’ gold-framed sunglasses with the big EP,
it was unsettling, I kicked the door shut behind us.

Perhaps you know I felt the stirrings of love
after our third bottle of wine when I over-
heard Priscilla random-dialing, impersonating a hooker.

Perhaps you know I came to see Priscilla was to Elvis
as Lisa Marie to me—after Elvis brought her to Memphis,
he put Priscilla in Catholic school,

Perhaps you know seeing Lisa looking
adorable in her wool skirt, white blouse, bobby
sox and loafers, I understood Elvis’ feelings.

Perhaps you know in our acting class Priscilla
did a love scene, she and her partner went into a long kiss,
I knew exactly how Elvis felt, when he caught her.

Perhaps you know Lisa got up from the dinner table
to go to the refrigerator, her bare knee
brushed my hand.

Perhaps you know I was in a mood for some photos,
I dressed Lisa in her mother’s vintage gowns,
her eyes and lips replicas of Elvis’.

Perhaps you know I put an end to swimming
together when Lisa threw her arms around me, we bounced
up and down, I became aroused.

Perhaps you know Priscilla and I returned
after an argument about my drinking,
she went to her bathroom, I went into Lisa’s room.

Perhaps you know I wanted someone to talk to,
but Lisa was asleep.

Perhaps you know I lifted a corner of the covers,
and gazed at her.

Perhaps you know I woke with a hangover,
alone in bed.

Perhaps you know Priscilla and I were secretive about
our fighting.

Perhaps you know Priscilla and Elvis were the same,
until his staff exposed them in Elvis—What Happened?

Perhaps you know driving home through Los Angeles,
I felt numb,

Perhaps you know every car I looked in,
I saw happy couples,

Perhaps you know as I waited for the light to change,
I thought of the three of us.

You don’t know about me without you have read
a book by the name of Priscilla, Elvis and Me,

that book was made by Michael Edwards,
he mainly told the truth.

Robert Polito is a poet, essayist, editor, and biographer. His most recent books are the poetry collection Hollywood & God and Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber. Polito received a National Book Critics Circle Award for Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson. The founding director of the Graduate Writing Program and the Riggio Honors Program: Writing & Democracy at the New School, he served as President of the Poetry Foundation in Chicago (2013-2015), before returning to New York and the New School. He is working on a new collection of poems, as well as on a pair of nonfiction books—on noir; and on Bob Dylan.

Join Robert Polito and Adam Fitzgerald, November 3-December 2, 2018. Register here for Reinventing Voice: Poetry is the New Nonfiction/Nonfiction is the New Poetry.

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