Poetry and prose

If you’re not a regular reader of Shawna Lemay’s Transactions With Beauty, you’re missing out on one of the most exquisitely thought-provoking conversations on the web—about writing, reading, art, meditation, public libraries, life—illustrated always with Shawna’s extraordinary photographs. The blog’s tagline is an imperative the poet and novelist clearly lives by, and her readers can take it as inspiration, marching orders, or both: You are required to make something beautiful.

Photo by Shawna Lemay

Photo by Shawna Lemay, used with permission

Shawna makes something beautiful every time she posts. This week she asks “What Can a Poem Be?” In reply, she renders silent poems, short, condensed poems, and poems that take decades to write. Quoting Jane Hirshfield discussing a phrase by Chuang-tzu, she contemplates poetry as a strategy of “entering the cage without setting the birds off singing.” (I’ll have to think deeply about that the next time I try to enter the chicken coop without setting the birds off clucking.)

A poet who also writes fiction, Shawna broaches the line between poetry and prose, which reminds me of how Anne Carson once compared the two:

If prose is a house, poetry is a man on fire running quite fast through it.

Elsewhere Shawna talks about how the practice and discipline of poetry makes prose writers better by expanding our capacity to pay attention. The journalist Stephen Hume, who started out as a poet, recommends it to his students as a way to practice distilling a sentence or a scene to its sparest essence.

Lately I’ve been writing three lines of poetry a day. I was inspired to start after listening to Naomi Shihab Nye interviewed by Krista Tippett on On Being. “Your Life is a Poem” is a gorgeous conversation. In it, Nye suggests how to approach a practice of three daily lines: They don’t have to be great or important, they don’t have to relate to one another, and you don’t have to show them to anyone.  [But] you will find out what you notice. Uncanny connections will be made visible to you.

This is true, I’ve discovered, and I’m surprised how often those tentative, scribbled lines grow into a poem. Once I’ve written them down, they accompany me all day, insinuating themselves into my thoughts and my other writing. I’m experimenting with blurring the line between poetry and prose. Right now I’m working on a nonfiction piece that tells a story through poetry, prose, archival records, and photographs—a kind of mixed media collage, which is another form of creative expression I’m playing with.

Shawna doesn’t say it flat out, but a poem can be play. Here’s what she wants her poem to be:

I want it to be comfortable in its own skin. I want my poem to be a movie, or a glimpse of a bird flying out of a birdcage. Was it a bird? I want my poem to be wild and wooly and huge. I want it to be Houdini, escaping from chains, and then from an underwater chamber, and then taking a deep breath, emerging from the depths. I want it to be a can of tomato soup, emerging whole, but then needing to be whisked with milk, uncongealed, warmed. I want my poem to be a chameleon, and I want it to be a wild horse on the Camargue. I want my poem to be an espresso, a shot of ouzo. I want my poem to know there’s no lay off, and there’s no letting it off the hook, I want my poem to know it’s the crack where the light gets in, and that there will never be a last verse.

Shawna Lemay has published seven books of poetry and a novel. The Globe and Mail describes Rumi and the Red Handbag, which I’ve mentioned before, as “a lovely and lyrical novel about a mysterious young woman who works in a subterranean second-hand clothing boutique.” I would dispute the G&M reviewer’s assertion that, at its heart, “it’s really about vintage clothes as repositories of memory, hope and enchantment.” But read it and see what you think. If you like fiction that reads like poetry, or if you like to ponder questions like “What is the soul?” while wearing vintage clothes, I promise you’ll enjoy it.

Now go make something beautiful.

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