For the most part, I’m tired of reading traditional collections of lyric poems. I’m talking about the standard 64-112 page book that’s the bread-and-butter of most poetry publishers.
These days, I’m drawn more to chapbooks, flash fiction, collaborations, and hybrid prose-poetry works (prosimetrum). Because I’m working on my own prosimetrum projects, I’ve been interested in what seems to be a basic technical question:
How do you transition from prose to verse and back again?
The simplest answer is, you don’t. Transitions aren’t a necessity. You can simply switch it up anytime and let the switch itself be the transition. No introduction. No explanation.
Montaigne does this all the time in his essays. When he quotes someone, he just throws it in there. It’s thematically related to the subject, but he doesn’t spend any time explaining how the quote relates. It’s meant to be self-evident. For example, in Of anger, he writes:
Among other things, how many times have I had a good mind, as I passed along our streets, to set up some trick to avenge little boys that I saw being flayed, knocked down, and bruised by some father or mother in a fury and frenzy of anger! You can see the fire and rage coming out of their eyes —
Burning with rage within, they’re borne
Down headlong, just like boulders from a mountain torn;
The ground gives way beneath, the hanging slope falls in
(and according to Hippocrates, the most dangerous maladies ar those which disfigure the face) …
But if you like transitions, and you want to incorporate transitions into your hybrid works, what models are available?
I’ve started collecting examples, which I hope to put together in a useful list for anyone interested, along with a crude typology, so writers have some place to start.
The examples I’ve collected so far come from English translations of Japanese diaries, travelogues, and zuihitsu. My interest in prosimetrum began with Bashō, so I am working my way through similar and adjacent works for inspiration.
A Common Transition is “I Wrote a Poem”
Bashō hardly ever relies on transitions, but when he does (or his translators do), it’s often some form of “Then I wrote:”
This straightforward strategy is employed also by Sei Shōnagon, author of The Pillow Book.
Meanwhile, the messenger was urging me to make a swift reply. And indeed it would make a bad poem even worse to take too long in sending it, so I threw caution to the winds and wrote in a trembling hand:
In other words, the author announces they are about to write a poem, and they the poem follows. It’s the most common transition I’ve found so far, but there are others, and they are often more interesting.
- The Complete Essays of Montaigne by Michel de Montaigne, tr. Donald M. Frame, Stanford University Press, 1958
- Narrow Road to the Interior by Matuso Bashō, tr. Sam Hamill, Shambhala Publications, 1998.
- The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon, tr. Meredith McKinney, Penguin Classics, 2006.