The Poetry of Joseph Zaccardi







Off the Coast, Winter 2016 Review:

Not Prose Poetry Poetry

A Wolf Stands Alone in Water by Joseph Zaccardi (Cincinnati, OH: CW Books, 2015), 103 pages, paper). ISBN: 978-1625-4915-96.

I have been accused of "detesting" prose poetry. "Not so," my partner and co-editor replied. "He doesn't like bad prose poetry." So let me use the occasion of this review to explain.

If we think of prose poetry and poetry proper as lying on a continuum, Joseph Zaccardi's book is just a small step on the mid-line between the two. Certainly he stands on the poetry side of that line, but his poetry is very prosey. For example, "Loss" on page 96.

There is knowledge and knowing,

there is order and there is giving

and taking. The flower obeys the laws

of nature, whether opening in full season

or the wilting in abandonment.

There is reason and choice.

What grieves is the knowledge.

It is what separates.

If Zaccardi has a style, this is it, the plain statement of Yoda explaining something to Grasshopper. Or perhaps it is translation missing the many beauties of language while successfully, though flatly, setting forth truths. Clarity abounds, but music does not. It is like Moses holding up the terse lines of the Ten Commandments with no musical score supporting the drama of the moment. Or to be harsh, it may be cognitively definitive, denotative Wittgenstein would say, but stripped of the elevating figures of speech many of us seem to have forgotten are in the Greek. We learn half a dozen and deplore them for their limited applicability. I think of the film "My Dinner with Andre" where two mediocre minds try to impress us with their conversation.

If this poetry is at the middle ground of the continuum, and all that is missing is beyond, then what of prose poetry on the other side of the line? First of all, if Zaccardi's poetry lacks music, feeling, and form, are those characteristics sufficient to raise prose to the level of being considered poetic? I would also like to see prose set forth more poetically, that is, being unconstrained by sense in the old ways of that term in the school book titled Sound and Sense. Yes, for good prose poetry I want to sacrifice sense to sound. For those of us who write poetry, that is a hard sacrifice to make. It's not exactly opening ourselves to "Jabberwocky" but…well yes, it might be. Can we go far enough into the prose poetry side of the continuum to lose our cognitive sense and let the others run free to play?

In a way, a prose poet is like a circus performer who frees him or herself from gravity. It generates the "Oh" after the explosion of the fireworks. That's not a rational thing, but we do it, and because we do, it is accepted, even communal in much the same way we share poetry at the ritual meetings of our lives—weddings, funerals, major historical events. That is why we have poets laureate and not prose poets laureate.

Probably the best prose poet I have ever known is Maxine Chernoff who was a creative writer at the University of Illinois—Chicago, and whom I now think is in San Francisco. Her use of language sings. The words and their possibilities dance around each other. Although she approaches meaning in the same way Proust's writing entangles itself like a symphony, her work is not so much thought as felt. Good prose poetry is art, as simply seen and felt as a lone wolf standing in water.

Michael Brown

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