Prose With a Poet’s Head
Visionary Head of Corinna The Theban, William Blake, c. 1820
From Gray Wolf Press:
This is a short talk with a long list inside it, mostly in sentences, not lines, or in sentences that occasionally aspire to lines. Lines and sentences: even now, nonfiction—including nonfiction by poets—is approached by readers, and sometimes by writers, chiefly as information, argument, or anecdote, the formal aspects of language and prose a sort of ornamental afterthought, as though the real action of nonfiction transpired peripherally, perhaps reluctantly, through words. During an interview in the current Paris Review—incidentally only the ninth Paris Review nonfiction writer interview, contrasted to at least 99 for poetry and 227 for fiction—Luc Sante focuses some of the elusive idiosyncrasies here, remarking: “All writing is an activity that occurs on the page. It cannot merely be a transcription of something thought about in advance. Because it’s already dead at that point. If it’s been thought through, it’s a corpse. Ideas have to be wrestled with then and there.”
“Already dead. . . . a corpse. . . . wrestled”—Sante’s spirited phrasing shapes a hard-boiled reformulation of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous invocation of a poem as a mind thinking. Elsewhere in this Paris Review interview Sante signals that he too, the author of Low Life, Factory of Facts, and most recently The Other Paris, and although pretty much exclusively a nonfiction writer, is calculating poetry when writing prose. As Sante continues:
“I write prose with a poet’s head. . . . Without sounding utterly pretentious, I do think of almost everything I write as a poem—certainly all three of my big books. The chapters are strophes. It’s not an account. It’s not a history. I’m not a historian—I’ve never pretended to be one—and I’m not giving a definitive account of anything. It’s a very, very subjective approach to the past, to a certain time and place. It’s carved in a particular way. It favors certain narratives over certain others. It’s intended above all else to be an experience.”
For me, as a poet and also as a nonfiction writer—mostly of essays, biography, and criticism—Sante’s observations are immensely appealing, and instantly familiar. I read a lot of prose, fiction and nonfiction, watch a lot of movies, but everything I know about writing prose comes from reading and writing poems—and this is true of large organization conundrums, such as form, design, and structure, as well as local cavils, such as diction, sounds, pauses, breaks, and rhythm.