First of April, called on this, the holiest of mountain shrines. Originally this mountain known as Nikō, “Two Wastes Mountain,” but when Kūkai Daishi dedicated the shrine here, he renamed it, Nikkō, “the bright beams of the sun.” Perhaps with presentiment those thousand years ago of the splendor today gracing our skies and the blessings extended to the eight directions to the four classes of citizens living in peace. To say more would violate the shrine’s holiness.
O glorious green leaves young leaves’ sun light
So reports the sixth section of Narrow Road to the North,i the seventeenth-century Japanese poet Basho’s last travel narrative and the most well-known mixed form work in translation in the United States. Alternating diaristic paragraphs with the briefest of poetic forms, the haiku, Basho’s accounts of his lengthy pilgrimages on the roads of Japan are the formal model for numerous American works, including, to name a few recent examples, Forrest Gander’s Core Samples from the World, a sequence in fiction writer Michael Martone’s latest, Four For a Quarter, and, in Evening Will Come, the December 2012 essays of the Trans / Queer Issue.
As Aristotle has it, when we change the form of a thing, we change its purpose. In Basho’s haibun, as the Japanese form is called, the prose paragraph and the line have a shared purpose. Yet, as the example above illustrates, the mixed form’s shift between prose and verse is dialectic—the separate forms frame and translate each other. Above, the prose narrates the writer’s movement through the world and into the moment of lyric consciousness that the line of haiku formalizes. A kind of call and response ensues. When “to say more would violate the shrine’s holiness,” the writer moves to a divergent register of speech.
American writers of the prose poem and the lyric essay blur the border between poetry and prose by doing away with the poetic line and the line break. Mixed form writers, on the other hand, redefine the boundaries of the poetic line and the prose paragraph by alternating them, a strategy that takes advantage of their manifold functions.
What are the purposes of verse and prose today, when prose, which long ago superseded verse in narrative function, now often lays claim to lyric function? And how do these changes in purpose play into the shifts in perspective, voice, and positioning of the “I” and author effected in contemporary mixed form writing?
Another question: why the apparent renaissance of mixed form writing in the past fifteen years? In their article “The Nature of Verse and its Consequences for the Mixed Form,” Kristin Hanson and Paul Kiparskyii observe rises in mixed form during periods across literary history when the functions of prose and verse become revaluated, particularly as prose comes into dominance as the primary narrative form. “It appears to be at these junctures,” they claim, “when the capabilities of prose and verse are uppermost in writers’ minds, that the mixed form especially flourishes.” Hence the large number of important mixed form works in the early and middle ages of European literary history. But what about now?
Are we in a similar juncture in American writing today?
With such questions in mind, I offer in this issue the thrilling calls and responses of Jesse Ball, Martine Bellen, Julie Carr, C. S. Giscombe, Joyelle McSweeney, Cole Swensen, and Susan Tichy. Each of these writers draws new figures from the paragraph and line together, delineating new purposes, voices, and routes, in new mixed form.
Satyricon, Petronius (Latin, 1st century, AD)
The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius (Latin, 524)
The Tosa Diary, Ki no Tsurayuki (Japanese, 935)
The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu (Japanese, 1012)
Cosmographia, Bernardus Silvestris (Latin, c. 1150)
The Flowing Light of the Godhead, Mechthild of Magdeburg (Middle High German, c. 1250)
Vita Nuova, Dante (Italian, 1295))
The Mirror of Simple Souls, Margaret Porette (Old French, c. 1325)
Journey to the West, author unknown (Chinese, c. 1550)
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Henry David Thoreau (1849)
Good-bye My Fancy (Second Annex) and elsewhere in Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman (1891)
Cane, Jean Toomer (1923)
Spring and All, William Carlos Williams (1923)
“A”, Louis Zukofsky (1927-78)
Stanzas in Meditation and Henry James, Gertrude Stein (1932)
In Parenthesis, David Jones (1937)
Paterson, William Carlos Williams (1946-63)
The Maximus Poems, Charles Olson (1950-70)
Homage to Creeley, Jack Spicer (1959)
Life Studies, Robert Lowell (1960)
Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov (1962)
The Tennis Court Oath, John Ashbery (1962)
Some Recent Poetry
Tales of Murasaki and Other Poems, Martine Bellen
100 Notes on Violence, Julie Carr
“The Anthropology of Water” in Plainwater, Anne Carson
Dictee, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
Prairie Style, C. S. Giscombe
Dancing in Odessa, Ilya Kaminsky
Percussion Grenade, Joyelle McSweeney
The Separate Notebooks (and many other poems in the Collected), Czesław Miłosz
The Glass Age, Cole Swensen
One With Others, C D Wright
Some Recent Prose
Picnic in Ten Year’s Time, Jesse Ball
A Lovers Discourse, Roland Barthes
Possession, A. S. Byatt
Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson
AVA, Carole Maso
Jane, A Murder, Maggie Nelson
Petrolio: A Novel, Pier Paolo Pasolini
The Pink Institution, Selah Saterstrom
Some Recent Criticism
Verse with Prose from Petronius to Dante, Peter Dronke
Prosimetrum: Crosscultural Perspectives on Narrative in Prose and Verse, eds. Joseph Harris and Karl Reichl
i The translation from Basho’s Narrow Road to Northern Towns is an adaptation of Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu’s, and Nuboyuki Yausa’s.
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iiHanson, Kristin and Paul Kiparsky. “The Nature of Verse and its Consequences for the Mixed Form.” Prosimetrum: Crosscultural Perspectives on Narrative in Prose and Verse. Eds. Joseph Harris and Karl Reichl. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1997: 17-44.
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