Where the Stress FallsEssays
By Susan Sontag
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2001 Susan Sontag
All right reserved.
"I would be nothing without the Russian nineteenth century ...," Camus declared, in 1958, in a letter of homage to Pasternak - one of the constellation of magnificent writers whose work, along with the annals of their tragic destinies, preserved, recovered, discovered in translation over the past twenty-five years, has made the Russian twentieth century an event that is (or will prove to be) equally formative and, it being our century as well, far more importunate, impinging.
The Russian nineteenth century that changed our souls was an achievement of prose writers. Its twentieth century has been, mostly, an achievement of poets - but not only an achievement in poetry. About their prose the poets espoused the most passionate opinions: any ideal of seriousness inevitably seethes with dispraise. Pasternak in the last decades of his life dismissed as horribly modernist and self-conscious the splendid, subtle memoiristic prose of his youth (like Safe Conduct), while proclaiming the novel he was then working on, Doctor Zhivago, to be the most authentic and complete of all his writings, beside which his poetry was nothing in comparison. More typically, the poets were committed to a definition of poetry as an enterprise of such inherent superiority (the highest aim of literature, the highest condition of language) that any work in prose became an inferior venture - as if prose were always a communication, a service activity. "Instruction is the nerve of prose," Mandelstam wrote in an early essay, so that "what may be meaningful to the prose writer or essayist, the poet finds absolutely meaningless." While prose writers are obliged to address themselves to the concrete audience of their contemporaries, poetry as a whole has a more or less distant, unknown addressee, says Mandelstam: "Exchanging signals with the planet Mars ... is a task worthy of a lyric poet."
Tsvetaeva shares this sense of poetry as the apex of literary endeavor - which means identifying all great writing, even if prose, as poetry. "Pushkin was a poet," she concludes her essay "Pushkin and Pugachev" (1937), and "nowhere was he the poet with such force as in the 'classical' prose of The Captain's Daughter."
The same would-be paradox with which Tsvetaeva sums up her love for Pushkin's novella is elaborated by Joseph Brodsky in his essay prefacing the collected edition (in Russian) of Tsvetaeva's prose: being great prose, it must be described as "the continuation of poetry with other means." Like earlier great Russian poets, Brodsky requires for his definition of poetry a caricatural Other: the slack mental condition he equates with prose. Assuming a privative standard of prose, and of the poet's motives for turning to prose ("something usually dictated by economic considerations, 'dry spells,' or more rarely by polemical necessity"), in contrast to the most exalted, prescriptive standard of poetry (whose "true subject" is "absolute objects and absolute feelings"), it is inevitable that the poet be regarded as the aristocrat of letters, the prose writer the bourgeois or plebeian; that - another of Brodsky's images - poetry be aviation, prose the infantry.
Such a definition of poetry is actually a tautology - as if prose were identical with the "prosaic." And "prosaic" as a term of denigration, meaning dull, commonplace, ordinary, tame, is precisely a Romantic idea. (The OED gives 1813 as its earliest use in this figurative sense.) In the "defense of poetry" that is one of the signature themes of the Romantic literatures of Western Europe, poetry is a form of both language and being: an ideal of intensity, absolute candor, nobility, heroism.
The republic of letters is, in reality, an aristocracy. And "poet" has always been a titre de noblesse. But in the Romantic era, the poet's nobility ceased to be synonymous with superiority as such and acquired an adversary role: the poet as the avatar of freedom. The Romantics invented the writer as hero, a figure central to Russian literature (which does not get under way until the early nineteenth century); and, as it happened, history made of rhetoric a reality. The great Russian writers are heroes - they have no choice if they are to be great writers - and Russian literature has continued to breed Romantic notions of the poet. To the modern Russian poets, poetry defends nonconformity, freedom, individuality against the social, the wretched vulgar present, the communal drone. (It is as if prose in its true state were, finally, the State.) No wonder they go on insisting on the absoluteness of poetry and its radical difference from prose.
Prose is to Poetry, said Valéry, as walking is to dancing - Romantic assumptions about poetry's inherent superiority hardly being confined to the great Russian poets. For the poet to turn to prose, says Brodsky, is always a falling off, "like the shift from full gallop to a trot." The contrast is not just one of velocity, of course, but one of mass: lyric poetry's compactness versus the sheer extendedness of prose. (That virtuoso of extended prose, of the art of anti-laconicism, Gertrude Stein, said that poetry is nouns, prose is verbs. In other words, the distinctive genius of poetry is naming, that of prose, to show movement, process, time - past, present, and future.) The collected prose of any major poet who has written major prose - Valéry, Rilke, Brecht, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva - is far bulkier than his or her collected poems. There is something equivalent in literature to the prestige the Romantics conferred on thinness.
That poets regularly produce prose, while prose writers rarely write poetry, is not, as Brodsky argues, evidence of poetry's superiority. According to Brodsky, "The poet, in principle, is 'higher' than the prose writer ... because a hard-up poet can sit down and compose an article, whereas in similar straits a prose writer would hardly give thought to a poem." But the point surely is not that writing poetry is less well paid than writing prose but that it is special - the marginalizing of poetry and its audience; that what was once considered a normal skill, like playing a musical instrument, now seems the province of the difficult and the intimidating. Not only prose writers but cultivated people generally no longer write poetry. (As poetry is no longer, as a matter of course, something to memorize.) Modern performance in literature is partly shaped by the widespread discrediting of the idea of literary virtuosity; by a very real loss of virtuosity. It now seems utterly extraordinary that anyone can write brilliant prose in more than one language; we marvel at a Nabokov, a Beckett, a Cabrera Infante - but until two centuries ago such virtuosity would have been taken for granted. So, until recently, was the ability to write poetry as well as prose.
In the twentieth century, writing poems tends to be a dalliance of a prose writer's youth (Joyce, Beckett, Nabokov ... ) or an activity practiced with the left hand (Borges, Updike ... ). Being a poet is assumed to be more than writing poetry, even great poetry: Lawrence and Brecht, who wrote great poems, are not generally considered great poets. Being a poet is to define oneself as, to persist (against odds) in being, only a poet. Thus, the one generally acknowledged instance in twentieth-century literature of a great prose writer who was also a great poet, Thomas Hardy, is someone who renounced writing novels in order to write poetry. (Hardy ceased to be a prose writer. He became a poet.) In that sense the Romantic notion of the poet, as someone who has a maximal relation to poetry, has prevailed; and not only among the modern Russian writers.
An exception is made for criticism, however. The poet who is also a master practitioner of the critical essay loses no status as a poet; from Blok to Brodsky, most of the major Russian poets have written splendid critical prose. Indeed, since the Romantic era, most of the truly influential critics have been poets: Coleridge, Baudelaire, Valéry, Eliot. That other forms of prose are more rarely attempted marks a great difference from the Romantic era. A Goethe or Pushkin or Leopardi, who wrote both great poetry and great (non-critical) prose, did not seem odd or presumptuous. But the bifurcation of standards for prose in succeeding literary generations - the emergence of a minority tradition of "art" prose, the ascendancy of illiterate and para-literate prose - has made that kind of accomplishment far more anomalous.
Actually, the frontier between prose and poetry has become more and more permeable - unified by the ethos of maximalism characteristic of the modern artist: to create work that goes as far as it can go. The standard that seems eminently appropriate to lyric poetry, according to which poems may be regarded as linguistic artifacts to which nothing further can be done, now influences much of what is distinctively modern in prose. Precisely as prose, since Flaubert, has aspired to some of the intensity, velocity, and lexical inevitability of poetry, there seems a greater need to shore up the two-party system in literature, to distinguish prose from poetry, and to oppose them.
Why it is prose, not poetry, that is always on the defensive is that the party of prose seems at best an ad hoc coalition. How can one not be suspicious of a label that now encompasses the essay, the memoir, the novel or short story, the play? Prose is not just a ghostly category, a state of language defined negatively, by its opposite: poetry. ("Tout ce qui n' est point prose est vers, et tout ce qui n' est point vers est prose," as the philosophy teacher in Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme proclaims, so that the bourgeois can discover that all his life has been - surprise! - speaking prose.) Now it is a catchall for a panoply of literary forms that, in their modern evolution and high-speed dissolution, one no longer knows how to name. As a term used to describe what Tsvetaeva wrote that couldn't be called poetry, "prose" is a relatively recent notion. When essays no longer seem like what used to be called essays, and long and short fictions no longer like what used to be called novels and stories, we call them prose.