Monday, August 31, 2015

`The Sort of Person Who Would Prose Away'

In D.J. Enright’s poetry collection Under the Circumstances (1991), he titles a prose interlude, naturally enough, “Prose.” It reads, in part: 

“Between courses a venerable oriental silently proffered his car. It described him a `Proser.’ One hid one’s smiles behind one’s chopsticks. From which dangled something unidentifiable but delicious. 

“Evidently the sort of person who would prose away, weighing the pros and cons! Who for certain boring reasons, probably prudential, would rather not be deemed a poet, sometimes labeled Rhymester or Versifier. 

“Later, having recourse to one’s Oxford Dictionary, one actually discovered the word there, much to one’s disbelief. `A writer of prose.’ Going back hundreds of years. One simply hadn’t recognized it, among all those exotic dishes.” 

Please, Enright is not guilty of “orientalism.” He taught for years in Japan, Thailand and Singapore, and knew their people more intimately than most Westerners. He’s right, of course, about the OED, which defines proser as “a writer of prose,” though my spell-check software doesn’t recognize it.  (Nor does it recognize prosiast, which is almost as funny as prosit, and promptly changed it to prosiest). The first citation for proser, dated “?1614,” is from a poem, and not just any poem but one central to the Western poetic tradition – Chapman’s Homer (Odyssey): “This Prozer Dionysius, and the rest of these graue, and reputatiuely learned.” Subsequent citations are also of interest: 

The Battaile of Agincourt (1627) by Michael Drayton: “And surely Nashe, though he a Proser were / A branch of Lawrell yet deserues to beare.” 

The Feast of Poets (1815) by Leigh Hunt: “Such prosers as Johnson, and rhymers as Dryden.” 

Leaves from My Journal in Italy and Elsewhere (1854) by James Russell Lowell: “Poets and prosers have alike compared her [sc. Italy] to a beautiful woman.”
Later citations carry a satiric tang. Proser, perhaps in part because it echoes poser, seems to have become a term of comic condescension, a puffed-up appellation, which brings us to its second definition: “A person who proses; a person who talks or writes in a dull or tiresome manner.” Its first citation comes from 1769, a century and a half after Chapman’s Homer. I’m guessing it was a matter of status. Poetry was somehow more elevated, more elegant and respectable than mere prose. Of course, there was a time when that was true. Today, most poetry is prosaic and too much prose is poetic. At their best, poetry and prose share some of the same virtues – concision, precision, musicality. My guiltiest wish is that I could someday write memorable poetry. Unlike most people who share that aspiration, I know it will never happen. For now, as I’ve said before, I’m proud to be a proser.

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