Strophic Prose


Our Correspondents

Carl August Ehrensvärd, Birth of the Poet, 1795.

Before we begin, I need you to search your heart and evaluate soberly whether you have ever had the experience of sincerely enjoying metrical effects in poetry. If you find in your bosom any doubts regarding this matter, I’m going to ask you to please rise from your seat and locate your nearest exit, keeping in mind that it may be behind you, or opening right now at your feet. You may ignore the smoke. Best wishes. Thank you so much.

Now. The rest of you. We have a great deal to discuss, but I must be brief. I am going to advance a radical proposition. 

It can seem, to those of us who teach poetry writing, that the only way to sell young poets on metrical effects is by contagion. One reads aloud some poems where the meter is key—“Easter 1916,” “The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens”—and one points out, charismatically smacking one’s lips, that the meter is key. Reasons and analogies and explanations are not to the purpose. One points; one smacks one’s lips; dharma does the rest.

Except it doesn’t work. Not today. For the beginning USA poet, in 2016, there are just too many ready-to-hand reasons not to try meter in her own stuff. The beginner says in her heart, “Meter is difficult; it conduces to pastiche; it prevents me from saying what I want to say—and moreover, none of my peers will be into it. They will treat my poem as though I am insisting on using words like doth and thou and beseemeth.” And so, Goodnight, meter.

I urge that we frankly admit defeat on this front and completely give over all efforts to revive meter in any kind of a straightforward way, and instead teach the young people a “new” form, which I call STROPHIC PROSE, a form they are certain to like, and which will secretly, quietly, cunningly create conditions that, perhaps a hundred years from now, will ripen into a large-scale revival of meter. (Not that all poems will be metrical then. I only mean meter will be back in the toolbox, it will have a place at the table, it will be alive and well. Free verse, meanwhile, may continue as hitherto.)

—But what is “strophic prose”?

I’ll tell you what it’s not. It’s not hard, it doesn’t conduce to pastiche, it doesn’t prevent the kids from saying what they want to say. And best of all, their peers will be into it.

—Okay, but what is it.

Just this. The candidate must set up her poem as prose, with white space between the same-sized paragraphs, each paragraph about an inch tall, no line breaks, only stanza breaks. There will be no rhythm-properly-so-called in the sentences. The rhythm will come from the strophic structure of the paragraphs.

A visual might help. Individual poems will look like many of the pages of Kenneth Jackson’s Celtic Miscellany, where he translates from his (mainly Irish and Welsh) originals, preserving their strophic structure with white spaces (but leaving out the line breaks because he judged they would be meaningless in a literal translation).

Click to enlarge.

Saint-John Perse (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1960) wrote this way, too:

Click to enlarge.

I’m convinced this form—prose, but set up as strophes—has a bright future ahead of it. Half of all current magazine verse already looks like it, the only difference being the presence of line breaks in the magazines. But these are line breaks four-fifths of which aren’t doing anything besides keeping the lines about the same length. Prose justification will do that even better.

But the important thing is strophic prose gives rhythm a chance. The current thing—where poets frame their stuff in ways that make the poems look like old-fashioned strophic lyrics, but without actually having any rhythm at all (strophic or otherwise)—shows that poets have not lost the sense that lyrics should seem, visually, like gardens on the page. Very well! Strophic prose simply makes the garden plots correspond to something nonarbitrary: the rhythm of the same-sized scoops of poetic froth.

Allow me to suggest a lesson plan. Have the students do a thought experiment. Ask them to imagine going to a poetry reading on a college campus, or in a gallery or in the apartment of somebody with an M.F.A., and transcribing all the poems from the reading, in shorthand. Say to your students, Do you think your transcriptions would have the same line breaks as the documents in the poets’ hands? (They won’t have to think about this very long.) Then say to them, Wouldn’t the transcripts look more or less like the pictures above, from Saint-John Perse or the Celtic Miscellany—? Indeed, wouldn’t your transcripts reveal whatever strophic rhythms were hidden by the poets, hidden even from themselves—?

And then say to your students, Isn’t your strophic prose transcript, in a sense, truer and more honest than the manuscripts in the poets’ hands? Isn’t your transcript—the Truth? 

Friends, don’t take the argument any further. As Mark Antony said, “Now, let it work.” There is no arguing them out of their desires for complexities and visual puns and other feckless zibzib bound up with the enjambing of every single line and stanza. It doesn’t matter. They don’t need to be convinced. They will wind up trying the strophic prose thing, simply to avoid the fatigue of coming up with a “reason” for every one of their line breaks, if only to themselves, when there is no reason for those line breaks at all. 

And then rhythm will come back, strophic rhythm. Slowly, but it will come back. And one day, someone will reinvent meter from scratch. And it will catch on, just like it did three thousand years ago—and for the same reasons.

And then, in the words of the Daodejing, When our task is accomplished, when our work is done, throughout the country everyone will say “It happened of its own accord.”

Anthony Madrid now lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His first book is called I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say (Canarium Books, 2012). He is a correspondent for the Daily.