from A CONVERSATION WITH B.H. FAIRCHILD
FOX: What would you say is the difference between poetry and prose? Many of your poems look like prose…
FAIRCHILD: Well, I hope they don’t sound like prose. It is true that I have written prose poems. I wouldn’t like to think that my poem poems are prose, although there’s a big difference between fictional prose and expository prose. Poetry does overlap with fictional prose. For instance, in Melville’s Moby Dick, there are large swatches of Shakespearian blank verse and you find when prose is raised to a certain level that it takes on the quality of poetry. There’s a great novel by James Agee called A Death in the Family which has a preface to it which is about as close as ordinary prose can get to poetry and if you wanted to call it poetry it would be fine. But the distinction is not between poetry and creative fictional prose, because they do overlap. The distinction is between poetry and expository prose. And expository prose is 99.999 percent of our lives; that’s the prose of magazines, of newspapers, and certainly if you’ve read legal prose, that’s one of the purest examples of completely referential expository prose.
FOX: Good point.
FAIRCHILD: The mode, the function, of that kind of prose—and again this dominates our life almost completely—is aboutness. In all of it, the function is to explain about something. And if we didn’t have that means of communication, in fact, we’d still be living in caves, but still, a lot of people are just surprised to think that language could have any function other than being about something. But sometimes—well, like me; when I was a boy, I began to think that there was something missing there. You could read Scientific American and it would explain String Theory but it was talking about it. And what poetry is engaged in, the kind of language it’s engaged in, is not the language of aboutness, it’s engaged in the language of isness. You’re not trying to point to something out there, and talk about it, you’re trying to actually put it right on the reader’s fingertips. The prose in a biology textbook is trying to tell you about the frog; the poem is trying to turn you into a frog. It’s trying to do the very difficult thing of trying to give you a sense of frogness. When you’re using referential prose, the ontological—excuse me for using that word, but the ontological experience and meaning of the thing is always dead to you if you’re just talking about it. There’s a big difference between telling somebody how much their investment has made over the year and putting them in the seat of a new Ferrari and letting them touch the leather and smell the new car and put it in first and feel that rush of power as they go out of the parking lot. I’m sorry, I don’t usually talk about Ferraris because I couldn’t afford one myself. [Fox laughs] I was talking with a friend the other day who owns one. But referential prose, expository prose, which dominates our minds, not only dominates our minds but actually brainwashes us into believing that’s all language can ever do. It can only point to things; they’re dead to you but you know about them. So poetry actually has to compete with that and it’s very hard to do because people whose minds are trained to process expository prose then are stymied when they come to a poem. And it’s not that the poem doesn’t want you to learn something but it wants you to learn it by seeing it and smelling it and tasting it and knowing the weight of the thing or whatever the ontological physical reality of the thing happens to be. So that’s a huge difference. And I think the word ontology is important there because it’s a radically different mode of being. Poetry’s job is to produce in the reader an order of being utterly different from the order of being that he is possessed by with ordinary explanatory prose. It’s a huge difference and it’s an important difference too because if you try to write a poem and you write it entirely in explanatory referential language, you’re going to get an absolutely dead poem. But if you’ve had legal experience you would know the value then of the kind of prose, meaning referential expository prose, that doesn’t bother you with the physical, concrete, perhaps emotionally distracting elements of the thing. As a lawyer you want language that is absolutely efficient, that will produce a clear picture of the interrelations of this particular case, this set of events, and the legal principles that undergird it, right?
FAIRCHILD: You’ve got to have it fast, you’ve got to have it clearly and in an explanatory way. This is not a mode in which the reader gets to lie about, experiencing the excitement of somebody who broke the law in a particularly curious and exciting fashion, something that could be= turned into a drama. You don’t want the drama right now, you want to get to the point. And poetry, or prose within poetry which would be like fictional prose, wants to slow you down. It wants to give you that whole world. It doesn’t want you just knowing that somebody broke the law by shooting somebody else, it wants you to smell the gunpowder. [laughs] It wants you to see the powder burns on the garment, it wants you to see the rage on the person’s face, etc.
FOX: Part of what you’re saying is that poetry is a much richer experience; it’s more all-encompassing.
FAIRCHILD: It’s supposed to be more than rich, it’s supposed to transform you. Here’s one way that I try to make this really elusive point—in other words, you’ve asked the question. You’ll go out into the world and you’ll have some really incredibly exciting experience. Maybe you’ve been in a car wreck or maybe you went to Vegas and you lost $50,000 in one evening or whatever it was, or maybe you won $50,000. And you come back to your house or apartment and immediately you’re overcome with the need to tell somebody this. Of course you will be telling them about it, though. So you’ll rush into the house and you’ll sit them down and you’ll say, “The most exciting thing happened to me,” and you’ll begin telling them about it, and pretty soon their eyes will begin to glaze over and then one of you will say, “Well, I guess you need to have been there.”
FAIRCHILD: Poetry is the being there. That’s about as abbreviated as I can make that.
—from Rattle #35, Summer 2011