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  • Carrie Etter

Spacing, Timing, and Juxtaposition in Prose and Lined Poetry

Lately I've been talking a lot about prose poetry: I'm teaching a Fortnightly Feedback course for The Poetry School focused on prose poems; last autumn I started a Prose Poets group on Facebook; and I'm slowly researching a contemporary history of prose poetry in the UK and Ireland. At the same time, I've been reading a lot of craft essays, from rereading some of Ron Silliman's The New Sentence to an essay I've relished teaching in recent years, Denise Levertov's "On the Function of the Line."

I've been trying to compare where and how the types of breaks used in prose poetry--of spaces, slashes, and the end of a sentence--resemble enjambment and end-stopping in lined poems. I recently revised a first-year poetry lecture on the line which summarised the key effects of enjambment as surprise, suspense, and polysemy (the evocation of multiple meanings). I've described the use of slashes in prose poems as creating a kind of juddering akin to what Levertov describes as the leap from thought to thought that enjambment can emulate and evoke, a kind of abrupt pause, an intake of breath, but I think the slash in prose works differently than the space at the end of a line--the slash more quickly propels one forward, whereas enjambment, depending on its handling, can allow for a longer pause (so a line break between modifier and noun would not allow for much pause, but a line break at the end of a complete phrase would be longer). By contrast, I'm not sure the blank spaces within prose poems can be compared to enjambment--you can see what's coming, and you may have the briefest space, but you are quickly propelled forward.

But what about the end of a sentence in a prose poem, where there is a full stop or period? It clearly isn't the pause of an end-stopped line followed by white space, and yet, partly thinking of Silliman here, it has a discreteness that isolates it within the prose paragraph. When the prose poem works syllogistically, as Silliman suggests in The New Sentence, so that the terms of one sentence reappear in later sentences and suggest new relations, the full stop or period works less like an end stop, more like an enjambment, as the expectation of repetition and change develops.

At this point I'm just thinking out loud and trying to evaluate these techniques both for myself personally, for my own practice, and for those I teach, but I thought this might be a good place for a little public rumination and perhaps further conversation about how we use these techniques. More anon....

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