Are poems just cut-up sentences? Let’s look at the work of a poet who does precisely that.
Philip Levine’s sixty-three line poem, Scouting, is composed of fourteen complete sentences which vary in their number of lines in the poem from one to eight. The longest sentence contains a total of forty-two words but each line is truncated after five or at most eight words. Seven of those fourteen sentences are enjambed, and all are arranged on short, centred lines with no breaks into verses. The line breaks throw into relief the last word of a line — nothing, somewhere, I, woman — creating powerful compact phrases within the flow of the narrative. This poem, like many in his collection, What Work Is, has concision and depth and suggests a much larger story.
The poetic narrative begins with ‘the man who gets off the bus’. Levine is that man and he meets a woman who asks him what he wants. The memory of that question, 40 years after she asks him, takes on a new meaning when he declares to us that ‘No,/ it was yesterday…’ and all the details are still available to him. His poem, seemingly staying close to memory and storytelling, goes ‘higher up the mountain’ and ‘nowhere, in darkness’. The ‘you’ he addresses in the poem, appearing at first to be the reader, may be read as his earlier self and also as the older writer addressed by that earlier self. Levine is clear that he doesn’t have the answers to the many questions that resonate in this short poem; he’s ‘scouting, getting the feel of the land’. The accretion of rhythmically written, connotative sentences builds into a fully realized poem.
Is prose simply a series of sentences that aren’t cut up? If ‘prose’ is made up of these personal, allusive and powerful sentences, in this particular order, with these considered line lengths, then let’s call it poetry.