We have a wishing well back behind our barn. Toss in a penny and you get to make a one sentence wish. For a dime you can talk as long as you like. You don’t actually get answers from the well, and it sure as hell doesn’t fulfill your requests, but it does listen well—ha-ha. Listen well, get it? Truth is, it works better with abstract ideas than with gross material requests. You want a new bicycle, you’re better off with Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. Want to know why bad things happen to good people, and you might get your answer. We used to say, you can wish for anything you want, just so long as it’s a nice cool drink of water. There used to be a kid that lived next door named Donald McKenzie. One night he fell into the well and broke both his hands trying to stop his fall. Spent all night down there, freezing his butt in the well water. We think he was trying to drown our cat, also named McKenzie. Nasty little boy. ‘You see,’ the joke went. ‘It does answer your wishes.’ McKenzie, the cat, lived to be almost 20. The McKenzie family and their precious little Donald moved back to Wisconsin maybe a year later. Donald became a lawyer—which is why I had to disguise his name. It’s actually MacKenzie.
Tonight, I’m going to go for the full dime. You listen for it to hit the water, and then say, ‘Wish I may, wish I might, make this wish come true tonight.’ Then you lean over as far as you can into the well and make scary sounds. In the echoes you can to say what you want.
What I’m asking about tonight is this. Well, I’d like to know what a prose poem is.
The well is pretty prompt: Why do you care? It asks.
Then: There is an obvious answer.
Yeah, I know. It’s a prose that uses the techniques of poetry. It’s prose that has as its goal the same goal as a poem.
Well, says the Well, you’ve got an efficient cause and a final cause. What move can I do for you? It’s your dime.
Okay, I say. Here’s the thing. I get comfortable. It’s a nice night. This is why I love the well. Look up ‘prose’ and you’re apt to get this sort of definition: Ordinary speech or writing, without metrical structure. Look up ‘poetry’, wow: A piece of literature written in meter; verse. I guess we’d better look up meter too: The measured arrangement of words in poetry, as by accentual rhythm, syllabic quantity, or the number of syllables in a line…
For one, they define themselves against each other. ‘I am what you’re not’ kind of thing…
Well: Let’s not get the Mackenzie thing going again.
No, no. And second, the whole thing seems to come down to this idea of a line. Poetry measures out what it says in accents and beats. Du-duh, du-duh, du-duh, du-duh, du-duh. Like iambic pentameter, you know, and it puts these measures into lines…
It can’t be that. It can’t just be a line. Poetry is about metaphor, it’s about control and loss of control. Poetry is about feelings, hopes and dreams. It’s about difficult thought, it’s about expression. It’s about confession. About wishing.
Well: You don’t need me to tell you that prose can be about these things too.
You know how Euclid defines a ‘line’? According to Euclid a line is “a breathless length”.
Well: Now Jackson, you know that’s geometry. A mathematical definition. Don’t confuse magisteria.
Here, listen, I say. I got this on the web. You can even follow the link if you’re online. It’s by Keston Sutherland, the poet.
Quote: Prose cannot normally be imagined to have porous edges liable to be penetrated or broken through by lines that suddenly qualify as “verse”; I don’t know how to conceive it yet, but the function of that smashable edge must be somehow to introduce a generic contingency or blur, so that we are never fully “in prose”. Unquote.
The Well suddenly grows—how shall I say?—cagey. What makes you think, it asks, I’m online?
Well, there’s that little 4G tag next to the oaken bucket. And you know, you’re able to pull up a lot of stuff. Got a lot of stuff down there, Wishing.
Well: If you’ve come out here to talk about Jeopardy…
No, not Jeopardy. I understand you two are sort of in competition, questions and answers, all that, but no…
Well: You know my first name is actually ‘Watson’? Watson Well. That ‘Wishing’ thing, a lot of nonsense. I just project back what you are thinking.
Whatever, I say.
Okay, Watson. You want me to call you Watson?
Well: Or Mr. Well.
Prose is just poetry with long lines, I say. Mister Well. In geometry, a line is an edge. Right? It defines two planes, but it has no width.
Well: I read somewhere that a ‘poetic line’ is akin to a furrow. That when you plow the land, you are doing something akin to poetry…
Well: You know, a line without breath as used to define two planes…it rather works in a poetry context. A line articulates the planes. It brings what once was mute to the mind. It cuts across reality. It takes its depth and breadth from what it describes. Handmaiden to tears…
I will quote Waldo Emerson, I say. Listen well.
For it is not meters but meter making argument that makes a poem—a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.
Well, as if to himself:
A handmaiden to tears,
not meters, not years—
a sudden seizure in the dusk, the moon,
Me, looking down in the maw of the well: Hello? You with me here?
Well: Sorry. ‘A handmaiden to tears’, it sort of struck me, you know. It’s what wishing wells are all about, you know. All those hopes, all those tears, I’d give the whole thing back to God…if I could…think about it, believing that a well…a hole in the earth…
Me: No, Watson, I understand. To live with the hopes of mankind is to be a handmaiden to tears. Maybe the real difference is in hope. All poetry is hope, is it not? Hope and praise. What else can we do? Into the maw of hell…
Well: I do see what you’re saying, Jackson. Poetry has something to do with the thickness of words. The custard, the mountains. To put them on a breathless length…no, you’re right. What was that quote from Mr. Sutherland?
Prose cannot normally be imagined to have porous edges liable to be penetrated or broken through by lines that suddenly qualify as “verse”.
Well: Yes it can. Helped by the Handmaiden. Perhaps that is what poetry does. It underwrites prose.
Me: You’re too modest to say it. Poetry is the wellspring of prose. In the great ecology of articulation.
Well: Life without tears…
Me: …as it is wept.
But look, the morn in russet mantle clad
walks o’er the dew…
Ripeness is all, I say.
The rest is silence, says Mister Watson ‘Wishing’ Well.
Well, the well is full this morning.
Indeed, gentlemen, I say, peering in to its glen. ‘We are adjourned.’