Preferred Citation: Creeley, Robert. The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.

Notes for a New Prose

Notes for a New Prose

"Language is not reality but another of the instruments by which man engages reality  . . ."

It is, certainly, reasonable to comment that Joyce's earlier work presents no such divergence from normality as does, now, even the mention of his name. There is, to be got at, a straight line of impact, search, through the early work, the poems, the play (which is all 'idea') to the fact of Ulysses and then Finnegans Wake . It is useless to avoid it, or to mistake its point. Which must be: it is not the content which is changed. It is the extension of the content into form that has been tempered, made strong.

To go back. We had been led to believe that connotation was this: the suggestions of 'meaning' beyond the supposedly exact, denotative meaning which custom of usage had put upon the phrase or word in question. Then, by way of the opening created by 'associational' content of phrase, gesture, practice, ways, in short, METHOD—connotation became meaning versus meaning, became the fight for sense, in shorthand. (Some call this 'symbol.') "It isn't what the words mean. It's what they mean to you . . ."

Just so, with Joyce. That is, the possible suggestions (which can now be called: manifestations) of sense (which was about to become: value) became the criteria for an ultimate 'sense' (though no millennium). Because this was done with language, or, more strictly, within the words themselves, there we took our sight, a

Origin , no. 2, 1951.


bead on: what might be up. Wrong from the start, since it was not words for the sake of words, but, for the sake of what content, possible, might shape them, into sense. Taken as such, Joyce is the craftsman, casting about for a model, for the model—what is in the head. Not to make himself, but to make, what is in himself.

Form is the extension of content. This was the first rule.


"A man must create himself, if he is an artist, instrument also IN ORDER THAT his work be not expression but illumination  . . ."

Possible arguments for the supposition that poetry is, now, more able than prose, or more able to make itself an extension of the present context, this life, etc., have first to do with the fact of its ability, (1) to compress, and (2) to project supposition, as fact. In prose, the lean toward a 'solution' or a stasis of idea most usually marks the book as a failure; I mean, insofar as a writer of prose is willing to give space to this fixing of idea as the logical 'end' of movement, etc., just so far we usually won't go along with him. And I would figure that we are right. But we deny him, even so, the way out of it, this fix, or what could get him beyond these 'logics.' Take the idea of a man running alongside a train, taking notes yet. He would be about it, what is now expected—while the poet, at home, can project this iron monster to any place which may please him. It is, then, that we are still confused by the idea of 'reality' in prose. We do not as yet get the basic fact, that reality is just that which is believed, just as long as it is, believed. Poets are more used to this thing: reality as variants round the center, or, simply, what has been left us.

So how could a prose catch up? Difficult to make the competition actual. It isn't. Elsewhere, it had been pointed out that "poetry insists upon or suggests a quite different 'Universe': a universe of reciprocal relations . . ." The swing of idea, in stasis—is still poetry. But prose is the projection of ideas, in time. This does not mean that the projection must be an 'actual' one, date by date, etc. The word is law, is the creator, and what it can do, is what any prose can do. There is nothing more real, in essence, about a possible prose than there is about any possible poetry. The ordering of conjecture will remain as 'real' as the ordering of fact, given the right hand.

More to the point, to note the difference, again, between poetry and prose, one of the differences, since there are others as well. Po-


etry, as the formulation of content, in stasis; prose, as the formulation of content, in a progression, like that of time. This is a simple way of putting it. But sufficient to show that while poetry depends on the flux contained , held within the form, in stasis, prose may intend such a limiting but cannot justify one. It has no beginning or end. It has only the length it happens to have. "Might be continued . . ." Just here is the key to its possible reach, that, in spite of itself, it has to continue, keep going—cannot stop.

So, in some sense, the usual idea of beginning and end has put upon prose an order alien to its nature. This is not to imply a 'necessary chaos.' It means only that it is, by nature, against conclusions—or is (as nature is) intent only on its present. It is the breaking out, of context, of form, and down or back, always to the progression, enforced by the nature of its content, and so determined.

It has neither beginning nor end.


"Are we not automatic, to think that because prose—and—the—novel did, since the 18th, & conspicuously, in the 19th, & dyingly, in the 20th, do a major job, that it need now be fruitful ?"

As soon as the novel, as soon as prose, generally, supposed for itself, a context other than what it might, on each occasion make, it had done itself the greatest possible disservice. And this is not to be mistaken. We can note, perhaps, that while poetry may have combined itself in several, to mean, one thing worked in the hands of several men, at certain times with success, prose has never been effectual so taken, as a job, or so treated. I can remember the notes that Kafka had written about his attempt to write a novel with Brod—or the more amusing attempts of Dylan Thomas, etc. Certainly, the novelist hates his neighbor, hates him for writing, to begin with, and hates him doubly, for writing prose. Perhaps this is a false lead. It matters little except that it can clear the sense of the necessary singleness of the man who writes prose. And that any constriction, is too much.

The suggestion that record-making can now be taken as one of the major jobs of those that make prose is wrong only in its supposition that there exists any occupation for prose, prior to its coming. It is wrong in the same way that positing any 'frame' for prose


is wrong. Prose is a plausible and profitable instrument for making records. But stories? Novels? One wonders if it is to the point to set them an end before they have demonstrated their own. "As Rousset, e.g., wrote L'Univers concentrationnaire (not Les Jours de notre mort )—and, over a weekend, because he figured to die the next week of the Causes; or Martin-Chauffier, who has been a novelist, & who chose in L'Homme et la bête , to tell not even what he had heard others say (the last vestige of the novelist!) but only & precisely what had happened to him; vide Joe Gould . . ."

Joe Gould's HISTORY. One wonders. Or, who put him to such work? Joe Gould.

Pointless to argue such a thing. It is not that prose cannot be put to such work, that it hasn't that capability, that it couldn't deal with that end of things. Rather, like nothing else, it must be new. And if, say, tradition concerns itself with these frames, then prose has no tradition. None whatsoever. It should demand that it has none. More than we, or they, may have spoken.

It could be, has been, the collection of ideas. And nothing better, for such documentation. But records? It was the fact of its perspective, that made what it gave, of such, reliable. That it is without, frame. What makes it reliable. That it owns to no master, that it can't. Its terminals, ends, are fictitious. Someone dies. "It was the end of THAT period . . ." But continual, that it repeats, goes over and under, around. Has form, frame, only as it is such a going. As someone had said of Stendhal—it all fell into exact place, exact.

It stands by itself.


"The reason why, at this juncture of time, one fights so hard for prose is that it enables him to get in, to go by, that head of his, to let it play over his things, outside objects  . . ."

To go back to Joyce. To that mistaking we have made of him; and you may document this for yourselves or look to find who has made of those books something beyond the man who may have written them. Oddly enough, the most exact criticism of these things appeared at the same time that the books themselves did. At least, that first interest prevented the fatal preoccupations with the 'purpose,' of Joyce, with his own use, as symbol. At least for a time.

Speaking of James, Pound had written that the logic of the pieces


the former had written for the Yellow Book group was that need to push beyond the curve, in order to establish it. So, generally, position is established in prose, and intention. Hence, this idea of the assumed obliquity, itself a way of placing something, in the context. Is prose roundabout? It's not that question which should be asked. Any way could be the right one. What is got to, what is placed, would be the better thing to be asking, after it's done.

Again—de Gourmont's sentence, " . . . d'écrire franchement ce qu'ils pensent—seul plaisir d'un écrivain  . . ." And could it be less, granting it must be more?

A new prose . . . Better to think of this, only, as what may now come. I think we can hang on to those who have left us something strong enough to carry over into this time. Prose cannot exist free of its ability to apply; it can't be faked. So it would be that Stendhal can still give us the sense, or one sense, of the order, the 'form,' not to be taken as the form of poetry, nor as we come back to it, that more basic form of prose. There is the fact that the more correct translation of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground must be—"Notes from Under the Floor," or, "Out from the Cracks Like Any Roach."

Perhaps it will still be necessary to point to the fact that, while poetry will be the clear, the fact of the head, prose will be the coming, and going. Around. It is there that it can hit, beyond poetry. It is not a matter of better, or worse. There is no competition. The drift, in prose, and the way, of the swing, the reach—we have the necessary evidence, or I must believe we have.

   I am very old today, the sky is grey, I am not very well.
   Nothing can prevent madness.
   As an honourable man who abhors exaggeration, I do not know
what to do . . .

We begin, or end, there.


Notes for a New Prose

Preferred Citation: Creeley, Robert. The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.