The experience of leafing front-to-back through James Wright's Above The River: The Complete Poems unfolds like a case study in the development of free verse. Stephen Dobyns draws on Wright in his book, Best Words, Best Order: Essays On Poetry to illustrate a multitude of points in this regard. Wright's career not only spanned the pivotal time when free verse was gaining rapid popularity, but seems to have also helped define what makes free verse compelling. In particular, it occurs to me how many of Wright's later poems rely on elements of narrative and surprise that do not necessarily depend on the line break. In order to isolate and describe these elements, it is useful to look at his prose poems and prose excerpts. This one is particularly captivating:
On Having My Pocket Picked in Rome
These hands are desperate for me to stay alive. They do not want to lose me to the crowd. They know the slightest nudge on the wrong bone will cause me to look around and cry aloud. Therefore the hands grow cool and touch me lightly, lightly and accurately as a gypsy moth laying her larvae down in that foregone place where the tree is naked. It is only when the hands are gone, I will step out of this crowd and walk down the street, dimly aware of the dark infant strangers I carry in my own body. They spin their nests and live on me in their sleep.
The prose poem is a kind of extrapolation of many of the principles that can make a stichic (i.e. single-stanza, with line breaks) poem work well. Like the stichic poem, it often succeeds through internal tensions that build to final climax. In the case of "On Having My Pocket Picked in Rome," much of the tension is derived from beginning the poem in the middle of the main premise--that the pickpocket is like a gypsy moth or some other form of parasite inserting its young into the victim's body.
This premise succeeds on the strength of the metaphoric comparison, which works on many levels: the delicate work of the parasite compared to the delicate work of the pickpocket, the need to go unnoticed in both cases, the irony of both types of victims walking away unaware, and, of course, the sense of violation involved. The sense of violation involved in the literal act of having one's pocket picked is heightened to a revolting measure by being compared to having larvae inserted into "my" body that "spin their nests and live on me in their sleep."
In this climactic conclusion, the full strength of the metaphor is realized. By starting in the middle of this premise, the poem creates immediate tension which is simultaneously lessened as the meaning becomes more clear, and heightened as the full implications of the meaning slowly build--sentence by sentence--up to this chilling conclusion. The strength of the metaphor, and its careful unraveling throughout this prose poem, are sufficient to carry a transcendent impact--all without having to focus the reader on any unit of thought more unusual than the common sentence.
In fact, it is because the poem employs the same fundamental unit of thought as prose, and looks like an innocuous paragraph, that a further tension exists between the strangeness of the subject and the shape of the writing. In this way, we have a prose poem that realizes numerous potentials in the form while remaining unmistakably a poem, grounded in metaphor, sprinkled with internal rhyme and repetition, and building in a non-narrative fashion toward a conclusion and after-effect that transcend words.