EN 214 (Lyric)
December 7, 2003
Is Lucky’s Monologue Poetry?
In Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, the character named Lucky utters a puzzling monologue (see Appendix A) when ordered to think. The monologue must be a challenge to the actor because of its length (over 700 words), the lack of punctuation, and the apparent randomness of the utterances. It is loaded with puns and possible meanings in the context of a play in which the dialogue leads nowhere.
One of several scholars trying to find meaning in the play, M. Worton wrote about our desire to make the monologue a central source of sense among the nonsense:
“the reader nonetheless senses that there are connections to be made, just as one senses that Lucky's speech must have a logical argument hidden within the incoherence. This sense is, however, a product of the cultural history that has taught us to seek for meaning, for a cause-and-effect logic.” (Worton)
As there is no dialogue between Lucky and the other characters of the play, the monologue stands on its own, as an event that they could not control nor predict. I would like to look at the monologue and see if it could stand on its own, outside the play, as what could be called a prose poem, thereby arguing that three genres (drama, prose, and poetry) could be mixed in the same literary work, further questioning the borders that separate them.
It may not be surprising that Beckett himself wanted to prevent the actors from acting their roles (lost reference), a requirement which would reduce the dramatic aspects of the work and enhance the poetics (literary as well as visual). The stage directions are simple, but essentially reflect the tone of the text, as with typographic details a poet may impose on a poem. One could ultimately produce a staging of the play that minimizes the interpretation of the text, as when we read poetry and try to avoid finding obvious meanings in it.
The connection between drama and the lyric genre may have existed since the early days of the Greek tragedies, but in this paper I intend to extract a piece of the drama, claim it as prose, and then call it a prose poem. One could also argue that the entire play could be called poetic, but we will only look at the monologue out of context, independently of the play as one would with Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” for example.
In The Prose Poem and the Ideology
of Genre, M. Delville asserts that “any attempt at a single, monolithic
definition of the genre would be doomed to failure” (Delville). It is almost as if a Prose Poem would be so
because someone says so. Indeed, in
Delville’s quote of the
“PROSE POEM (poem in prose). A composition able to have any or all the features of the lyric, except that it is put on the page--though not conceived of--as prose. It differs from poetic prose in that it is short and compact, from free verse in that it has no line breaks, from a short prose passage in that it has, usually, more pronounced rhythms, sonorous effects, imagery, and density of expression. It may contain even inner rhyme and metrical runs. Its length, generally, is from half a page (one or two paragraphs) to three or four pages, i.e., that of the average lyrical poem. If it is any longer, the tensions and impact are forfeited, and it becomes--more or less poetic--prose. The term "prose poem" has been applied irresponsibly to anything from the Bible to a novel by Faulkner, but should be used only to designate a highly conscious (sometimes even self-conscious) art form. ” (Delville)
The earliest collection of prose poems available would be Beaudelaire’s Paris Spleen. In Beaudelaire’s prose poems, one can observe the complete departure from the traditional verse form without sacrificing the language quality that is typical of poetry. The poems are short and do not bother with prosaic features such as setting the scene, or establishing a thesis and a synthesis. They are simply one step beyond free verse. To show one example of the poems, I translated the one called “Get Yourself Drunk” (see Appendix B), in which the speaker recommends getting drunk “with wine, poetry, or virtue” to be unaware of Time. It is not an essay to demonstrate the needs to get oneself intoxicated, for its language is poetic with its rich imagery (“ask the wind,” … “everything that moans,” …) and its lack of convincing arguments to support a thesis.
In his introduction to Paris Spleen, Jacques Lemaire indicates that “it is with Beaudelaire, then Rimbaud, and finally the surrealists that the genre established itself” (Lemaire, my translation). It is not surprising, then, to find prose poems by Samuel Beckett. Here are the eight first sentences of his prose poem “One Evening”:
“He was found lying on the ground. No one had missed him. No one was looking for him. An old woman found him. To put it vaguely. It happened so long ago. She was straying in search of wild flowers. Yellow only.” (Beckett 1980)
From these first sentences, we can see that he is telling us a story in fragments that the reader is free to put together or otherwise. In the complete poem (see Appendix C), one will notice the repetition of entire phrases (e.g. “No one had missed him”) taking different tones but somehow connected (e.g. “that seems to hang together”).
Prose poetry was first introduced in the English language as translations from the French. The first English original prose poems were authored by Ernest Dowson, William Sharp (a.k.a. Fiona Macleod) and Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s Poems in Prose sound like parables (see “The Master” in Appendix D), short stories in a biblical style in which one will notice the extensive use of the conjunction “and” at the beginning of almost every phrase. Since they are not exact copies of biblical events, one is left wondering about who the characters represent, and where did Wilde branch off. It also seems that the sentence structure and Wilde’s style in the prose poems do not differ greatly from his other poems. The difference may lie on the poet’s choice of line-breaking, which in this case has been abandoned to the larger paragraph-making. it just made more sense to the author to extend a thought to paragraph length.
Prose poetry in English has been mostly ignored by critics, except when authored by well-known poets like Gertrude Stein with her collection Tender Buttons. The following is an excerpt from the poem called “Objects”:
Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle. So then the order is that a white way of being round is something suggesting a pin and is it disappointing, it is not, it is so rudimentary to be analysed and see a fine substance strangely, it is so earnest to have a green point not to red but to point again.” (Stein)
There are 58 headers similar to “A BOX” in the poem, some referring to objects, but some not: “A FRIGHTFUL RELEASE” for example. Each header is followed by prose varying in length from one paragraph-sentence to nine multi-sentence paragraphs.
The hybrid genre gained limited popularity. In 1992, a publication called The Best of the Prose Poem: An International Journal has been published yearly, although it seems the last one was published in 2000 and there was not going to be one in 2001 (Johnson). In fact, the web site indicates that submissions are no longer accepted (webdelsol). Even though there may not be enough interest to justify the existence of a journal, prose poems are regularly published. The anthology Postmodern American Poetry features a few poems by Carla Harryman, John Yau, Charles Bernstein, and Bernadette Mayer, as well as an excerpt from Ron Silliman’s book-length “Tjanting,” a prose poem which is written following the Fibonacci number sequence (the number of sentences in a paragraph is determined by the sum of the number of sentences in the previous two paragraphs). Here are the first four paragraphs, obviously a rapidly growing sequence (Silliman):
I started over & over. Not this.
Last week I wrote “the muscles in my palm so sore from halving the rump roast I cld barely grip the pen.” What then? This morning my lip is blisterd.
The prolific Robert Bly has published three collections of prose poems: The Morning Glory, This Body Made of Camphor and Gopherwood, and What Have I Ever Lost by Dying. The poem “A Hollow Tree” from this last collection can be found in Appendix E.
The anthology The Best American Poetry 2001 contains a few prose poems, among which Lydia Davis’ “A Mown Lawn” which plays on variations of the title words (see Appendix F). Yet the genre evolves to merge with others: Amy England’s “The Art of the Snake Story” is made of ten paragraphs, numbered with Roman numerals, with two snake-shaped stanzas A and B placed after IV and IX.
Although some stream-of-consciousness writing could qualify in the broad category, it would seem that the consciousness would need to be of an actual person instead of fictitious, thereby eliminating Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury from it. On the other hand, Bernadette Mayer’s The Desires of Mothers To Please Others in Letters would probably qualify. But what differences would cause one to be pushed back to prose while including the other in poetry? The argument that one is strictly fiction does not necessarily hold since most of the prose poems we have seen so far are not particularly relating of actual events. I would argue that in The Sound and the Fury, the story is simply told from different points of view in different “languages” and that whether one language is poetic or not is left to interpretation.
We are left with the simple tool of differentiation in order to decide what is prose poetry and what is not. Judging from the difficulties an author would encounter in publishing prose poetry (as simple as “what shelf does it fit on at the bookstore?”) the hybrid is not likely to grow into its own distinct genre. It is more likely to appear in (progressive) Literary Reviews which accept and invite submissions of alternative genres (“quicktion,” “short shorts,” etc.).
Lucky’s Monologue as Prose Poem
“A Poem is not ‘about’ something, a paraphrasable narrative, symbolic nexus, or theme; rather, it is the actuality of words” wrote P. Hoover in his introduction to the anthology Postmodern American Poetry. This statement could not apply more fittingly to Lucky’s Monologue.
We have already seen that Beckett authored prose poetry at least later in his life, after Waiting for Godot, and that generally the text and the settings of his plays were loaded with imagery. Lucky’s Monologue is a kind of stream-of-consciousness from a fictitious mind, and is loaded with puns and allegories. It resembles what the surrealists called automatic writing, in which the poet would write as quickly as possible everything that went through his mind without thinking.
Beckett himself would not let us know if our guesses at interpreting his plays were correct. However, he is reported to have asked actors not to act, and to focus only on the text (Worton). This would be similar to a poet insisting on the typographical aspects of a poem and on reading it himself to an audience.
V. Mercier in her book Beckett / Beckett noted the presence of meter in a passage extracted from the monologue, supporting the thesis that it contains lyrical features:
“But as an audience loses the thread of the progressively more disrupted sentence, it ceases to try to understand and is swept away by the verbal torrent which, in English, breaks down into the heavily accented dimeters already noted in Beckett’s free verse:
the air the earth
the sea the earth
abode of stones
in the great deeps
the great cold
on sea on land
and in the air
for reasons unknown
in spite of the tennis
the facts are there
but time will tell. . . . ” (Mercier)
A. Vassiliou in his paper “Language in ‘Waiting for Godot’” indicated how repetition was used to structure the speech:
“Despite its apparent haphazardness, however, the speech is carefully structured around recurrent phrases and words. The particular phrase ‘for reasons unknown’ recurs more often than any other” (Vassiliou)
H. Cockerham in his paper “Bilingual Playwright” notes that the names of
people in the monologue can correspond to several different people and
relationships through the fact that Beckett wrote it in both French and
English. For example, “Puncher and
Wattman” either correspond to the two employees on a tramway or to actual
people such as James Watt and Louis Poinsot (Cockerham). An actual Irish person, Bishop Berkeley, and
Some of the other names used may have coarser connotations (Testew and Cunard, Fartov and Belcher, Possy) and lend to passages that may make one’s mother blush:
“… that man in Possy of Testew and Cunard that man in Essy that man in short that man in brief in spite of the strides of alimentation and defecation wastes and pines wastes and pines …” (Beckett, 1956)
Yet, as with any poem, it is impossible to determine the exact meaning of the lines, and in this case which words to ignore in order to build new, more meaningful interpretations that scholars have delighted searching for. This monologue can be taken apart in many ways to generate what would be acceptable poetry with plenty of material for critics to analyze. Interestingly enough, it would be in a work of deconstruction that reconstruction would be possible: can one experiment with separating the noise (or what may be interpreted as such) from what the reader thinks is the meaningful text? Do we have, in Lucky’s monologue, a “poetry construction set” in a sense of not only “found words” but found expressions and associations? That would perhaps be a goal in the performance of this monologue, as while it is read the audience is distracted by the rest of the scene, letting the words make an imprint in the listener’s brain in the surrealist tradition. In that sense, the poem’s message, passed as words that do not make immediate sense, would penetrate the listener’s unconscious and remain there, a bit like what has been said of subliminal messages. Whether it was Beckett’s intention will never be known.
S., “One Evening” in Journal of Beckett
Studies, No. 6, Autumn 1980,
S., Waiting for
H., “Bilingual Playwright” in Worth, ed., Beckett
the Shape Changer: A Symposium London/Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul
1975. Cited in http://www.geocities.com/kamikaze_contralto/Godot/text_files/Pozzo_Lucky.html
M., “The Prose Poem and the Ideology of Genre,” Del Sol Review, No. 3, http://www.webdelsol.com/Del_Sol_Review/epicks3/delville.htm
P., Introduction to The Best of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, Vol. 9.
J., Introduction to Le Spleen de Paris, http://www.poetes.com/baud/SpleenParis0.htm
V., Beckett /
Gertrude. Tender Buttons.
A., “Language in ‘Waiting for Godot’” in Journal
of Beckett Studies, No. 8, Autumn 1982, Florida State University. http://www.english.fsu.edu/jobs/num08/Num8Velissariou.htm
The Prose Poem: An International Journal,
Web Issue V, http://www.webdelsol.com/tpp/
O., Poems in Prose, in Complete Works of Oscar Wilde,
M., “Waiting for Godot and Endgame: Theatre as Text,” in
Pilling, J., ed. The
C., Le Spleen de Paris, http://www.poetes.com/baud/SpleenParis0.htm,
R., What Have I Ever Lost by Dying?
M., “Strange Tales and Bitter Emergencies: A Few Notes on the Prose Poem” in
Finch, A., Varnes, K., ed., An Exaltation
of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of their Art,
R., Lehman, D., The Best American Poetry
Grace Irish Library, Samuel Beckett:
G., “Christ’s Body of Evidence,” http://samuel-beckett.net/godot_greg.html,
Lucky’s Monologue from Waiting for Godot
LUCKY: Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell and suffers like the divine Miranda with those who for reasons unknown but time will tell are plunged in torment plunged in fire whose fire flames if that continues and who can doubt it will fire the firmament that is to say blast heaven to hell so blue still and calm so calm with a calm which even though intermittent is better than nothing but not so fast and considering what is more that as a result of the labours left unfinished crowned by the Acacacacademy of Anthropopopometry of Essy-in-Possy of Testew and Cunard it is established beyond all doubt all other doubt than that which clings to the labours of men that as a result of the labours unfinished of Testew and Cunard it is established as hereinafter but not so fast for reasons unknown that as a result of the public works of Puncher and Wattmann it is established beyond all doubt that in view of the labours of Fartov and Belcher left unfinished for reasons unknown of Testew and Cunard left unfinished it is established what many deny that man in Possy of Testew and Cunard that man in Essy that man in short that man in brief in spite of the strides of alimentation and defecation is seen to waste and pine waste and pine and concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown in spite of the strides of physical culture the practice of sports such as tennis football running cycling swimming flying floating riding gliding conating camogie skating tennis of all kinds dying flying sports of all sorts autumn summer winter winter tennis of all kinds hockey of all sorts penicilline and succedanea in a word I resume and concurrently simultaneously for reasons unknown to shrink and dwindle in spite of the tennis I resume flying gliding golf over nine and eighteen holes tennis of all sorts in a word for reasons unknown in Feckham Peckham Fulham Clapham namely concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown but time will tell to shrink and dwindle I resume Fulham Clapham in a word the dead loss per head since the death of Bishop Berkeley being to the tune of one inch four ounce per head approximately by and large more or less to the nearest decimal good measure round figures stark naked in the stockinged feet in Connemara in a word for reasons unknown no matter what matter the facts are there and considering what is more much more grave that in the light of the labours lost of Steinweg and Peterman it appears what is more much more grave that in the light the light the light of the labours lost of Steinweg and Peterman that in the plains in the mountains by the seas by the rivers running water running fire the air is the same and than the earth namely the air and then the earth in the great cold the great dark the air and the earth abode of stones in the great cold alas alas in the year of their Lord six hundred and something the air the earth the sea the earth abode of stones in the great deeps the great cold on sea on land and in the air I resume for reasons unknown in spite of the tennis the facts are there but time will tell I resume alas alas on on in short in fine on on abode of stones who can doubt it I resume but not so fast I resume the skull to shrink and waste and concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown in spite of the tennis on on the beard the flames the tears the stones so blue so calm alas alas on on the skull the skull the skull the skull in Connemara in spite of the tennis the labours abandoned left unfinished graver still abode of stones in a word I resume alas alas abandoned unfinished the skull the skull in Connemara in spite of the tennis the skull alas the stones Cunard (mêlée, final vociferations) tennis... the stones... so calm... Cunard... unfinished...
by Charles Beaudelaire
Mais de quoi? De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à votre guise. Mais enivrez-vous.
Et si quelquefois, sur les marches d'un palais, sur l'herbe verte d'un fossé, dans la solitude morne de votre chambre, vous vous réveillez, l'ivresse déjà diminuée ou disparue, demandez au vent, à la vague, à l'étoile, à l'oiseau, à l'horloge, à tout ce qui fuit, à tout ce qui gémit, à tout ce qui roule, à tout ce qui chante, à tout ce qui parle, demandez quelle heure il est; et le vent, la vague, l'étoile, l'oiseau, l'horloge, vous répondront: «Il est l'heure de s'enivrer! Pour n'être pas les esclaves martyrisés du Temps, enivrez-vous; enivrez-vous sans cesse! De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à votre guise!»
Get Yourself Drunk
One must always be intoxicated. That is it: the only matter. Not to feel the terrible burden of Time breaking your shoulders and bending you towards the ground, you must get drunk unceasingly.
But with what? With wine, poetry, or virtue, as you like. But do get drunk.
And if at times, on the steps of a palace, on the green grass of a ditch, in the gloomy solitude of your room, you wake up, the drunkenness already lower or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that flees, everything that moans, everything that rolls, everything that sings, everything that talks, ask what time it is; and the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, will answer you: “It is time to get drunk! Not to be the tormented slaves of Time, get drunk; get drunk constantly! With wine, poetry or virtue, as you like!”
by Samuel Beckett
He was found lying on the ground. No one had missed him. No one was looking for him. An old woman found him. To put it vaguely. It happened so long ago. She was straying in search of wild flowers. Yellow only. With no eyes but for these she stumbled on him lying there. He lay face downward and arms outspread. He wore a greatcoat in spite of the time of year. Hidden by the body a long row of buttons fastened it all the way down. Buttons of all shapes and sizes. Worn upright the skirts swept the ground. That seems to hang together. Near the head a hat lay askew on the ground. At once on its brim and crown. He lay inconspicuous in the greenish coat. To catch an eye searching from afar there was only the white head. May she have seen him somewhere before? Somewhere on his feet before? Not too fast. She was all in black. The hem of her long black skirt trailed in the grass. It was close of day. Should she now move away into the east her shadow would go before. A long black shadow. It was lambing time. But there were no lambs. She could see none. Were a third party to chance that way theirs were the only bodies he would see. First that of the old woman standing. Then on drawing near it lying on the ground. That seems to hang together. The deserted fields. The old woman all in black stockstill. The body stockstill on the ground. Yellow at the end of the black arm. The white hair in the grass. The east foundering in night. Not too fast. The weather. Sky overcast all day till evening. In the west-north-west near the verge already the sun came out at last. Rain? A few drops if you will. A few drops in the morning if you will. In the present to conclude. It happened so long ago. Cooped indoors all day she comes out with the sun. She makes haste to gain the fields. Surprised to have seen no one on the way she strays feverishly in search of the wild flowers. Feverishly seeing the imminence of night. She remarks with surprise the absence of lambs in great numbers here at this time of year. She is wearing the black she took on when widowed young. It is to reflower the grave she strays in search of the flowers he had loved. But for the need of yellow at the end of the black arm there would be none. There are therefore only as few as possible. This is for her the third surprise since she came out. For they grow in plenty here at this time of year. Her old friend her shadow irks her. So much so that she turns to face the sun. Any flower wide of her course she reaches sidelong. She craves for sundown to end and to stray freely again in the long afterglow. Further to her distress the familiar rustle of her long black skirt in the grass. She moves with half-closed eyes as if drawn on into the glare. She may say to herself it is too much strangeness for a single March or April evening. No one abroad. Not a single lamb. Scarcely a flower. Shadow and rustle irksome. And to crown all the shock of her foot against a body. Chance. No one had missed him. No one was looking for him. Black and green of the garments touching now. Near the white head the yellow of the few plucked flowers. The old sunlit face. Tableau vivant if you will. In its way. All is silent from now on. For as long as she cannot move. The sun disappears at last and with it all shadow. All shadow here. Slow fade of afterglow. Night without moon or stars. All that seems to hang together. But no more about it.
by Oscar Wilde
Now when the darkness came over the earth Joseph of Arimathea, having lighted a torch of pinewood, passed down from the hill into the valley. For he had business in his own home.
And kneeling on the flint stones
And he who had great possessions said to the young man who was naked and weeping, `I do not wonder that your sorrow is so great, for surely He was a just man.
And the young man answered, `It is not for Him that I am weeping, but for myself. I too have changed water into wine, and I have healed the leper and given sight to the blind. I have walked upon the waters, and from the dwellers in the tombs I have cast out devils. I have fed the hungry in the desert where there was no food, and I have raised the dead from their narrow houses, and at my bidding, and before a great multitude of people, a barren fig-tree withered away. All things that this man has done I have done also. And yet they have not crucified me.
A Hollow Tree
by Robert Bly
I bend over an old hollow cottonwood stump, still standing, waist high, and look inside. Early spring. Its Siamese temple walls are all brown and ancient. The walls have been worked on by the intricate ones. Inside the hollow walls there is privacy and secrecy, dim light. And yet some creature has died here.
On the temple floor feathers, gray feathers, many of them with a fluted white tip. Many feathers. In the silence many feathers.
from What Have I Ever
Lost by Dying?
A Mown Lawn
She hated a mown lawn. Maybe that was because mow was the reverse of wom,
the beginning of the name of what she was – a woman. A mown lawn had a sad sound to it, like a long moan.
From her, a mown lawn made
a long moan. Lawn
had some of the letters of man, though
the reverse of man would be
from Hass, R., Lehman, D., The Best American Poetry 2001,