The Plight of the Poet (poem)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

There you are, camera in hand
at the rim of the Grand Canyon
or else overlooking the Niagara
or even craning your neck
at the domed head of the Taj Mahal.

Before you snap
the photo, you hesitate.

Gorgeous, though it is,
you know the camera
can’t capture it.
The sublimity
won’t translate
to a 1×1 inch
viewfinder.

This is the plight of the poet, friend.
This is my dilemma, even now, as I sit,
having felt something so profound,
but afraid I’ll trivialize it
if I dare to immortalize it
on this blank, ivory page.

Talking Shop: The Prose Poem

Almost no creative-writing form is more “en vogue” right now than the prose poem. And why not? The prose poem is a tantalizing, versatile format that combines (ideally) the lyricism and conventions of poetry and applies them to a format that best resembles prose on the page.

There are no line breaks, rhyme, or strict meter involved; just paragraphs on a page.

It seems that the literati have flocked to this medium..and rightfully so! There is endless potential to utilize new rhetorical and artistic tricks with the relatively new format. 

Still, the form is not without its dangers. 

I’ve noticed an increasing trend toward “bad” prose poems. As of late. I suppose with the invention of any new form, it can be expected that writers will abuse it on a long enough timeline. The problem with bad prose poems–and there are truly some horrendous ones out there–all stem from a writer’s misunderstanding of what the prose poem’s purpose is.

Maybe it’s easiest to start by definition by negation. I can pretty quickly compile a short list of what prose poems aren’t or at least shouldn’t be:

1. Prose poems aren’t an easy excuse to avoid line breaks. Some poets eschew fixed forms in favor of free-verse just because they don’t want to be bothered with learning meter and scansion. Similarly, some writers take an undisciplined approach with prose poems–choosing the form simply because they don’t want to put any thought or work into how a poem should be broken up. What’s easier? Learning the power of enjambment, intentional ambiguity, and double-meanings through line breaks–seeing them as a poetic device in and of themselves, or just slopping the words onto the page in neat little paragraphs? Obviously, the latter. But just as free-verse doesn’t mean a poem is allowed to be without meter and rhythm, so a prose-poem must have intentional thought “baked in.”

2. Prose poems aren’t flowery sounding prose passages. Sprinkling a little alteration atop a narrative description does not a prose poem make. Too often, writers fall in love with a short prose-y passage they write, and rather than fleshing it out into a full short story or poem, they slap the moniker of “prose poem” on top and call it good. A prose poem needs to be able to stand on its own two feet. It must “work” as a creative writing piece unto itself.

3. Prose poems aren’t a novelty for the sake of novelty. This is, perhaps, the most important of the three, and it’s the heart of what I’m getting at with my previous two points, anyways. “Form follows function,” as the popular architectural maxim states. Which is to say, a prose poems format should serve the content of the poem. It should somehow make it better. The format of “prose poem” is just one piece of the writing that must work with all the rest to create the intended effect in the reader.

A few examples of how this can work come to mind:

1. Some prose wants to be poetry and some poetry wants to be prose. A prose poem operates in that margin, creating tension. Conversely,  as a former classmate once pointed out to me, some pieces seem to have “dual citizenship” in multiple formats (a prose poem can simultaneously be creative nonfiction piece, for example.) 

2. A prose poem can create a “breathless” quality that the writer might be trying to achieve. Coupled with some stream-of-conscious content, the prose poem can come at you “all at once” accentuated by its lack of line breaks.

3. Prose poems can couple well with experimental writing styles. I’ve read successful prose poems structured as numbered lists, “found” poems, and even a nutritional label. The possibilities and combinations are endless.

The crux of the issue is this: a good prose poem is intentional. There are reasons why the writer chose to use that form versus another. If you want to ensure that you’re crafting quality prose poems, consider whether it serves the material or is simply a wonky embellishment.

The Wolves are Inadmissible who refuse to lie down with the lamb (poem)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

We’re a peculiar people; out of context,
and those are two separate clauses.
But a faction of the dead can’t long for heaven 
if the swords must be beaten to plowshares 
and spears to pruning hooks.

The Cherubim, fierce and fey with 
hot steel flickering side to side
stand guard at the gates of Paradise, saying:
“The wolves are inadmissible
who refuse to lie down with the Lamb.”

But the goats on the left
follow a star that doesn’t lead to Bethlehem.
“No matter,” they say. 
“It’s heaven enough to prove the atheists wrong.”
The goats proceed to damnation.

Meanwhile, Jesus took bread, saying
“Take, eat; this is my body.”
And his body, blessed and broken
was plenty sufficient for the multitude.
How is it that ye do not understand?

Maternal Charades (poem)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

I walked in on my wife
playing charades.
Our children didn’t know
they were part of the game.
Some days, she didn’t know either.

TWO WORDS

Rubbing together two needles
like the legs of a cricket,
she conjures hats, scarves,
amigurumi monsters
the children take to bed.

FIRST WORD: MATERNAL

If I squint it looks like ritual,
the tedium of bedtime routine:
overnight diaper, dinosaur jammies
read two books and brush your teeth.
Boys to the bunkbeds, girl to the crib.

SECOND WORD: LOVE

Golden curls encircle
lavender bubbles;
soap-soaked fur of a
labrador doodle.
This is love by proxy.

Care for the children
through care for the dog
bought for them to care for.
A pantomime, an acting out
of the second word.

MATERNAL LOVE

This motherhood is a lifelong game of charades.
The children have an inkling, I think,
that the swabbing of walls stained with crayon,
and the meticulous slicing of hotdogs
is pantomime, a charade of that larger abstraction.

The clues are there and the message pans out.
But they never do understand the scope,
the magnitude of what’s being hinted at.
Even as a parent myself, I suppose,
I never plumb the depths entirely.

The Slow Angel (Poem)

(Note: this poem was originally published by “Anxious Poet Society” in December 2018)

The Angel of Death
doesn’t have wings.
He’s the only angel
not in a hurry.

He’s no blood-hound
stalking my scent
with a snarl and
gnashing teeth.

He’s detached.
Almost bored.

He tails my car
as I shuttle myself
to the office, the gym,
the grocery.

I’ve caught him yawning
in my periphery, to say,
“Your middling existence
warrants no haste.

Don’t lose sleep over Death.
You’ve been dead for years.
My message is redundant;
a formality, really.”

Come Dirty (poem)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

“This is a holy moment,” dad said,
pouring my vodka down the kitchen sink.
“You need to know I’m proud.”

But my sixteen-year-old brain
toggled between godly sorrow
and utter shame.

In terms of salvation,
“come clean,” is a most
unfortunate misnomer.

We tend to come 
dirty, broken
and afraid.

80-proof Smirinoff
circling down
the drain

like some backwards 
Old Testament
drink offering.

A holy moment, indeed.