Online Edition: Summer 1999

The Prose Poem

by Eric Lorberer

AS CHARLES SIMIC HAS WRITTEN, "The prose poem has the unusual distinction of being regarded with suspicion not only by the usual haters of poetry, but also by many poets themselves." It's true that as an oxymoron the prose poem declares war on genre, rocking a boat that would be kept steady by those in search of publishing contracts or tenure. Yet at the same time there is no denying that the prose poem has come into its own as a genre: more than one journal is devoted solely to its practice; reams of critical prose have been written analyzing (and not so tacitly supporting) its methodologies; and a few very good anthologies are in print, offering useful surveys of the form. Most significantly, since the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to the aforementioned Mr. Simic's 1989 book of prose poems, The World Doesn't End, the number of prose poem collections published has increased exponentially--a publishing explosion which has taught us that the prose poem is not one thing but many, a hydra-headed beast that in continuing to give pleasure will continue to elude definition.

Thus, in the midst of this prose poem renaissance, I offer here a few comments on some recent titles which I believe illustrate the wide diversity and growing potential of the form. I hasten to point out that I have left out dozens of other books, most notably new releases by Polish masters Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert--this because I wanted to place the authors discussed here on what may be a particularly American spectrum, encompassing traditional, personal, and experimental approaches to the prose poem. But I hope the books discussed here are representative of certain things going on in the vast universe of the prose poem, and that any books I've left out might, if placed in useful proximity to these, create interesting constellations.

T R A D I T I O N A L

If there is a tradition to the American prose poem, it is perhaps most readily identified with the post-surrealist vignettes published by figures such as Russell Edson, Robert Bly, and hordes of others--a wave that crested around the late sixties. Collecting work since this time period, Jack Anderson's Traffic: New and Selected Prose Poems (New Rivers Press, $14.95) is a textbook primer on the peculiarities of the form. Strengths are in abundance; the traditional prose poem tends to be absurdist yet darkly moving, fabulist yet subversive of narrative, and relatively short, all of which Anderson employs to great effect in poems such as "The Somnabulists' Hotel," "The Pregnant Teapot," or "Life on the Moon" ("Like anyplace else, it has its problems"). Metaphor is used or suggested relentlessly, often buttressing a dream logic, and language is powerfully yet unobtrusively measured out, hiding careful craft within seemingly straightforward sentences--as in "The White Chapter," which begins with dazzling economy and deftly buried rhymes: "In this part of the story you wake up and find that everything is white. Morning and evening alike, the sky will be washed by searchlights." Yet like its verse cousin, the prose poem can often be hokey rather than jokey--as in "Golden Moment" in which Anderson takes us through a Macy's Gold Toe sock sale and tries to convince us "I have just experienced a golden moment of epiphany." Nevertheless, Traffic assembles years of prose poems from a skilled practitioner.

Morton Marcus has also been publishing prose poems since their heyday, and his latest book, When People Could Fly (Hanging Loose Press, $13), is a meaty collection. More than most prose poets he flirts with the true prose genres: --a few of the pieces here feel like "sudden fictions"; even more feel like essays. Witness the beginning of "The Mussorgsky Question": "The Mussorgsky question is an intriguing one: Should he be taken seriously as a composer, or was he merely a talented dilletante?" The introduction of the absurdist trope that Mussorgsky was in reality a character invented by Dostoevsky and the attendant mini-narratives that cluster around this idea ("Periodically realizing that Mussorgsky was not where he had left him, Dostoevsky would hunt him down and bring him home…") do little to allay the tone of essay, however inventive. Marcus also has the tendency to preach in his poems ("Once people laughed all the time"--guess where that one is headed?), but when he gets right down to business ("There was a man who kicked the universe in the ass"), his parables are rich, humorous, and filled with lessons that are felt in the solar plexus rather than filed away in the intellect.

Should the reader think that what I am calling the traditional prose poem belongs entirely to previous generations, two recent books by Peter Johnson should correct the impression. Johnson, editor of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, plants himself firmly in the tradition, though he tends to be more metapoetic and more sarcastic than his forebearers, aspects that marry darkly in many of the poems from Pretty Happy! (White Pine Press, $12), such as "Poet Laureate":

They said they'd kill my son if I didn't go. It was gray as brain outside, and I could hear the caissons rolling. They tied me to a microphone and ordered me to say something startling. For a moment, the whole world hushed. Later, the President gave me the Genius Award and reunited me with my son, who himself was proclaimed a Wunderkind and given a little plastic crown to wear instead of the customary cap and bells.

Yet good as the poems in Pretty Happy! are, they are outdone by the suite offered in Love Poems for the Millenium (Quale Press $5), a subsequently released chapbook from a new publisher whose focus is prose poetry. Here, our hapless narrator travels the world with his (imaginary?) lover "Gigi," touring the major cities and seeing them through the lens of a deftly comic eroticism. But what really elevates these language-rich love poems above their predecessors is that they do not slow down; brimming with energy they race toward their own delight rather than making sure we get it. In a short preface Russell Edson claims that they are "poems that prove there is such a thing as the American prose poem," and though I wouldn't have thought to say this about any prose poems but Edson's own, he may well be right about these playful gems.

P E R S O N A L

It may strike some as odd that at the fulcrum of the traditional and the experimental should be the personal, but for the prose poem it is resolutely true; to speak from the first person in prose and end up with slices of poetry rather than (or at least in addition to) memoir is the great achievement of Stephen Berg's book Shaving (Four Way Books, $12.95). "It doesn't even matter who we are," the book opens, and indeed, the archetypes rise from the individual acts and thoughts remembered here to haunt us like ghosts. Too rambling to be tidy yet too lush to be journal-ese, Berg's prose poems present and investigate the unadorned "I" in all its activities: reading, talking, jerking off, facing death, demanding sex, shaving--in short, all those things by which we know ourselves to be ourselves. As Berg says of the charcoal portraits on the cover, these poems too "evolve to the death of self," cradling that motion in the fragile basket of memory and rushing it, coursing it through language, toward understanding. Never mind that Berg's desire is more romantic, a desire for "some essence of the self that wept and laughed, grateful for another's face, some chance at sanctity we can't stop revising like a hopeless poem that chokes us, some crumb of I, me you, her, us, some . . . something"; on every page his work enacts the more disturbing shadow of this desire: "Sometimes a kind of psalm--parable without ending, no point, no moral, nothing to use or live by--is what I hear, its rending unidentifiable brute tone, its plot of helpless non-human eyes meaning God knows what." Metaphysics aside, that Berg has imagined these 'parables without ending' into the discourse of the American prose poem is nothing short of amazing.

E X P E R I M E N T A L

It should be no surprise that "language poets" as well as lyric poets are attracted to the prose poem: if the key mechanism of verse is the line, then the key element of prose might be said to be syntax, and the prose poem offers a limitless field in which to experiment and play. I can think of few poets as familiar with the complexities of syntax as Rosmarie Waldrop; renowned as a translator as well as a poet, Waldrop has spent a lifetime de- and en- coding word combinations with a philosopher's acumen and a collagist's sense of composition. Her latest book, Split Infinites (Singing Horse Press, $14), presents three long sequences of prose poems bookended by two verse sequences. As elsewhere in her work, she eschews narrative from within the sentence rather than as a genre; thus referents and tenses shift in steady rhythms, and verbless descriptive fragments abound, as in this paragraph/stanza from the title poem:

Lilies with heavy pollen powdering priestly fingers. Indiscriminate application of adjectives. The next day my throat was swollen. To the extent that sex is in the mind I threw snowballs.

Knitted together by sound, Waldrops nouns ask us to place them in a memory centrifuge, much like a succession of jump cuts can create a singular coherent whole. And the repeated suggestion of history, personal and otherwise, give these poems a further anchor to ground their central tension: "How choose between drama and grammar? Blue jeans rather than tending a tree through summer and winter." That Waldrop walks this tightrope so nimbly makes Split Infinites a wonderful book, perhaps the best of its kind since Lyn Hejinian's legendary My Life.

Laynie Browne's The Agency of Wind (Avec Books, $12) also contains verse as well as prose, but its deployment of the prose poem is too unique to avoid mention here. With an overarching tale of a girl on hallucinatorily interesting travels, Browne's prose at times recalls Lewis Carroll's:

I sat on a rose couch and drank rosebud tea. At first I said I wanted to sit on the rose couch, but then it was suggested to me that there was more than one rose couch. We asked the waiter to dry one off and pull out it's thorns so that we could sit more comfortably.

More often, the surrealism is distinctly latter day: "I am told, you must construct the future of mandolins." But it is Browne's subtle negotiation of the line and the sentence that are most noteworthy here. Her techniques are varied: regular paragraph/stanzas; more archly presented blocks of justified poetry/prose; and--most often and most intriguingly--short stanzas/paragraphs, sometimes only a single line, that read as either prose or verse, doggedly riding the fine line between the two for as long as possible. This, more than her Wonderland, makes The Agency of Wind a dizzying and magical encounter with language; serious readers of prose poetry should not fail to make its acquaintance, though it will surely challenge the stability of their preconceptions.

Finally, there is Kristin Prevallet's Perturbation, My Sister (First Intensity Press, $10), an exquisite prose poem cycle masquerading as "a fiction" (or vice versa). It is, however, no more narrative than its source text, Max Ernst's 1929 surrealist collage novel The Hundred Headless Woman (her poem-paragraphs each take as their starting point one of the collages). Here, for example, is one of Prevallet's paragraphs:

The child who dares to let a living bird loose in the garden of plastic flowers and immobile flying insects is taking a risk that, if discovered, would be punishable by death. For a dead bird thrown into the middle of a living willow tree will emerge singing sweetly, and to reverse this law of nature would disprove the religion of the arterlife, and humiliate the generals who send children to war, believing in it.

Prevallet rightly says that Ernst's work reflects "a cesspool of subconscious refuse that the reader of his collages can then reconstruct into her own disjunctive narrative." In Perturbation, My Sister she has not only accomplished one such eloquent reading, but by reordering her takes on Ernst into a progression of her own devising, she has also created a new text which, given the luminous wholeness of each prose segment combined with the slippery progression of narrational meaning, encourages a similarly active and imaginative approach. It is no accident that the prose poem has been so powerfully adopted by surrealists and their kin, and Prevallet's work celebrates this association by turning the in-between nature of the prose poem toward her subject matter.

Click here to buy Traffic, When People Could Fly, Pretty Happy, Love Poems for the Millennium, Shaving, Split Infinites, The Agency of Wind, and Perturbation, My Sister at Amazon.com

Summer 1999 Table of Contents