Friday, December 6, 2019

Flash and the prose poem

I remember the first time I read/heard a prose poem and was suddenly enveloped with a sense of oh, okay, this is a thing.

At Calvin College’s Festival of Faith & Writing I sat in an auditorium and heard Stephen Dunn in discussion with Scott Cairns about “At The Smithville Methodist Church.” I imagined this poem as a piece of prose. I saw how easily it told the story of a moment.

Immediately I thought two things: 1) why can’t I do this? And 2) would this be okay?

The answer to both is of course. We are “allowed” to try anything.

I was also at this point deep into Robert Bly and the form called ghazal—and how it meanders and leads us back, round and round to a certain place. I imagined a prose poem much like a ghazal—that unwittingly tricks us into a small epiphany, by mostly juxtapositioning 2 seemingly unrelated ideas, the contrast showing them up more clearly and recasting them in a different light, possibly a third way.

I love these moments. That crack us wide open to new possibilities.

From the Poetry Foundation website: A prose composition that, while not broken into verse lines, demonstrates other traits such as symbols, metaphors, and other figures of speech common to poetry.

At The Smithville Methodist Church by Stephen Dunn
It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week,
but when she came home
with the "Jesus Saves" button, we knew what art
was up, what ancient craft.

She liked her little friends. She liked the songs
they sang when they weren't
twisting and folding paper into dolls.
What could be so bad?

Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith
in good men was what
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism,
that other sadness.

OK, we said, One week. But when she came home
singing "Jesus loves me,
the Bible tells me so," it was time to talk.
Could we say Jesus

doesn't love you? Could I tell her the Bible
is a great book certain people use
to make you feel bad? We sent her back
without a word.

It had been so long since we believed, so long
since we needed Jesus
as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was
sufficiently dead,

that our children would think of him like Lincoln
or Thomas Jefferson.
Soon it became clear to us: you can't teach disbelief
to a child,

only wonderful stories, and we hadn't a story
nearly as good.
On parents' night there were the Arts & Crafts
all spread out

like appetizers. Then we took our seats
in the church
and the children sang a song about the Ark,
and Hallelujah

and one in which they had to jump up and down
for Jesus.
I can't remember ever feeling so uncertain
about what's comic, what's serious.

Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes.
You can't say to your child
"Evolution loves you." The story stinks
of extinction and nothing

exciting happens for centuries. I didn't have
a wonderful story for my child
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car
she sang the songs,

occasionally standing up for Jesus.
There was nothing to do
but drive, ride it out, sing along
in silence.

Image result for stephen dunn, prose poem, at smithville
Stephen Dunn

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