A Verse-Case Scenario

As social commentary the Herald's "Police Report" is without peer.
But is it art?
We asked that very question of John Balaban, director of the University of Miami's graduate writing program in fiction and poetry.

"A minimal definition of poetry is the best words in the best order," posits Balaban, sitting in the tiny cube that is his office on the university's Coral Gables campus. After Our War, a collection of his poetry that was nominated for the National Book Award, rests on a shelf behind his cluttered desk.

Actual police incident reports, from which the Herald harvests its twice-weekly crop, are written by police officers for a specific purpose: to document the particulars of an alleged crime. What's missing? Who got hurt? Where did it happen? Herald Neighbors reporters preserve this minimalism as they go about condensing and assembling it.

Because the resulting items are so Spartan, Balaban suggests viewing them as haiku. Though this traditional Japanese minimalist form dictates that each poem consist of seventeen syllables (usually arranged as five syllables followed by seven syllables followed by five), the professor isn't such a stickler. For purposes of evaluating their artistic merit, he says, paring down the published works to a haiku-like style will do.

First he strips the writing to its barest elements, excising all unnecessary words. A typical example: "Someone broke into a home to take a shower and eat between 7:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Tuesday in the 8000 block of NW First Place. The hungry intruder entered the home by forcing a living-room window open." Under Balaban's expert hand this becomes:

Someone broke into a home
to take a shower and eat
in the 8000 block of Northwest First Place

Having crafted a well-structured supply, Balaban scans the pieces for universal themes. "Basho-, the great haiku master, talks about really successful haiku having a quality he calls 'impersonal loneliness,' or sabi," he muses. "So that you get a sense of the human condition in the haiku: If there is something sad or distressing that's happening, it doesn't have to do with the personality or the person in the poem only, but that person's distress or situation implies something that affects all people."

A man's life savings was stolen
when some friends got together to drink
and listen to music

The man's friends brought along a stranger
to the party, he took the man's jacket
which contained $8800 in cash

"Oh, God, this is awful. It's this detail," Balaban remarks, underlining the sum of money stolen. "Most of us live at an economic level where losing $8800, and imagining it as your only savings, is pretty disastrous. The drama around it is here.

"There is another haiku restriction that sometimes appears, called kireji, or 'cutting word,'" he continues. "And you can find them in here in terms like 'punched out'":

A thief punched out
the locks to a 1989 Toyota Camry
while it was parked in the driveway of a home
Tuesday. A $420 cellular telephone is gone

"You can call that a caredgi word that stands out and brings the whole thing into some kind of excitement that wouldn't be there if that particular word were not used," Balaban notes.

He mentions a classic haiku that involves two old men raking blossoms. Right above their white hair as they rake hang the white blossoms of a cherry tree. This is a subtle reminder of life's fragility, absent from most police reports. (Though the threat of death makes regular appearances, it usually comes with unpoetic force. "Give me your money or I'll blow you away" is a common example.) Yet the reports do often contain enlightening information:

A man walked into Deli Lane Restaurant
ordered cole slaw, fruit, a piece of watermelon,
cheesecake, a hamburger, and a beer
$23.32 worth of food in all
Then he refused to pay the cashier
Police were called and the man was arrested

"These are wonderful, these details," says Balaban, noting with a chuckle that the restaurant is near where he lives. "Why do they think the reader cares that he ate cole slaw, fruit, a piece of watermelon, cheesecake, a hamburger, and a beer? That's what makes it human and alive. There is some extra interest and drama that this writer is putting into it. If you take poetry to mean literature, then in the most reduced way these tell some dramas, even funny ones, about not necessarily funny aspects of the human condition."

But poetry demands more than interest and drama. "There's something about poetry that we don't require so much of fiction, although it occurs in fiction too," Balaban explains. "There's a music to the words and a special excitement to the diction. And it's a condensation of what we expect it to say."

He looks up from the stack of Neighbors sections in front of him. Glancing out his office window at the students hustling to their classes, he takes a deep breath. "It's not here," he says finally, with disappointment. "There are poetic moments and poetic ideas, but -- it's not poetry."

-- Robert Andrew Powell

Poet John Balaban found excitement, drama, and watermelon in the "Police Report


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