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"THE WOMAN'S WORK": CONSTRUCTIONS OF THE DOMESTIC IN THE WORKS OF FOUR PROSE POETS BY JOSLYN PERSH A Thesis Submitted to the Division of Humanities New College of Florida in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree Bachelo r of Arts in Humanities Under the sponsorship of Dr. Robert Zamsky and Dr. Jos Alberto Portugal Sarasota, Florida May, 2011
ii TABLE OF CONTENTS Abstract..iii Introduction.1 Chapter One: Prose P oetry and Domesticity: Defining the Terms.3 Chapter Two: Describing Objects: Gertrude Stein and Francis Ponge.17 Chapter Three: Fables and Narratives: Charles Simic and Russell Edson37 Conclusion.54 Bibliography ..56
iii "THE WOMAN'S WORK": CONSTRUCTIONS OF THE DOMESTIC IN THE WORKS OF FOUR PROSE POETS Joslyn Persh New College of Florida, 2011 ABSTRACT Since its popularization by Charles Baudelaire in the mid 1800s with his Le Spleen de Paris or Petits Pomes en Prose prose poetry has been closely tied to the everyday. This thesis examines the relationship between prose poetry and domesticity and explores how four modern prose poets Gertrude Stein, Francis Ponge, Russell Edson, and C harles Simic are approaching themes of domestic life in their work. In the first chapter, I explore the nature of prose poetry in an effort to explain the distinction between prose poetry and its constituent parts, poetry and prose. Similarly, the nature o f domesticity is addressed so one might understand how domestic issues influence the work of the four writers. In the second chapter, I compare two descriptive prose poets, Gertrude Stein and Francis Ponge. Likewise, in the third chapter, I compare two nar rative prose poets, Russell Edson and Charles Simic. Ultimately, the main goal of this thesis is to understand how these different prose poets approach the domestic sphere in their work. Robert Zamsky Division of Humanities Jos Alberto Portugal Divisi on of Humanities
1 INTRODUCTION The core of this thesis focuses on four practitioners of prose poetry Gertrude Stein, Francis Ponge, Russell Edson, and Charles Simic and their attention to aspects of everyday life, specifically the sphere of the domestic. This attentiveness to everyday life is, in many ways, at the root of prose poetry as a whole. This sphere, which I will call domesticity and define later in the first chapter, often appears in prose poetry, whether it is in the subject matter, images, the attitude inspiring the work, or the incorporation of everyday language commonly associated with the domestic. The four prose poets to be discussed in the following chapters employ different approaches to their prose poetry in both form and subject. As Ba udelaire focused on combining poetry and prose to portray aspects of the city, those poets included in this thesis use prose poetry to characterize a variety of domestic objects and relationships. I have grouped these four prose poets into two types. The first of these, the descriptive type, includes Stein and Ponge. As the name suggests, the descriptive type focuses on description of subject matter frequently as a method of elevating common everyday and domestic objects. Stein reconsiders language by libe rating it from the limitations of conventional perception. Refusing the standard rules of written cohesion, Stein manages to make the mundane household objects, rooms, and foods something entirely foreign to the reader to create a commentary on hierarchica l domestic conventions. Ponge, on the other hand, focuses his prose poems on precise descriptions of objects in general, not limited to those
2 within the home. In an attempt to capture the ever changing nature of objects and appease his seeming obsession wi th exactness, Ponge works towards creating an impossible poetic encyclopedia of things wherein his reader would be able to see the objects more deliberately. The second grouping of prose poets, Edson and Simic, occupy the narrative type. Poets in this mod e tend to be more prosaic than poetic and generally use more aspects of traditional storytelling to create scenes featuring the everyday and the domestic. In a Russell Edson prose poem, the reader is dropped into fable like domestic scenes en media res. Co nsidered amongst surrealist poets, Edson juxtaposes simple composition and logical language with absurd dialogues and images to create an altered reality that is simultaneously humorous and commenting on domestic situations. Similarly, Simic's prose poems, like Edson's, make use of humor and absurdity, but are decidedly more lyrical. Through the work of these four poets, we will see how domesticity develops as a theme in prose poetry and how, despite the common theme, each prose poet makes use of the freed om of the form to generate something unique.
3 CHAPTER ONE PROSE POETRY AND DOMESTICITY: DEFINING THE TERMS Charles Baudelaire and the Birth of the Prose Poem Although my focus in later sections will be mainly on American prose poets, it is important to acknowledge that the practice of prose poetry with its particular attention on aspects of everyday life did not begin in the United States. Though the Belgian poet Aloysius Bertrand is cited as the most likely originator of prose poetry, it was the French Charles Baudelaire who really popularized the form itself and the practice of exploring perception and form in the mid 1800s with Le Spleen de Paris or Petits Pomes en Prose (published in 1869) in which he experiments with form to describe Parisian city life. Baudelaire dedicates his introductory note to publisher Arsne Houssaye and uses this space to discuss the effect a book of prose poems could have on the reader: My dear friend, I send you a little work of which no one can say, without doing it an i njustice, that it has neither head nor tail, since, on the contrary, everything in it is both head and tail, alternately and reciprocally. I beg you to consider how admirably convenient this combination is for all of us, for you, for me, and for the reader We can cut wherever we please, I my dreaming, you your manuscript, the reader his reading; for I do not keep the reader's restive mind hanging
4 in suspense on the threads of an interminable and superfluous plot. Take away one vertebra and the two ends of this tortuous fantasy come together again without pain. Chop it into numerous pieces and you will see that each one can get along alone. In the hope that there is enough life in some of these segments to please and to amuse you, I take the liberty of dedic ating the whole serpent to you. (Baudelaire xi) Baudelaire pushes for a new form and new reading experience and clearly indicates that his book is meant to be "convenient" to the reader because, unlike the chapters in a novel, a prose poem can act alone as a whole or in conjunction with other prose poems as a whole book. Transgressing a tradition of not only poetry, but also fiction, Baudelaire suggests that the "interminable and superfluous plot" present in the established narrative forms is no longer a li terary necessity. Instead, he suggests a form with more flexibility, which ultimately offers the reader a different reading experience. Baudelaire continues to describe his project, saying: I have a little confession to make. It was while running through for the twentieth time at least, the pages of the famous Gaspard de la Nuit of Aloysius Bertrand (has not a book known to you, to me, to a few of our friends the right to be called famous?) that the idea came to me of attempting something in the same vei n, and of applying to the description of our more abstract modern life the same method he used in depicting the old days, so strangely picturesque. (Baudelaire xi)
5 The freedom that comes with this kind of writing allows Baudelaire to surpass the compositio n of a poem and to truly capture his experiences with the everyday for his readers. When Baudelaire writes a "description of our more abstract modern life," he indicates a way of writing that encapsulates an exact moment in a time when things are moving fa ster. Which one of us, in his moments of ambition, has not dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience? It was, above all, out of my exploration of huge cities, out of the medley of their innumerable interrelations, that this haunting ideal was born. You yourself, dear friend, have you not tried to translate in a song the Glazier's strident cry, and to express in lyric prose all the dismal suggestions this cry sends up through the fog of the street to the highest garrets? (Baudelaire xi) Baudelaire creates something in his writing about Paris that, in both content and language, writ ing about the city's interiors and exteriors, the people and their motions, allows his readers to gain access to a new perspective on the things they experience daily. Baudelaire borrows the kind of musicality present in poetry and crafts a rhythm that sui ts Paris. He finishes his note to Houssaye with a confession:
6 To tell the truth, however, I am afraid that my envy has not been propitious. From the very beginning I perceived that I was not only far from my mysterious and brilliant model, but was, indee d, doing something (if it can be called something ) singularly different, an accident which any one else would glory in, no doubt, but which can only deeply humiliate a mind convinced that the greatest honor for a poet is to succeed in doing exactly what he set out to do. (Baudelaire xi) Baudelaire acknowledges that his project does not look much like what he had intended, but this is ultimately unimportant as the resulting form is something surprisingly close to the city itself. What was familiar to Baudela ire was Paris and as a result his Petits Pomes en Prose was devoted for the most part to creating a form that paid attention to the richness of the language and experiences of his city's buildings, happenings, people, etc. An "exploration of huge cities" establishes a thematic pattern in writing the prose poem: elevating the familiar and the everyday things usually ignored or underappreciated and showing them in a light previously unseen. Baudelaire's experiment established a path followed by many prose po ets, especially those considered in this thesis, despite differences in the magnitude of the subject matter.
7 Defining Poetry In order to understand prose poetry, it is important to first understand what poetry is. According to The New Princeton Encyc lopedia of Poetry and Poetics poetry can be defined as "an instance of verbal art a text set in verse, bound speech. More generally, a poem conveys heightened forms of perception, experience, meaning, or consciousness in heightened lang., i.e., a heighte ned mode of discourse" (Preminger and Brogan 938). The poet expresses their subject in such a fashion as it is elevated beyond the experience of everyday. Poetry, then, is an art using a specific kind of language heightened language that is metered, rhymed metaphorical, and so on as its medium. Poetry can also be defined in terms of form: Except for the three or four hybrid forms so far developed in the West the prose poem, rhythmical prose and rhymeprose, and the prosimetrum (qq.v.) p. has traditionally been distinguished from prose by virtue of being set in verse Lineation is therefore central to the traditional Western conception of p. Prose is cast in sentences; p. is cast in sentences cast in lines. (Preminger and Brogan 938) Along with using a "heightened mode of discourse," poetry takes on a significant syntactical change and appears in verse and line as opposed to the typical paragraph and sentence structure of prose.
8 Difficulties with Defining the Prose Poem "The prose poem is, you might s ay, poetry that disguises its true nature." David Lehman ( The Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present ) A prose poem, in its simplest definition, is a poem that lacks verse. One could argue that this is not the most effective definition, fir st because it takes for granted what a poem is and second because it is written in the negative. However, the nature of prose poetry forces us to consider that it may be best defined by what it is not because of the ever changing nature of this "hybrid" ge nre. The prose poem began when poets, like Baudelaire, desired an alternative to established poetic and prose forms that would allow a limitless writing experience and is, particularly since it has moved into the United States, fundamentally a form built a round the subversion of form. In that sense, the prose poem transgresses traditional genres in an attempt to create a form that allows the poet the freedom to experiment with whichever characteristics of other genres (including, but not limited to fiction, poetry, fable, essay, etc.) the poet finds necessary to support the content. Michel Delville, when describing the prose poem in The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre states that, "the history of the contemporary prose poem in E nglish is, to a large extent, the history of the successive attempts by poets to redefine the parameters governing our expectations of what a poem (or a prose poem) should look or sound like" (Delville 2). The prose poem, through time, has become a form
9 de viating from poetry that uses models from other genres in order to create something unexpected. It is a highly experimental exercise that is constantly moving and changing, but is always based in established practices interpreted by idiosyncratic people. Prose poetry has received less critical attention than any of the modern (novel, short story, editorial or newspaper articles, etc.) or traditional (lyrical) genres, probably because critics seem to be confused about how exactly to approach the prose poem. In a way, what makes prose poetry interesting its use of a different medium (prose and its multiple genres) as a mode in creating "poetry" is the very thing that causes discomfort with the form. For example, Mark Strand's book The Monument was passed over for the Pulitzer Prize in 1978 "because the third judge the committee chair, Louis Simpson adamantly opposed the choice. Simpson objected to The Monument on the grounds that it is predominantly in prose. He argued that the prestigious award is designed ex pressly to honor verse (Lehman 11). However, denouncing the prose poem as something unworthy of an esteemed poetry award ignores the possibility of an unrestrained poetic practice. This subversive nature has been one of the main factors in prose po etry's growing popularity, as Delville explains, "can thus be seen as resulting, at least in part, from its self proclaimed hybridity and the ensuing sense of freedom afforded to prose poets" (Delville ix). Prose poetry ultimately allows for a more all en compassing experience, as the poet, when freed from constraints, is able to create something that feels more appropriate to the subject matter, rather than simply writing in such a fashion that content is superceded by the rules of genre The prose poem is not working against
10 verse, but instead is working to individualize poetry, meaning that prose poetry allows for the creation of a space in which poets can create their own boundaries. Because of this confusion surrounding where to place the prose poem in terms of genre, it is perhaps best to situate it by discussing the ways in which it differs from conventional poetry. In his introduction to his anthology, The Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present David Lehman writes that the prose poem "i s a poem written in prose rather than verse It uses the means of prose towards the ends of poetry" (Lehman 13). In other words, Lehman suggests that a prose poem uses genres written prose to create a piece that calls the same attention to language as poetry does. A prose poem works with many of the characteristics of a more traditional poem. Where differences start to be visible is in the specific formatting of the prose poem. This adds a level of doubt to readers' attempt at placing the form within t he constraints of an already identified genre. The most concrete difference between the prose poem and the conventional poem is that where a conventional poem is written using lines and stanzas, the prose poem is written using sentences and paragraphs. Des pite these differences, a prose poem is still very much a poem in that the effect does not fit that of typical prose genres. Instead, the prose poem can provoke a response closer to one experienced when reading traditional, lyrical poetry the sense that on e is experiencing a "heightened mode of discourse" (Preminger and Brogan 938). Prose poetry might have begun as the subversion of form, but it most definitely has become in itself a new form. Though it lacks the boundaries that many other forms of poetry follow, such as a meter, stanzas, etc., the prose poem has
11 become something similar to free verse in that, the poet is able to experiment with language in order to create something that may not look like anything else, but is nonetheless still a poem. Tho se wishing to define the prose poem must recognize that although it was "born in rebellion against tradition [it] has itself become a tradition" and therefore the definition must evolve into something more fitting of a poetic form (Lehman 13). Having dis cerned what a prose poem does not have (verse and stanzas), let us attempt to express an affirmative definition of the form. Russell Edson, in both his interviews and essays, has repeated his theory about the prose poem being an easy thing to write, statin g, prose poems look easy precisely because they are. The hardest part for many who would write them is accepting how easy they are to write, and having the courage to write them in spite of that" (Edson, "Interview" 14). Edson's definition, however leaves room for significant variations between poets. Rather than implying that the prose poem is formless, he has provided some broader, nebulous guidelines, saying that the prose poem allows the practitioner to create his/her own boundaries (Edson, "In terview" 2). By determining his/her own boundaries, the prose poet is forced to create his/her own form, which may or may not look completely different from that of another prose poet. The prose poem is not simply lacking form nor is it merely something th at does not fit in anywhere else ; rather, it could be said then that the prose poem is simultaneously nothing and everything. By this I mean that the prose poem could be unrecognizable or subversive when seen against the frame of conventional, established genres and forms, but its form appears as its use of the possibilities of prose and poetry is understood.
12 Robert Bly, in his essay "The Prose Poem as an Evolving Form" from his Selected Poems offers a different type of approach: rather than a general def inition, a typology. Bly divides the prose poem into three types: fables, illuminations, and object poems. We know several sorts of prose poems, the most ancient of which is the fable; David Ignatow and Russell Edson are contemporary masters of the fable. Traditionally in the fable, the story is more important than the language that carries it. Rimbaud, in Les Illuminations invented a second sort of prose poem, inspired by the new color separations, known as "illuminations," in the printing industry; there image and fiery language draw attention away from the story. A third sort, the object poem, centers itself not on story or image but on the object, and it holds on to its fur, so to speak. My predecessors in the object poem are Jimnez and Francis Ponge. (Bly 199) Bly's approach seems to be more appropriate to the prose poem, and, unlike others, he manages to finally reach an affirmative formulation. These three categories are not the only ones that the prose poem could fall into; however, his attempt at categorization captures an essential aspect of the form. The prose poem has become something that can manifest itself in an almost infinite amount of ways, but is always pulling from principles already established and accepted. Bly continues to define the form, stating: No one can mistake the impersonal side of the sonnet: the hard impersonal includes fourteen lines of ten syllables each, for a total of
13 one hundred forty syllables; syntactically contained thought units, apportioned among three quatrains and a couplet, or an eight line group and a six line group; fourteen rhymed lines, and a beat system based on relative loudness of stress, beginning with a relatively soft syllable The prose poem, whether a thing poem, fable, or Rimbaudian fire prose, h as no such great tension; it reaches toward no such impersonal shell, and no such hard agreement with the ancestors. As we write it these days, we notice little tension between an impersonal shape it must have and the personal shape it wants to have. (Bly 203) In reality, the prose poem has become something that does not possess a set of quantifiable rules of a form yet is nonetheless not formless. Rather, the practitioner is free to shape his language as he pleases. Delville argues that "Baudelaire's gener ic enfant terrible now seems to have developed almost as many trends as there are poets practicing it, so that any attempt at a monolithic definition of the genre would be doomed to failure" (Delville 1). While Delville is in many ways correct, I believe t hat, for the sake of this thesis, the prose poem can ultimately be defined as a form that is constituted in a transgressive manner, a poem that freely borrows from prosaic and poetic resources.
14 Defining Domesticity Baudelaire's use of the city elevat es ordinary things and people to something spectacular, creating the original linkage between prose poetry and explorations of everyday life. Why pay attention to the everyday? More importantly, why write about it as if it were extraordinary? For those who seek to elevate the common, everyday life is something simultaneously relevant and ignored. Prose poets, especially the four considered within this thesis, spent their attention on those things that the average person takes for granted: elucidating the re al complexity of that which is perceived as simple. These four prose poets all focus on a particular aspect of everyday life, what I call domesticity. Experimenting with both form and content, these practitioners of the prose poem present a new perspective of the domestic sphere, forcing their readers to carefully experience the microcosm of the household, rather than moving in and out of it blindly. Because of this, it is important to define domesticity before delving into the works of the specific prose p oets to ensure a better understanding of its role within the scope of this thesis. Domesticity is defined as, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the quality or state of being domestic, domestic character; home or family life; devotion to home; h omeliness. This definition would be appropriate in most situations due to its brevity; however, defining the term so simply overlooks how much societal context complicates the notion. Domesticity is often used to indicate that something is related to some household or family activity or characteristic. Technically speaking, the term domesticity can apply to any activity performed in a domestic sphere, but
15 this again is an oversimplification. Domesticity, though, also implies a sense of order, a hierarchy t hat is always present in the household activities. One of the first times the term was recorded was in 1721 in An Universal Etymological English Dictionary by Nathan Bailey. In his text, Bailey defines domesticity as, "the being a servant," a form more ak in to the idea of domestication (Bailey 282). For something to be domesticated (or adapted for domestic uses to provide some sort of benefit), there needs to be some superior force, doing the domesticating or benefiting from it. An example of this is worki ng animals, as the various farm animals, both those meant for consumption and those for labor. A similar order is seen in the household, specifically in the relationship between husbands and wives. With the traditional, nuclear family comes the idea of se parate, gendered spheres. Some religious officials and social scientists have suggested that these spheres must exist in order to maintain marriage, families, and society as a whole. In 1946, a time of accelerated social, cultural, and economic change, Joh n R. Rice authored the book, The Home: Courtship, Marriage, and Children which promotes traditional values. Rice writes in a chapter titled, "Wives to be Subject to Husbands," that "In the very nature of men and women, God has written the fact that men sh ould be head of the home and wives secondary to them in authority and subject to them" (Rice 112). Rice argues that without this domestic hierarchy, the entire institution of marriage and family would decline. Without a woman to rule over, men lose the nec essary feelings of responsibility towards their families.
16 Similarly, women have been assigned the domestic sphere, partly due to biological reasons, but mainly (however unconsciously) to promote their submission. Domestic rituals, such as cooking for din nertime, putting children to bed at bedtime, etc., end up being gendered and generally assigned to women, despite men's equal ability to perform those tasks. These rituals end up being extremely significant to defining domesticity because the simple, domes tic activities usually attributed to domesticity become something sacred. Ultimately, we will consider domesticity to include these ideas of domestic hierarchy and rituals and hetero normative gender roles and relationships, in addition to the standard di ctionary definition. This kind of understanding of domesticity is not necessarily the widely accepted or undisputed definition of the term. However, for the purposes of this thesis, this is how domesticity will be defined.
17 CHAPTER TWO DESCRIBING OBJECTS: GERTRUDE STEIN AND FRANCIS PONGE Gertrude Stein Tender Buttons written by Gertrude Stein in 1914, has been described as "an assault on reason" (Souhami xiii). The prose poems in Tender Buttons are divided into three sections objects, food, and rooms a nd each explores domesticity at an almost cellular level, with every individual word treated as its own unit requiring as much care and consideration as the text as a whole. Stein pays careful attention to every element of her writing, while pointing the r eader to new considerations of multiple concepts. Her focus on individual words frequently draws attention to the language of domesticity and domestic literature, while her use of individual domestic spaces and things serves to comment on domesticity as a whole. In his book Gertrude Stein in Pieces Richard Bridgman describes this sectioning quite concisely, stating that "The book's tripartite structure is unusually suggestive. 'Objects' what we perceive outside us. 'Food' what we absorb. 'Rooms' what en close us" (Bridgman 126). Bridgman's interpretation points towards Stein's mimicking of every day life, in that he focuses on the essential elements that make up an individual's day to day existence. Stein attempts to summarize human experience into the se nsations of perceiving, observing, and being enclosed. Each prose poem can be interpreted as
18 approaching a multifaceted human experience, considered through the lens of an ordinary circumstance. The main uniting aspect of Tender Buttons is that each prose poem transfigures everyday domestic activities by elevating the common to an uncommon level. Stein uses the three elements of objects, food, and rooms, which dominate the construction of domestic life to draw attention to the ways in which individuals int eract with these things and each other. Not only are objects, food, and rooms the things by which the home is defined, but they also serve as concrete entities upon which established domestic relationships, hierarchies and rituals are balanced. In writing Tender Buttons Gertrude Stein questions the basic functions of language by disregarding traditional syntax and grammar. In doing so, Stein creat es a text that simultaneously recontextualizes domestic objects and the language commonly used in the describi ng them. Through the deconstruction of the structure of the English language, Stein causes her audience to re evaluate the way in which a poem is traditionally read. Each section and prose poem in Tender Buttons is presented as merely a description of the given noun. However, this assumption is proven faulty as soon as the reader begin s reading. Stein creates false expectations in her readers by not only breaking these expectations, but also illuminating for the readers the assumptions they have made. Simil arly, with her content, the readers are forced to reconsider the hierarchies and rituals within the domestic sphere and how language is used to support them. In particular, Stein manipulates the impersonal language commonly found in domestic literature tra ditionally written for a female audience, such as etiquette guides and cookbooks, household advice texts, and so on.
19 This breaking of expectations makes it difficult to pinpoint an exact narrative or image, making an attempt at finding an exact cohesion t hat one would expect in a poem impractical. The constant barricades in Stein's work are addressed in Pamela Hadas' essay "Spreading the Difference: One Way to Read Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons ." Hadas describes the not unpopular negative reaction toward s Stein's work: Most readers, at first, do not know what to make of Tender Buttons at all a joke perhaps "The elementary fact to understand about Gertrude Stein is that she is incomprehensible because there is nothing there to comprehend." Though thi s statement was made more than two decades ago, this is still a fairly prevalent attitude toward Gertrude Stein The work most often directly responsible for these and other generalized negative assessments or simple neglect of Gertrude Stein's work, critically speaking, is Tender Buttons John Malcolm Brinnin, who has great love for the woman herself, blames a "language inscrutable to inquiry on both logical and semantic levels." "Her initial error," as he calls it, is to regard words "as if they were unencumbered plastic entities of such and such texture, weight and resilience," "divorced from thought." There is some truth in this statement, but it is not truth that thought had no part in the determinations of Stein's composition, and the absence of l ogic and consequential thought does not signify an absence of meaning. (Hadas 58) Though agreeing with Brinnin provides an easy reading of Stein, dismissing Stein's work as something nonsensical or erroneous misses the larger point at work in Stein's
20 writi ng, dissecting the basic functions of language and the expectations of the reader. Though a superficial reading may produce the assumption that Stein's work is meaningless, Stein's "absence of logic and consequential thought" is no accident. As Hadas argue s, the use of radical compositions does not automatically make a work meaningless. Stein uses Tender Buttons as a place to wonder about the different possibilities of the nouns within the domestic sphere. More specifically, in many of her poems one can fin d either descriptions (or, in many cases, re descriptions) of various seemingly insignificant everyday things and/or criticisms of the patriarchal structures within the domestic sphere. In Poetics of Interdeterminacy Marjorie Perloff describes the way in which Stein approached words, saying that, words, as even Gertrude Stein recognized, have meanings and the only way to MAKE IT NEW is not to pretend that meaning doesn't exist, but to take words out of their usual contexts and create new relations hips among them" (Perloff 75). Stein realizes that in her attempt to make language new she cannot merely ignore the definition of words and instead chooses to work with the polysemic nature of language, illustrating that definitions are not necessarily inh erent. Stein intentionally divorces words from their common usage, submitting them to the reader in an uncommon way. This reimagining of language by taking words out of context changes the way the words she chooses relate to each other, creating new meanin gs for them. Despite the possibility for a more flexible lexicon, people will generally not stray from the conventions they are accustomed to. Stein undermines this comfort in language, subverting the expectations that come with the words she chooses. Stei n uses this multiplicity of meanings to create a text
21 that shows each object, food, and room from several perspectives at the same time. Where writing in general tends to create a feeling of progression through time, Stein's constant restarting, beginning without ending, and so on, produces a confused and dissociative sense of time. By confronting the actuality of language, Stein is able to simultaneously mimic the conventional and undermine it. Stein's succession of poems all titled "Chicken" is a good exa mple of how she subverts the reader's expectations of description and language. CHICKEN. Pheasant and chicken, chicken is a peculiar third. CHICKEN. Alas a dirty word, alas a dirty third alas a dirty third, alas a dirty bird. CHICKEN. Alas a doubt in case of more go to say what it is cress. What is it. Mean. Potato. Loaves. CHICKEN. Stick stick call then, stick stick sticking, sticking with a chicken. Sticking in an extra succession, sticking in. (Stein 282) Hadas' response to this series of poems is simple, "Make what you will of that. Sound it" (Hadas 69). When we do sound it, we read "third" and "word" and hear the
22 repeating ird" sound, as in "bird." Similarly, the ess" in the word "cress" is reminiscent of the word "breast," as in "chicken bre ast." In the fourth of the "Chicken" pieces, the reader reads, "sticking," but hears "chicken." In all its simplicity and brevity, this reading of Stein can be an extraordinarily useful one. Rather than focusing on the definitions readers hope to fix to w ords, it is important to understand that the associations brought on by the sounds are also something worth paying attention to. For Stein, the goal was not to create a clear description of the chicken, but rather to confront the reader's expectations of d escriptive writing. Here, Stein convinces her audience that they will be reading not one, but four descriptions of chicken by providing the rawest indicators of beginning and end: a title, some words, a space, a new title, and so forth. However, she challe nges the conventions of description by adding a sort of elusiveness to her writing that requires the reader to focus on the sounds of the word, which Hadas explains, "Of course, if one does not give willing attention to the individual words as sound as wel l as sense, one misses the sound sense of having so many possibilities (Hadas 59). In the first two of the chicken prose poems, Stein repeats the word "third," which is simultaneously unexpected and familiar. Though the reader would expect to read the word "bird" (which she does include at the end of the second chicken poem), they are instead given words that rhyme with "bird" ("third" and "word"). Stein brings her language back to a place before meaning, exploring visual and sound relationships bet ween words. Instead of using the word ("bird") that would traditionally be chosen in describing the object, Stein picks ones that offer only a familiar sound. In doing so, Stein forces her reader to see language both the
23 individual words and the general co ncept as something less fixed and more fluid. Also, in the fourth of the chicken poems, Stein uses words, specifically the word "stick," to mimic the clucking or pecking of a chicken. Ultimately, Stein shows that, just as language is always changing, there is not a single way to experience or describe any given thing. Hadas states: "One can receive from so many sources; one must choose from so many meanings. A single tone monotony is not possible" (Hadas 71). Because Stein's descriptions of her experiences with chicken are highly idiosyncratic, it is impossible not to reconsider how one perceives things, especially those objects that are usually overlooked. Stein uses this confrontation of language to comment on domesticity and the doctrine of femininity by both parodying and elevating the language commonly attributed to the woman's sphere. Margueritte S. Murphy in, A Tradition of Subversion: the Prose Poem in English from Wilde to Ashbery discusses what she calls "the new domestic language" that Stein fash ions in Tender Buttons Murphy writes that Stein subverts the "decorum for women's prose" by giving the reader, "descriptions' in which the object eludes us, sentences that tax the capabilities of syntactic English, language that consequently gestures tow ard nonmeanings, and parodies or scramblings of conventional feminine discourse (Murphy 139). Murphy argues that Stein's "new domestic language" is a response to semantic conventions, specifically those applied to the domestic or woman's sphere. Ac cording to Murphy, Stein presents her prose poems in such a fashion as to suggest that they might be written in a familiar way, only to reclaim domestic language by subverting
24 syntactical standards This subversion is present in A Time to Eat," in which Stein criticizes a crucial domestic ritual. A TIME TO EAT A pleasant simple habitual and tyrannical and authorised and educated and resumed and articulate separation. This is not tardy. (Stein 257) In "A Time to Eat," Stein simultaneously succinctly descr ibes and criticizes traditional domestic eating rituals using only a list of adjectives and a brief sentence. The prose poem begins with the usual assumption of what eating times are: "pleasant" and "simple." Though she has condensed it into only two words Stein immediately introduces the concept of eating to satisfy a basic human need in contrast to eating to satisfy a societal norm. This complexity progresses with the very next word, "habitual," which indicates the beginning of Stein's criticism of this domestic ritual by pointing out exactly what any time to eat is: a habit. Though eating habits (the timing, etiquette, and food itself) seem inherent to the domestic sphere, there is actually a complicated structure that goes beyond the simple act of feedi ng oneself. Eating, as indicated by Stein, is not about simply satiating hunger. If the title is read as the subject of the first sentence, it is clear that a time to eat is, ultimately, a gendered separation that is simultaneously problematic and essentia l. Reading "A Time to Eat" as an example of the divide between the genders within the home is best explained by Elisabeth Frost, in The Feminist Avant Garde in American Poetry Frost uses Stein's "A Time to Eat" to point towards this separation,
25 explaini ng how problematic domestic eating rituals can be, given their being fairly patriarchic. She writes: The whole notion of creating a time to eat suggests a need to control the raw energy of the appetite; in appointing a time for the consumption of food, the patriarch places limits on the satisfaction of desire. The notion of control over the body is reinforced by the tyranny of Latinate adjectives here. (Frost 20) A time to eat, as Frost indicates, is something less about being hungry and more about maintain ing patriarchal tyrannical control "A Time to Eat" acknowledges the way a basic need becomes a means of defining both gender roles and relations between genders. Eating habits are, in many ways, a good indicator of the gender dynamic within the domestic sphere as a whole and could be considered significant to maintaining a certain level of hetero normativity. Though most domestic activities are typically thought of as women's work, eating is one of the few activities that a family requires be repeated mor e than once on a daily basis. Because of this constant repetition, the times to eat become something "authorised and educated and resumed and articulate." Through this domestic ritual, sons learn their role as heads of the household, while daughters learn their role as homemakers. Although this is problematic in that it promotes a strict patriarchal domestic order, Stein is not implying a total dismantling of an eating decorum. Rather, she is simply indicating that a time to eat, or more broadly women's wor k within the domestic sphere, deserves a higher level of respect than it typically receives. Stein's use of the word "habitual" points towards this perceived lack of recognition, as habits, by nature, tend
26 to go unnoticed. Although a traditional family's m aternal figure is usually expected to do all of the domestic work, her work is not generally recognized as the foundation of the home. The final phrase of the poem, "This is not tardy," suggest s an unacknowledged importance in domestic eating rituals. Fros t reads this line as a "defense of the importance of honoring this time to eat," with the patriarch scolding his family "that the law is to be respected and that, at the same time, the ritual itself is not tardy outmoded" (Frost 21). Though I would agree with Frost to a certain extent, I do not believe she takes her analysis far enough. If the law and ritual ought to be respected, then it seems reasonable to expect some level of respect for all of the individuals, regardless of gender, involved in maintai ning the time to eat. This reclamation of language serves Stein's aim to elevate the feminine domestic activities that are usually trivialized. As Murphy puts it, "Stein's counter discourse' to the prose of cookbooks, to the prose of guides to housekeep ing, fashion, and etiquette, does not renounce or trivialize that world, but uses its authority to value, explain, and stabilize (Murphy 164). Because it generally lacks first person pronouns, Tender Buttons is written with an authoritative voice o r "superficial impersonality" similar to that of a woman's cookbook or domestic guide. This create s a sense of comfort that is seemingly at odds with the actual content of the poetry (Murphy 151). Murphy writes that, for Stein, "It is about perception th e disruption of conventional representation and of conventional mores" (Murphy 164). Stein redefines how one perceives the language used in the domestic sphere. Stein liberates domestic language by upsetting the traditions of those forms discourse. Her pro se poems may seem to be challenging the hierarchies and rituals within the domestic
27 sphere (and in many instances they very well may be) h owever, to assume that Stein's only purpose in writing Tender Buttons is to dismantle the domestic sphere does her wo rk a great disservice. In her prose poems, Stein does not simply work towards getting women out of the kitchen, but rather pushes her readers to understand that the structure of the home is not something intrinsic or something insignificant. Maintaining th is structure requires a high level of work, despite the assumption that that the domestic sphere automatically falls into order. Stein acknowledges the importance of the woman in the home, using the authority of the literature allotted to them. The true pr oject of Tender Buttons is perhaps seen as Stein forces her reader to re evaluate both the of structure language and of the domestic sphere by showing that neither were created fully formed, but instead evolved and developed into their current forms and, t herefore, must be constantly, albeit habitually, maintained. Francis Ponge In Francis Ponge's prose poems, he captures the dynamic nature of objects and reconstructs the minutia of everyday life. Though both Ponge and Stein in many ways seem to be writ ing their prose poetry out of a similar understanding of language 's often overlooked complexity, Ponge's project offers a contrast to Stein's. Stein, using language associated with the domestic sphere, focuses specifically on the home and the gender dynami c within it. However, Ponge's attention is broader, lying with objects related to the everyday. Where Stein defeats expectations readers have
28 while reading a description, Ponge provides descriptions and redescriptions, going beyond what the reader expects to the extent of oversaturation with the number of images of the object presented Ponge's prose poems, although usually idiosyncratic, produce meaning that can be recognized because of his precision and ability to make metaphors and indirect language fee l direct. Richard Stamelman, in his essay "The Object in Poetry and Painting: Ponge and Picasso," describes this aspect of Ponge's work, stating: Ponge's encounters with words occur during writing, and he takes care to listen attentively to what they have to say: et je ne peux en jouer exactement a ma guise Chaque mot s'impose a moi (et au poeme) dans toute son epaisseur, avec toutes les associations d'idees qu'il comporte 1 Ponge conceives of words as material entities which are as sub stantial and concrete as the objects they denote. (Stamelman 410) Ponge concentrates on these words that impose themselves on him, resulting in an intense exploration of an object from many perspectives and close attention to the language associated with t hem. Language becomes something less like a medium to master and more like one needing to be explored and domesticated. With all of its thickness, Ponge accepts language as something of a challenge. Like Stein, Ponge copes with the complexity of language a nd the world as a whole by making use of the multiplicity of "associations of ideas" available to him. However, rather than moving 1 This translation of Ponge's statement to English was found in the text, "The Object in Poetry and Painting: Ponge and Picasso:" "and I can't play with it exactly as I might like Each word imposes itself on me (and on the poem) in all its thickness, w ith all the associations of ideas which it contains"
29 towards radical disassociation like Stein does, the characteristics perceived to be inherent to language are taken into consi deration in his prose poems, as Ponge acknowledges the "resemblance between the form of the thing and the shape or sound of the word which designates it" (Stamelman 411). Ponge experiments with an openness to the multiple possibilities that words can offer by considering all of the associations that can be tied to a word and refusing the arbitrariness of fixed meaning in language. Ponge's prose poems point towards an understanding of each word that is unusually inclusive as compared to the audience's typic al reading, especially those used in naming the objects being described. For the most part, his descriptions of the objects make use of both the phonetic and semantic qualities of the object's name when describing it This is seen in the first paragraph of Ponge's prose poem "Le cageot" or "The Crate" from Les parti pris des choses : Halfway between cage (cage) and cachot (prison cell) the French language has cageot a simple openwork container for transporting fruits that sicken at the least hint of suffoca tion. (Ponge 17) Within the text, as Stamelman argues, the crate is "described as being halfway, both phonetically and semantically, between the words "cage" ("cage") and "cachot" ("prison cell")" (Stamelman 411) By recognizing the meaning and appearance o f the words commonly used to describe the object, which is in this case the crate, Ponge not only paints a more extensive picture, but also renovates the perception of it. Ponge takes the object and reconceptualizes it, using language as the method of tran sformation (Stamelman 413). Ultimately, Ponge treats both the words and the
30 objects that he uses as if there is no possibility of exhausting them, seeing both language and things as nearly infinite in their associations. Ponge often reconceptualizes his subjects by repeatedly redefining the object in new language. Ponge frequently performs this redefining multiple times throughout the course of a single prose poem, as Stamelman explains: At the beginning of a new paragraph, the description begins anew. Th e reader has the sense that Ponge is trying just one more time to capture the essence of the object. This explains the constant presence of repetitions, variations, and recommencements not only in the same poem but in Ponge's work as a whole. He is always coming back to objects that seem to have eluded him Each poem is a correction of an earlier attempt, and yet it too appears unfinished, for Ponge feels a passionate need to make the description of an object of his contemplation as faithful to the cha nging nature of that object as possible. (Stamelman 415). This idea of "coming back to objects" is present throughout Ponge's body of work. Many of his prose poems are new approaches to an object he has described in other works. Ultimately, Ponge attempts to give the reader a more elaborate description than can be achieved in the average interaction with objects by repeating a particular experience of observing or interacting with a specific object. This method results in an entirely unique and specific rep resentation of the object, which supports his basic objective: to express the ever changing nature of all things. Ponge has several methods of achieving this. Within a single poem, Ponge can introduce several
31 perspectives of the object, with each paragraph serving as a new beginning and "indicat[ing] a new tactic by the poet to dislodge a hidden meaning, a new attempt to express an undisclosed quality of the object, and a decision to change the direction of the force exerted in order to overcome the object' s resistance." (Stamelman 417). Alternately, as seen in his prose poem "Moss," Ponge shows an object from a single, peculiar viewpoint, which forces his reader to acknowledge that their assumptions about things are not necessarily based in fact. Long ago the advance guard of vegetation came to a halt on the rocks, which were dumbfounded. A thousand silken velvet rods then sat down cross legged. From then on, ever since moss with its lance bearers started twitching on bare rock, all nature has been caught in an inextricable predicament and, trapped underneath, panics, stampedes, suffocates. Worse yet, hairs grew; with time, everything got darker. Oh obsession with longer and longer hairs! Deep carpets that kneel when you sit on them now lift themselves in muddled aspiration. Hence not only suffocations but drownings. Well, we could just scalp the old, severe, solid rock of these terry cloth landscapes, these soggy doormats; it would be feasible, saturated as they are. (Ponge 49) Here, Ponge begins with th e scientific concept of the dynamism of things and ends with an obsessively precise experiment with content and form. Much as Stein's work illuminates the lack of an inherent structure to language and the domestic sphere,
32 Ponge's work shows the reader that there is no universal or singular experience of an object. While there may be any number of reasons why one would experience an object differently (the lighting, timing, or context may be different), the point remains that experience is something subjecti ve, that every individual's perception and every individual perception of an object is going to be at least slightly different. In "The Mollusk," Ponge shows his readers his process of "coming back to objects" as he rapidly redefines the mollusk, proposi ng a new subjective experience of the object in each paragraph. This series of perceptions of the mollusk also serves as a metaphor for the complexity of the domestic sphere. The mollusk is a being almost a quality It doesn't need a skeleton, just a ra mpart; something like paint in a tube. Nature has abandoned all hope here of shaping plasma. She merely shows her attachment by carefully sheltering it in a jewel case, more beautiful inside than out. So it's not just a gob of spit; but a truly precious reality. The mollusk is endowed with terrific energy for self closure. Strictly speaking it's nothing but a muscle, a hinge, a door closer and its door. A door closer that has secreted the door. Two slightly concave doors constitute its entire dwelling. The first and last dwelling. It stays on even after it dies. No getting it out alive.
33 The slightest cell in the human body clings just as tightly to language and vice versa. But sometimes another being violates the tomb, if it's well made, and takes the place of the deceased builder. As is the case of the hermit crab. (Ponge 37) Within this prose poem, the mollusk is seen as shapeless plasma, door and door closer, a metaphor for language, and, finally, an entirely different creature, a hermit crab. W hat is most interesting about this piece is the description of the physical structure of the mollusk beginning in the fourth paragraph. Ponge describes the mollusk as being housed in two doors, which remain even after the mollusk dies. That the physical an d seemingly unchanging structure of the house outlives the being within it suggests something bigger. The idea of the house itself remaining even after its occupants are gone is not an unusual one; however, it is interesting to consider how the physical bu ilding can have such a great influence on the life happening within it. "The Mollusk" also provides insight into Ponge's thinking and process. The third paragraph, "So it's not just a gob of spit; but a truly precious reality," serves as so much more than just a new description of the title creature, the mollusk. Every object that Ponge describes is never something as insignificant as it may seem. Instead, they are all hugely complex, both physically on an anatomical or molecular level and experientially. T hough much less radical than Stein, Ponge's prose poems can still be seen as an illustration of the tension between people, language, and domesticity. Though his aim is not solely to draw attention to the issues of structure within the domestic sphere, sev eral of his prose poems included in Selected Poems
34 indicate a disconnect between the individual and household objects, pointing towards an unawareness of the reality of the home Ponge's reimagining of the experience of objects is also seen in his choice o f perspective. For instance, in "The Pleasures of the Door," Ponge comments on the inattention to everyday objects. Kings never touch doors. They're not familiar with this happiness: to push, gently or roughly before you one of these great, friendly pane ls, to turn towards it to put it back in place to hold a door in your arms. The happiness of seizing one of these tall barriers to a room by the porcelain knob of its belly; this quick hand to hand, during which your progress slows for a moment, your ey e opens up and your whole body adapts to its new apartment. With a friendly hand you hold on a bit longer, before firmly pushing it back and shutting yourself in of which you are agreeably assured by the click of the powerful, well oiled latch. (Ponge 2 9) The title suggests that the text is merely a description of a pleasurable experience with a door. This expectation, however, is challenged immediately in the first line. Although Ponge almost always writes about everyday objects that any average person can experience, he approaches one of these unexceptional things through an idiosyncratic perspective. Ponge almost reprimands the king, and to a certain extent his audience, for not giving the door and the experience of opening it the awareness he believe s it deserves. Taking pleasure in the everyday becomes the
35 focus of the poem, as Ponge turns the experience of opening and closing the door into an erotic experience. This is not uncommon in Ponge, as explained by Shirley Jordan in "Francis Ponge: The Cons truction of the Female," "Written into many texts is the extended metaphor of courtship, pursuit, and possession to capture nature in writing is always a sexual conquest (Jordan 36). In this prose poem, Ponge goes beyond a simple elevation of the ordinary. Instead, he sexualizes the ordinary, the gateway into the home and the rooms within it, describing the opening of the door as "holding the door in your arms" and "seizing one of these tall barriers to a room by the porcelain knob of its bell y." In this way, the door becomes more than an object and is instead a pleasing (whether sexual or not) life within the home. Similar to Stein, Ponge takes generally unnoticed, yet immensely significant pieces of one's home and attempts to make the audien ce aware of them. However, unlike Stein, Ponge is not acting as a champion for the woman's voice. Jordan argues that Ponge's feminine and erotic metaphors, as seen in "The Pleasures of the Door," are just examples of Ponge's sexism, rather than a sincere i nterest in the woman's sphere. Ponge's use of the female stems from one basic assumption: what is humble, devalued, occulted, and voiceless must unquestionably be presented as feminine. His preference is for objects that have not found expression in litera ture precisely because they are consigned to the same sort of unremarkable, secondary roles typically conferred on women. (Jordan 36)
36 Jordan suggests that Ponge's motivations may be sexist and, therefore, his writing takes on the feminine, but only as a co nsequence of a commingling between femininity and unimportance. However, I believe it does not matter from whence Ponge's motivations are derived; Ponge's real project is to describe and re describe objects. While these descriptions oftentimes utilize aspe cts of domesticity, the main focus of his prose poems is not to draw attention to the complexities or the misgivings of the relationships between the genders within the home, but instead to demonstrate the ever changing nature of objects. Though Stein also focuses on objects, her project is closer to the home in that her attention is clearly with the domestic sphere and the language associated with it. Ultimately, in writing prose poetry both Ponge and Stein seem motivated by a similar understanding of lang uage, but it is in their processes and final products in which we see their differences. Where Ponge writes and re writes, always focusing on an ever broader spectrum of everyday (albeit not always domestic) objects, with the intention to show the dynamism of each object, Stein dissociates language from meaning, focusing on the domestic sphere and the objects within it as a method of drawing attention to the hierarchies, structures, and rituals that govern gender relations.
37 CHAPTER THREE FABLES AND NARRATI VES: CHARLES SIMIC AND RUSSELL EDSON Charles Simic Charles Simic's 1990 Pulitzer Prize winning book The World Doesn't End is surprising, to say the least, as it is Simic's first and only book of prose poems and is fairly different from the others consi dered within the scope of this thesis. The World Doesn't End is made up of three unnamed sections of prose poems. While all of the pieces demonstrate a conversational playfulness and a dark, almost sinister humor, the subject matter (though usually seeming ly autobiographical) varies. Many of the poems in the first section clearly pull from childhood experience, while the latter two sections branch out, covering a larger range of topics not limited to Simic's personal experiences. The World Doesn't End is, a s Michel Delville describes in The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre a collage of lyrical fragments, short tales, dreams, aphoristic vignettes, and anecdotes constantly mix[ing] history and myth, autobiography and fiction dreamlike content and cold eyed observations" (Delville 169). The World Doesn't End is often compared to other prose poetry collections, including those by Russell Edson. At times, Simic's prose poems seem derivative of Edson's because of Simic's use of "the uncanny Edsonian fable" and absurdist humor (Delville 171).
38 These similarities between Simic and Edson become clear in Simic's "I was stolen ": I was stolen by the gypsies. My parents stole me right back. Then the gypsies stole me again. This went on for some time. One minute I was in the caravan suckling the dark teat of my new mother, the next I sat at the long dining room table eating my breakfast with a silver spoon. It was the first day of spring. One of my fathers was singing in the bath tub; the other one was painting a live sparrow the colors of a tropical bird. (Simic 5) This prose poem, a brief scene introduced en media res, provides little detail about the characters involved and depends entirely on a balance of straightforward langua ge and absurd humor. The humor in this poem comes from the fact that, though the subject matter (the idea of being stolen by gypsies) is certainly far from pleasant, Simic's matter of fact language and conversational tone are more suited to a much more com mon story. Delville describes Simic's humor, stating that: A comic effect is created by the juxtaposition of antipodal images, ideas, and registers constantly short circuiting the apparent matter of factness of the narrative Simic's vignettes a re often balanced between terse, conversational rhetoric and a starkly surreal imagery rooted in precise, domestic detail. (Delville 170) Similar to Edson, Simic uses contrasting, straightforward images and language to create prose poems that are simultane ously dreamlike and comedic. The absurd,
39 comical moments within his prose poems are generally sandwiched between more serious images, with the effect of creat ing narrative dissonance. Simic's humor provides the reader with a unique approach to tragedy, as Delville describes: Not only does humor contribute to making misery and suffering more tolerable; it is also a means of coming to terms with the incomprehensible as the author himself writes, in a characteristically anticlimactic conclusion to one of his v erbal collages: "not the least charm of this tableau is that it can be so easily dismissed as preposterous." (Delville 174) Ultimately, Simic's use of humor is different than Edson's. By contrasting everyday language with strange and, at times, sinister im ages, Simic's prose poems become miniature commentaries on the realities of human existence. Humor is ultimately not only a symptom of apathy and/or mischievousness, as it can be in Edson's prose poems, but can also work towards a more sentimental goal. S imic presents an excellent example of his absurd humor in the following, "A hen larger ": A hen larger than the barn pecking the other chickens as if they were kernels of white corn. The legend says it's my great grandmother. We are running for our lives, my great grandfather leading the way. "We'll take your glasses away, Cornelia," he yells over his shoulder! She gobbled us all up anyway. It was like what Jonah went through inside the whale, except for the young village bride we met
40 there. She smi led mysteriously in welcome and showed us the beds where we were going to spend our long captivity. "You'd better stop this nonsense, my dear," we heard our great grandfather whisper before we fell asleep. (Simic 42) In this prose poem Simic describes the relationship between a great grandfather and a great grandmother, in which the great grandmother is in a position of power by virtue of the fact that she is a large hen. While Edson's prose poems usually describe a marital hierarchy in which the wife is a ttempting to gain power, the husband in Simic's poem seeks recognition only to be both literally and figuratively "gobbled up." Though the great grandmother hen never speaks, the great grandfather is progressively silenced over the course of the poem. In t he first paragraph, the great grandfather yells at his hen wife, "We'll take your glasses away, Cornelia." By the final paragraph, his voice is reduced to a whisper, saying, "You'd better stop this nonsense, my dear." Here, we see a clear reversal of gende r roles; though the male attempts to assert himself as males in Edson poems frequently do, his attempts are met with no attention and are reduced to mere utterances. Simic's work in many ways deviates greatly from the Edson prose poem model. Though Edson avoids using first person pronouns, even in pieces that are seemingly self referential (such as, "Edson's Mentality"), Simic embraces first person pronouns and the autobiographical. Simic, when asked about the confessional tone used in many of his prose po ems, explains: "I often begin writing about some great horror and injustice, but the words on the page take me to a completely unrelated topic Mostly, though, I'm incapable of and uninterested in being faithful to my
41 autobiography" (Milburn 161). Thi s qualification is significant, in that Simic points out that he is disinterested in being faithful to his autobiography, where Edson is not interested in autobiography at all. Although many of his poems clearly stray from the original event inspiring the poem, it is important to acknowledge that many of his prose poems at least slightly self referential if read with knowledge of Simic's autobiography and attention to his use of the first person. Simic may not approach his writing with the intent to write a n entirely accurate autobiographical prose poem, but it is undeniable that commonly the original, inspiring thought is one from personal experience and the final product retains a confessional tone. Both Edson and Simic express a disinterest in writing aut obiographically; however, what is important is how they approach this disinterest. Rather than evading the use of autobiographical material, Simic's prose poems take what seems to be personal experience and makes it something poetically absurd. Russell E dson "I would consider any society near perfect where the arts of highest irreverence were practiced and Russell Edson was Poet Laureate." Charles Simic ("Cut the Comedy") Russell Edson, who has both confounded and entertained his readers with his idi osyncratic style for over fifty years, has made it clear that claiming a certain genre
42 or form as his own is not a priority. In an interview with Peter Johnson in The Prose Poem: An International Journal "What name one gives or doesn't give to his or her writing is far less important than the work itself" (Edson, "Interview" 4). However, that has not stopped Edson from becoming one of the leading writers of prose poetry in the United States, working almost exclusively in the form well before the hybridizin g of genres became fashionable. In defining the prose poem in his essay, "Portrait of the Writer as a Fat Man: Some Subjective Ideas or Notions on the Care and Feeding of Prose Poems," Edson define s his style: A good prose poem is a statement that seeks sa nity whilst its author teeters on the edge of the abyss. The language will be simple, the images so direct, that oftentimes the reader will be torn with recognitions inside himself long before he is conscious of what is happening to him. (Edson, "Portrait of the Writer" 41) One could say that Edson embodies this idea of the prose poet wavering on the line between sanity and madness, but his work is more than just this balancing act. It is often difficult to place Edson, in terms of genre, and his work is of ten dismissed from critical scholarship and poetry reviews. Donald Hall describes Edson's absence from poetry reviews in his essay "On Russell Edson's Genius," stating; Poetry reviewing in the United States is a disgrace. Poetry's doing all right, but who knows it? Thus too few Americans interested enough in poetry to go to poetry readings, to read reviews if they were public; not committed enough to keep up with small magazines and small presses even know that Russell Edson is there I don't know
43 who m to call the best contemporary poet and as Dylan Thomas used to say, "Is it a contest?" but among the best I daresay Russell Edson is the most original, astonishing, extraordinary, and inimitable. (Hall 12) Hall is not the first to praise Edson's writing, but perhaps the most important piece of information here is that the world of poetry pays little to no mind to Russell Edson; the academic sphere seems barely aware that there even is a Russell Edson. Whether you like Edson's work or not, it is important to acknowledge that he does play an important role in American literary history, in that he is among the first of the American poets to work entirely in the prose poem form. In Johnson's interview, Edson states that: prose poems look easy precisel y because they are. The hardest part for many who would write them is accepting how easy they are to write, and having the courage to write them in spite of that" (Edson, "Interview" 14). It is important to first understand that, although Edson's tone when discussing the prose poem is usually very tongue in cheek, he almost always offer s some underlying insight into his relationship with th e form. The prose poem's superficial simplicity is enormously misleading. Edson writes in his essay "The Prose Poem in America," that, "It is the very seeming easiness of it [the prose poem] that makes it so difficult" (Edson, "Prose Poem" 322). The reader has some expectation that a heavily thought over poem should appear heavily thought over, that is, full of ornate lang uage. The prose poem, and the writing thereof however, do not necessarily produce such linear results. Frequently, especially in the case of Edson, the process of writing is not nearly so easy as the final product makes it seem. Though this is
44 contradictor y to his statements in his interview with Johnson, this is the fundamental difficulty and brilliance of Edson's prose poems. Specifically because the Edson prose poem looks so straightforward, it is easy for the reader to assume a total lack of depth, espe cially when compared to the enigmatic work of Stein and the precision of Ponge. When paired with his writings on his approach to prose poetry, Edson's writing loses any appearance of having been heavily mulled over In "Portrait of the Writer as a Fat Ma n," Edson writes: the spirit or approach which is represented in the prose poem is not specifically literary Any hesitation causes it to lose its believability, its special reality; because the writing of a prose poem is more of an experience t han a labor toward a product. (Edson, "Portrait of the Writer" 42) If the prose poem is more about the action of writing rather than the resulting object, then one can reasonably argue that a literary assessment of a Russell Edson prose poem is illogical. However, the how to that Edson describes in his essay should not preclude the prose poem from academia. Despite the nonliterary approach used when writing, Edson's prose poems are not lacking literariness entirely. There is a complexity in his work and, wh ether it is organically and rapidly achieved in one sitting or perfected over a lifetime, this profundity deserves a deeper consideration. The center of Edson's prose poems is similar to that of some of his predecessors, as he focuses mainly on writing ab out the everyday. However, Edson chooses to focus mainly on the home and the things that happen within it. Generally
45 speaking, he begins his prose poems by introducing the reader to a single subject interacting with a family member or household object whil e taking part in some domestic activity. Usually Edson's characters or subject matter can be organized into one of three domestic categories: married couples, family life, and objects or animals. These ordinary themes are met with extraordinary situations such as a man being married to an automobile or a woman's high heeled shoe or a husband and wife discussing the repercussions of losing their baby down a sewer. Through this absurdity, Edson infuses his prose poems with both a dark humor and a keen insig ht into the difficulties inherent to the hierarchy and rituals that make up domesticity in the late 20 th century. Ultimately, Edson sets up scenes that are far more complex than they seem. It is true that the scenes are presented in such straightforward na rration that one may want to move on to a new poem as quickly as Edson claims he writes them, but this matter of fact tone masks the intricacies of his prose poems and points towards Edson's sarcastic view of domestic life. Despite his casual language and subject matter, the narratives of Edson's prose poetry frequently deal with complex social issues, such as the woman's role within the home. The familiar and the absurd in Edson's prose poems are met with common and logical language. As Edson states in Jo hnson's interview: My pieces, when they work, though full of odd happenings, win the argument against disorder through the logic of language and a compositional wholeness. So my ideal prose poem is a small, complete work, utterly logical within its own mad ness. (Edson, "Interview" 8) It is as if Edson's prose poems mimic domesticity. Domesticity has an inherent sense
46 of order and household hierarchy. Although this order can be achieved in multiple ways, the traditional, nuclear family is the one most common ly referred to. John R. Rice describes this traditional family as one in which the husband takes the role as head of the household and the wife "should obey her husband as if it were the Lord she were obeying" (Rice 114). This type of conventional family unit comes with the issue of gendered spheres and policies, which are generally thought to be necessary in order to maintain the sanctity of marriage, family, and society as a whole. Domesticity in itself becomes "utterly logical within its own madness," u sing a similar structure to that of Edson's prose poems. In his work, Edson creates a logical infrastructure similar to these traditional familial guidelines that, although normally torn down or manipulated in some way, supports a madness that is simultane ously familiar and absurd. The gender roles and domestic duties prominent in Edson's works are not only celebrated through his frank ordinariness, but also satirized by his humor and ridiculousness. The inscape of Edson's work is ultimately both acceptance of the existence of domesticity and the satirizing of its absurdity. "The Woman's Work" is a great example of his ability to combine easy language, bizarre characters and events, and criticism of traditional domestic roles. In the chapter "Cruel Figures: The Anti Forms' of Russell Edson" from his book The Muse of Abandonment: Origin, Identity, Mastery in Five American Poets Lee Upton writes about Edson's female characters, saying that, "Both genders are alternately solidified or expunged in his prose po ems, but Edson's depiction of women resonates forcefully in terms of their erasure'" (Upton 64). Though a more literal erasure is seen in some of Edson's other prose poems, such as "Erasing Amyloo" and "Mr. &
47 Mrs. Duck Dinner," "The Woman's Work" illustra tes a more metaphorical erasing of women within the home. A woman who knits said, I will knit me an argyle house to amaze myself that such a thing can be. She said, I can say cooky home which has raisins on the wall. We have a house, her husband scream ed, must you always build a new one out of the foolish materials of woman's work? I like an oatmeal house, she said. Well, like what you like, he screamed, but I do not like you. That's why I build myself away from you in my cooky argyle house. Wel l, you can't mix wool and dough together, he screamed. I can if so I wish, and so I wish as it is good to wish. Oh, do so then, but don't involve me in the preparations for supper. I have difficulty enough reading the newspaper with a telescope as it l ays on the front stoop, waiting for the wind to turn the pages to the sports section. (Edson, "The Very Thing" 6) The woman is immediately established as one who is unsatisfied with what woman's work typically entails by trying to make something amazing ou t of the materials that are available to her. In describing her plans, the wife says, "I can say cooky home which has raisins on the wall." Here, Edson combines the words "cookie" and "kooky" in order to draw our attention to the wife's desperate situation In other words, the materials she is allowed (cookie dough) are source of her instability or
48 kookiness. Her husband however, immediately shoots her down. Though Edson's characters "are rarely said to speak, but, quite casually, scream their conversation ," the fact that his immediate reaction is to scream in combination with what he actually says ("must you always build a new one .") implies the woman is chronically discontented with her situation (Levertov vi). The husband is quick to invalidate the woman's work, calling her materials foolish. This is where the satirizing of the traditional gender roles within the domestic sphere begins. Though the husband screams that his wife is always building new houses "out of the foolish materials of woman's wor k," he neglects the patriarchal structure that limits women to such materials. When she responds to his negativity with a simple, "I like an oatmeal house," which she says instead of screams, she is met with increased hostility from her husband. There does not seem to be any way for this woman to win, as she is only allowed to use womanly things, but is also criticized for enjoying them or trying to make them more significant for herself. The woman's erasure becomes clear with her revelation in the fifth pa ragraph, when she states that she is building herself away from her husband. Upton describes the removal of the wife from the home in Edson's work, stating that: As we have seen, Edson presents victimized characters of both sexes, but his analysis of coerc ive power repeatedly makes clear the cultural vulnerability of women. Women are, in one way or another, expunged by political will, by the patriarchal family, and by metaphorical construction. (Upton 66) The woman in "The Woman's Work" is facing being expu nged from the patriarchal
49 family in more than one sense. Her husband spends the entirety of the prose poem trying to silence her and is, in the end, successful, as he gets the final and longest piece of dialogue. In the end, as a result of his continued an d increasing hostility, the woman attempts a sort of self removal by wishing herself away from him. "A Red Mustache" is similar to "The Woman's Work," in that both prose poems begin with female characters announcing their desire to make their domestic rol e something out of the ordinary. In "A Red Mustache," Edson again describes a married couple in a similar condition, though rather than oppressing a wife with a belligerent husband (as in "The Woman's Work"), the woman is, in some ways, allowed to be an au thority. A heavy woman with a rolling pin said, I am the king. A fly lighted on her nose. She hit the fly on her nose with her rolling pin. Do not disturb her highness with trivialities, she said, as the blood from her nose formed a red mustache. Dar ling, said her husband, you have a red mustache. The woman who is king backed up. Her husband watched her red mustache. The woman who is king came forward. Her husband watched her red mustache and said, darling, what's with the red mustache? I am king of everything, she said, I am king Mama. And the rolling pin, dearest? he said. Is the scepter of brutality, she said.
50 And the apron and the hair in its greasy little bun? he said. Which is the fortress and the image that people shall come to fear, she said. And the red mustache, so outlandish on a fat middle aged hausfrau? he said. The red mustache which you constantly refer to is the sign of office, the change of gender, the self inflicted blow, the secondary hair of my manhood, the end of my menopause, the return to maidenhood, the cerebral menses from my nose instead of my under part she said. But what about the red mustache? he said. If you really must know I killed a fly on my nose with a rolling pin, she said. No you di dn't, he flying around on the ceiling, he said. Oh look, he's on your head, she said. Hold it, he screamed. I must kill it, she said. No, don't, he screamed. It'll get on my nose, she said. Oh please clean the blood off your face and cook dinne r, he screamed. Oh oh oh, she cried, I do not know what to do. Oh oh oh Wash your face, he said.
51 No, that is not a thing to do, oh oh oh, she cried. Well what is it, suddenly, with that red mustache? he said. Oh I want to be loved more than all things else, oh oh oh she cried. (Edson, "The Very Thing" 45) The differences between "The Woman's Work" and "A Red Mustache" are made clear, when the husband in "A Red Mustache" enters the scene. Rather than immediately becoming enraged, the husband, while asking his wife about the rolling pin she is wielding, calls her by the pet names "darling" and "dearest" and treats her to a calm, pseudo sympathetic condescension. However, his tone begins to change when she describes her rolling pin as th e "scepter of brutality" and her apron and bun as "the fortress and the image that people shall come to fear." Once her kingly delusions become threatening and it becomes clear that she wants to use her domestic tools in order to exert a masculine, fear ba sed authority, the husband is no longer able to maintain his composure. The husband, resorting to belittl ement and insults, again asks about the red mustache. The wife's response to her husband's growing hostility is especially telling While in "The Wom an's Work," Edson alludes to a deeper, more complex struggle between the husband and wife, the wife in "A Red Mustache" provides a sincere and revealing insight into the situation. Although Edson's characters are typically static and nondescript, this wife becomes something more than just a silhouette. Though still representing a type, the wife gains some depth when she is given the longest piece of dialogue in the prose poem, which is used to communicate her genuine need to feel appreciated. She describes the red mustache as being simultaneously her
52 "change of gender" and her "return to maidenhood." Although this seem s contradictory, both gesture towards a power that the wife lacks. A "change of gender" would allow her to assume a traditionally authoritativ e, almost tyrannical role in the household. However, a reversal of her menopause and a "return to maidenhood" offers the wife a more subtle power, the possibility of using her youth and attractiveness as a manipulative tool. The husband then asks, yet aga in, why she has a red mustache. By repeating this question, Edson has created a male character that parodies the prototypical chauvinist husband who is incapable of communicating and understanding female emotions. The husband dismisses his wife's dissatisf action and her attempt at changing her role in the household. He asks a question about her physical appearance with the expectation of receiving a simple answer and, if he does not receive this answer, he chooses to repeat his question until he's offered t he satisfactory response. However, the husband never actually accepts any of his wife's answers to his question about her red mustache. When she finally submits and gives him the answer that he wants, saying If you really must know I killed a fly on my no se with a rolling pin," he takes the opportunity to further invalidate and humiliate her by pointing out that she had not successfully bested the fly. Her realization that the fly is actually on her husband's head seems to mark the moment in the prose poem when it becomes clear that both characters are unstable. The husband, now screaming, is afraid of his wife, as she is threatening the safety of not only his head, but also his dinner. Despite this, the poem ends with the husband returning to calm and his wife amidst what can only be described as an emotional breakdown.
53 Edson tends to end his poems with the last bit of dialogue belonging to the husband, as evidenced by "The Woman's Work," "The Odd Wife," and "Of the Snake and the Horse," which stresses the unequal gender dynamic present. However, in "A Red Mustache," the wife is allowed to have the last word and this, when paired with the husband's repeating his question, "Well what is it, suddenly, with that red mustache," emphasizes the woman's vulnerabil ity. Though the wife does not gain agency in the end of the prose poem, the fact that she was given the last word implies that there is some hope for her. Ultimately, though, Edson leaves her essentially as powerless as she was at the beginning of the pros e poem. Edson and Simic use various aspects of the domestic power struggles and other relationships between married couples, scenes of the home, and so on along with humor, absurdity, and direct language in their prose poems. Because of their narrative mo de, their works oftentimes tend to read more like short prose or flash fiction than prose poetry. However, the fact that they read this way does not make them lesser prose poets. Edson and Simic both pay significant amounts of attention to determining the language used in their prose poems, similar to Ponge and Stein. However, this language is applied in such a fashion as to read more prosaically because of a preference for more narrative constructions. Rather, Edson and Simic simply chose to determine thei r own boundaries differently than the other prose poets. Ultimately, this it what is meant by the freedom in prose poetry.
54 CONCLUSION When I first began this thesis, I had intended to focus my research solely on Russell Edson's work. However, it became immediately obvious that there were other questions that needed to be addressed before that would be possible. In order to understand what an Edson prose poem is, one must first understand what a prose poem is in general. In trying to define the prose poe m, I came to realize how complex the form is and, because of this complexity, it became apparent that the best way to approach the issue would be to discuss Edson's work in a broader context, against the prose poems of other writers. Therefore, rather than attempting to write about Edson's work in a vacuum, I chose an aspect of his work that I personally found both interesting and representational of his work (his use of the domestic) and aimed to determine how it appeared in the works of other prose poets. Ultimately, I uncovered a trend, starting with the birth of prose poetry. As I discussed in the introduction, Charles Baudelaire popularized the form when he hoped to find an experimental way of writing to capture the city and it has since evolved into t he nearly boundless form that it is today. I chose to concentrate on domesticity in prose poetry because I assumed that the histories of both prose poetry and domesticity had advanced in an almost identical fashion. Though I am now confident that the relat ionship between prose poetry and domestic life is not parallel, it is not a coincidence that the domestic sphere frequently appears in many prose poets' works. This thesis includes only a small fraction of the works of Gertrude
55 Stein, Francis Ponge, Russel l Edson, and Charles Simic, but nonetheless shows that there is a distinct attraction to the home that appears in their works.
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