Molière famously writes, “Everything that is not prose is verse, and everything that is not verse is prose.” His wit points to the absurdity of drawing absolute lines between genres. I approach the poetic sentence and the poetic novel with a similar intent and ultimate refusal to separate texts into categories. Is there such a thing as a poet’s novel constructed sentence by poetic sentence? For the past couple of years I have been at work on this question, envisioning and assembling an anthology of essays on the topic which begins with an epigram from Lyn Hejinian’s Oxota: A Short Russian Novel, “So I must oppose the opposition of poetry to prose.”(93).
If there is such a thing as a poet’s novel, how might it be characterized? What is the poetic sentence? What is the relation of the sentence to genre? In my investigations I have come to the following hypotheses:
A sentence, in an emergency, can regulate temperature and dispatch repairs between three and five pm.
The sentence is the most sinuous part of your anatomy.
Or, sentence as rupture, erasure, uncategorizable, skipping like a laser beam.
A sentence which is not single-minded is a plank of syllables, or a single letter embossed. Call this “sententical” thought.
The sentence is not merely utterance but underlying and undergarment; it is placed down upon the ground before you recline and it raises you up. Stretches across a countenance or a muddy path.
Sentence precedes sentiment which may follow clunkily behind, unfolded or unkempt, inaudible or hastily thrown about the shoulders, borrowed.
A sentence is shaking. You may glean that you live within a series of sentences which do not contrive to reconcile, console.
You can do this in a sentence, undress, undermine, indeterminacy.
A sentence may be formed by the spaces slung inherently between words. White space, unheard, weight of words and where you would place them, unfolding word multi-verses.
Sentences carried carefully in slings and fed appropriately, put down only in instances of need.
In brief, the sentence may perform as acute or alluring apparatus, disruptive multi-focus lens, mosaic, foundation, transformative or gestational space, seed.
The poetic sentence may take the liberty to call a chapter, a paragraph or a monosyllabic utterance a sentence. And yet, regardless of length, it becomes pertinent to note, as Silliman does in The New Sentence that “. . the sentence is the hinge unit of any literary product.” (78). Prose poems such as Stein’s Tender Buttons undoubtedly inform much poet’s prose in that it offers startling possibilities for narrative. Where else may we understand a handkerchief as, “A winning of all the blessings, a sample not a sample because there is no worry.” (24). In Stein we are permitted to look for the narrative in each word, and the narrative implied between individual words: we are liberated from a dictated mode of creating meaning. Within each sentence, time is sealed, creating potential expansiveness and contractility. One can converse within or inhabit a poem, but a novel proceeding sentence by poetic sentence is generally more capacious. In Stein’s How To Write we find a wide array of ways to consider the sentence. Among them: “What is the difference between a sentence and words. A sentence has been ample.” (118). Ample does not necessarily imply great size, but the quality of space which allows for a concept to unfold and which may invoke process over product.
In her book Culture of One, Alice Notley writes, “Poetry tells me I’m dead; prose pretends I’m not.” Where does that leave the poetic sentence? Somewhere in between? I am going to suggest that the poetic sentence can create such a liminal space, in which dichotomies of either / or are rejected in favor of a refusal to choose.
I’d like to talk briefly about two texts, which because they are very recent, are not discussed in the anthology: Renee Gladman’s Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge and David Buuck and Juliana Spahr’s collaborative novel An Army of Lovers. If a sentence is a set of words that is complete in itself, what of a sentence that sets out to abandon any notion of completion? Gladman’s book begins with an epigraph by Anne Carson “It is when you are asking about something that you realize you yourself have survived it, and so you must carry it , or fashion it into a thing that carries itself.” The poetic sentence propels itself, often proclaiming or revealing inadequacies of language beyond our ability to employ it. Aftereffects of language or culpability resound in both novels. Gladman follows Carson’s quote with the sentence “But, if you have not survived the thing you are thinking, because it won’t end, then what are you writing?” Along with suspension of conventional notions of plot, narrative, conflict and conclusion, a poet’s novel and a poetic sentence have an entirely different relation to time. While most conventional novels tend to move forward in time, toward some impending action, the poet’s novel has no such concern. Often the poet’s novel instead illustrates how time behaves in the mind—not chronologically and not at all in an orderly manner. Notley writes, in an interview, “Poetry tends to abolish time and present experience as dense and compressed. Prose is society’s enabler, it collaborates with it in its linearity. A poem sends you back into itself repeatedly, a story leads you on.” The poetic sentence is clearly prose which retains this quality attributed to poetry, and may require one to move backward, to consider in waves. A sentence is the most sinuous part of your anatomy.
How may a poetic sentence reflect culpability? The sentence operates, in these novels, in very different ways. In An Army of Lovers the sentence contrives to catalogue the failings of verse to effect social change, insisting that the sentence is not merely utterance, but underlying and undergarment. In Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge the sentence replies as if to a ghost of all that has vanished— to the unheard— formed by the spaces slung inherently between words. While An Army of Lovers considers questions about gender, sexuality, environmental distress, and sustainability, Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge considers less palpable though similarly haunting crises such as isolation, the disappearance of language and the instability of one’s surroundings. The world of An Army of Lovers is a world we can recognize in our neighborhoods and newspapers, in well-studied illnesses and obsessions. An Army of Lovers recombines and reformulates conventionally opposed binary constructs such as animal and human, male and female, sex and violence, body and word, politic and posture, absurdities with mundane. The world of Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge is a world we can recognize in our psyche, in dream, in fears of a dystopic present or future. On the disappearance of language, Gladman writes “We couldn’t speak in sentences and couldn’t use signal words, but oddly were allowed to speak the titles of our books freely. Yet, to correspond with the names of our books we also had to do things with our breath and the corners of our eyes.” (60). In Gladman’s novel, the poetic sentence is used to suspend the reader in a series of interior investigations, rupture, erasure. The speaker informs us “The book wishes to end a crises by the sheer fact of existing. But rather than a History, the book becomes an index. It shuffles our bewilderment. It does not tell our story.” (11).
In An Army of Lovers, “They had said to each other that they didn’t want to write any more poems that demonstrated their adept use of irony and book smarts to communicate their knowing superiority to capitalism. And they didn’t want to write any more poems that narrated their pseudo edgy sexual exploits in a way to suggest that such exploits were somehow in and of themselves political.” (124) Beyond this moment the speakers in both novels are faced with a blankness. How to positively fill such clearly defined negative space? A sentence is shaking. Buuck and Spahr write: “As a result they would often begin to tremble and shake.” (125)
In both books the reader is deliberately pressed up against limitations, or suspended between borders. Sentence becomes foundation or gestational space. The protagonists wish to act, but are uncertain what constitutes a useful action. In Ana Patova Crosses A Bridge characters are uncertain about their own whereabouts and activities. “We all mimicked some form of breathing without actually breathing.”(25). “People kept saying other people were leaving the city and pointed at themselves.” (26) Many sentences in Gladman’s book relate states of opposites co-existing at once. In An Army of Lovers, the poets consider themselves mediocre and question the usefulness or relevance of poetry. “It is important to realize that in the time of Demented Panda and Koki poetry was an art form that had lost most, if not all of its reasons for being.” (9).
You can do this in a sentence, undress, undermine, indeterminacy.
Both texts ask how to exist through that which is irreconcilable. How does writing contribute to discerning the difference between that which is intact and that which is movable? A poetic sentence may reveal moving parts, disappearances, threats. Strategies for employing the poetic sentence differ greatly in these two books. In An Army of Lovers, sentences accumulate at an incantatory and spectacular pace. Objects and thoughts appear and fill to catalogue the space and conflicts considered. Sentences sprawl and boisterously build so that the effect is one of wading directly into circumstances. For instance, “But still, it was hard for them to figure out what to do with poetry in a time when 24.5 acres were required to sustain their first-world lifestyles, not to mention that within the 24.5 acres were the deaths and devastation from the mining, oil, natural gas, and nuclear industries, the deaths and torture from policies of their government, the rising acidity of the ocean, the effects of climate change on populations without access to the equivalent of 24.5 acres of resources” (124). An Army of Lovers is a series of sentences which do not contrive to reconcile, console. Which send one back, even as the text relentlessly moves forward. The reader is compelled in both directions, attending to the tangible physical crises experienced by the co-speakers as they morph between poetic aspirations, genders, attempts to document their involvement in a disastrous present, as well as attempts to celebrate a richness that may still be retrieved in the act of collaborative creation of art.
In Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, conflict is divined through the disappearance of objects, thoughts and words. Writing is not blameless. It removes meaning, empties landscapes. Speaker and writer become responsible for losses evoked. A reader of this book very palpably notes spaces inherently slung between words, the white space echoing for all which is unsayable. Writing has become a danger. The text visually on the page, though it is undoubtedly prose, is left justified and spare, and at first glance could be mistaken for verse. Visual appearance suggests everything that has gone missing (persons, language, solidity of objects, identities and architectures). Gladman writes: “Every time I wrote a sentence something disappeared, and after many thousands of sentences, some of which I didn’t keep or didn’t like, I began to look for those vanished things.” (104) In absence meaning coincides with retrieval. Texts can be written to replace the missing, but this act will only reverse losses within the book. Gladman writes: “I wrote a sentence and downtown was gone; the last building stood up and walked away, the fourth since that morning; I wrote a sentence to replace the building (everything that vanished got replaced, at least in the book I was writing), but its space in the object world remained empty.” (72-73).
In both novels, the poetic sentence is a humble though potent tool, allowing contradiction (containing multitudes along with silence) and a convulsive or contemplative countering destructiveness while simultaneously recording it. Stein writes, “a sentence has been ample.” Buuck and Spahr write, “an army of lovers cannot fail” (143). Gladman writes, “books wanted to pass through themselves and other books, and “language” needed to be made.” (116-117). The need to proceed through a form that is both a refusal and an acceptance is one impetus for the poetic sentence, which may contain both gestures, to vanish and to return.
Gladman, Renee, Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, St. Louis: Dorothy, A Publishing Project, 2013.
Hejinian, Lyn, Oxota: A Short Russian Novel, CA: The Figures 1991.
Molière, Tartuffe, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2027, 2009.
Notley, Alice, Culture of One, NYC: Penguin, 2011.
Notley, Alice, “A Conversation with Alice Notley on the poet’s novel” jacket2, 2013.
Silliman, Ron, The New Sentence, NYC: Roof Books, 1987.
Spahr, Juliana and Buuck David, An Army of Lovers, San Francisco: City Lights Books
Stein, Gertrude, Tender Buttons, LA, Sun & Moon Classics, 1990.
Stein, Gertrude, How to Write, NYC: Dover Publications, 1975