My Uncle, the Monkey, Sings on Wednesdays, When He’s on My Back:
Some Notes on Poems-in-Prose and Prose-in-Poems
By Gian Lombardo
First, an excursion into the lost world of vaudeville, a dip into the bucket of borscht from the proverbial belt.
Let us suppose that there are these written artifacts that are usually, but not necessarily, extremely brief. These artifacts appear as prose, set margin to margin. These artifacts are deceptive: they might look like prose, but upon reading, you get hoodwinked they look pretty much like poetry. There’s alliteration, assonance, rhythm, even occasionally rhyme. There’s poetic language: that stuff heavily laden with imagery, simile, metaphor. Just what is going on here? These pieces are not normal fictive prose with defined narrative, plot, character. Twenty or 30 centuries of collective literature hasn’t prepared us for them. Only technically around for the last century and a half, these pieces do not fit into the expectations we normally have for poetry or prose, either. Since they do not obey the strict rules of the literary canon that has been historically developed to digest and incorporate literary artifacts into our culture, society and our own lives, they’ve been sort of swept under the rug: William Corbett good-naturedly calls them a bastard form of poetry;1 Russell Edson attributes their momentary abundance to the fact that there is something wrong with American poetry and that when American poetry can sing again, the fascination with these creatures will diminish.2
These damned creatures blur the distinction between prose and poetry. They upset past and current thought. And the overwhelming critical response is to either ignore or demean their existence: “If they won’t go away, at least we don’t have to pay special attention to them because they cannot really hold a serious thought or intent. They were just some ugly toy of French surrealists. And we all seem to be agreed that surrealism was a noble experiment doomed to failure and just one of those thousands of cultural-literary permutations that dead-ended. Just another dodo.”
Somewhere I’m hearing W.C. Fields shooing away a little kid: “Go away, son, you bother me.” Somewhere I can hear Rodney Dangerfield intone: “I just don’t get no respect.” These pieces often seem to have bulbous noses, seem to be a little drunk in their language, seem to be dismissed as serious literature. Why? No one seems to want to look at them, let alone try to define them without prejudice. Why? Because that might upset the current canon of Western literary thought that has developed since Aristotle. I can tell you one thing: these artifacts are not Aristotelian. Plain geometry cannot be applied to them. Euclid must give way to Einstein, Planck, Schroedinger.
But at least the last two generations of physicists have grappled with the seemingly unresolvable problem of wave/particle duality. It’s all part of a bold move acknowledging that the observer alters the experiment. And another bold stroke acknowledges that the same object is viewed differently from different perspectives. Think back to how you were instructed on how to read Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” or how you were instructed on the role of Shakespeare’s work in English/American culture/language or how you were taught Poe’s contributions to the development of the short story.
The sideshow has now moved from vaudeville to the Inquisition. I seem to hear Galileo murmur: “But it still moves.” I can also see lines and lines of ostriches. In the last two centuries, thinkers within the physical and social sciences have managed to pull their respective heads out of the sand for example, who will deny the effects of the work of Darwin, or Mendel, or Freud, or Marx? However, those who further the science and art of writing (writers and critics as well as readers) have dug in their feet even deeper and have set up new additions and patches to theories that cannot be really applied anymore. It is truly amazing how well literary creationism flourishes in the face of so much challenging evidence. A new way of looking at literature is demanded. These artifacts have a most serious intent: “Stop looking at things the way you’ve always been looking at things and start seeing things in a new light.” For those with brief attention spans and who require a good sound bite: “This ain’t yer father’s Oldsmobile.”
Reader, Beware All Ye Who Enter. If you’ve missed the drift so far, or you haven’t gone on to the next offering in this magazine in disgust, there is definitely an axe being ground here. I can hear the sound of metal against stone. I want you to hear that sound and not forget it. For the past 150 years, critical literary thought has ignored every piece of evidence that exists that proves that ether does not exist. Finnegan’s Wake illustrates the literary equivalent of such a reaction that Fermi cheered in Chicago.
To paraphrase R‚my de Gourmont, we humans always have to have to name and define things in order to cope with them: a person with an aching ear feels a little better knowing that the affliction is `otitis.’3 We feel better if we call these artifacts prose poems. But what is meant by that term? This question points directly to that heady experience of creating definitions.
Here are some definitions that have been proposed. This list is by no means definitive, but meant to be illustrative of how these artifacts have been approached critically:
John Simon Aim: to achieve all or more than all of the effects of a formal poem, without, however, using rhyme, meter, or verse division of the sort found even in “vers libre.” Means: rhythm, imagery, concentration, and a willing suspension of belief in the “raisonn‚” element that characterizes most prose and much poetry. Scope: brief. A prose poem, to be such in the fullest sense, must have been consciously intended as such by its author.4
Michael Benedikt A genre of poetry, self-consciously written in prose, and characterized by the intense use of virtually all the devices of poetry, which includes the intense use of devices of verse. The sole exception to access to the possibilities, rather than the set priorities of verse is, we would say, the line break.5
C. Hugh Holman A form of prose marked (although preferably not too regular) cadence and frequently with extensive use of figurative language and imagery. If prose poetry is to be distinguished from polyphonic prose, the distinction is that polyphonic prose is usually reserved for a kind of writing which has marked verse characteristics in prose form, whereas prose poetry is predominantly prose but borrows enriching characteristics from the rhythms and imagery of poetry.6
Russell Edson A poetry freed from the definition of poetry, and a prose free from the necessities of fiction; a personal form disciplined not by other literature but by unhappiness.2
Robert Wallace Borrowed from the French, the prose poem is a short composition in prose that asks for the concentrated attention usually given to poetry rather than the more discursive attention usually given to prose.7
James Randall There is one thing that suggests a definition may be possible, and that is that the best prose poems seem unusable as poems and unusable as short stories.8
These are just a few definitions of an “American” prose poem written in English. Using the old square-peg-in-a-round-hole method of applying logic, these artifacts are ascribed to falling under either the category of poetry or of prose. One piece of fuzzy logic maintains that the artifact is a prose poem if it is “consciously intended as such.” By such logic, if I write something that looks like a prose poem, but intend it to be a basketball, it must therefore be a basketball.
A prose poem is neither poetry nor prose. A prose poem achieves an effect that cannot be achieved through poetry or prose alone. A prose poem does not fulfill the expectations of either prose or poetry alone: it is neither a poem nor a story it is somehow deficient in that sense, but rich in the fact that the piece achieves an effect that could not be created by a poem or a story on its own. It disappoints, but also rewards. If a poem suffers no change in `state’ when set margin to margin without line breaks, then it is a poem no matter how it appears. If a prose poem is set with line breaks (however accurate or arbitrary) and suffers no change in `state,’ then it is not a prose poem: it is a poem masquerading as a prose poem. Try this experiment with work of your choice. Try all sorts: formal verse, something from Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen (for example, compare “Une h‚misphŠre dans une chevelure” with “Le Chevelure” in Les fleurs du mal), a Russell Edson piece, one of Pound’s Cantos, one of the selections that follow whether poetry or prose poem, etc. See how they work. Note your expectations of each regarding how the piece appears on the page. Take a prose poem and compare it to other species of prose: fable, brief story (sudden fiction), parable, epiphany, novel, short story, anecdote, etc. Note your impressions. How important is it to make distinctions? Can clear lines be drawn? The assumption made here is that humans make distinctions in order to better understand reality (“This is like this because...” “This is not like this because...”). Do the distinctions you hold and were taught apply adequately? Do you need to assume that distinctions are required? While creating distinctions, developing grand theories, it is always convenient to sweep contradictory evidence under the rug, or dismiss it as an irrelevant anomaly. The word eureka is both a curse and a liberation.
Instead of investigating and challenging the longstanding assumption that verbal expression is either poetic or prosaic, critics and writers have fallen prey to a sort of mindless literary sensationalism based on trivia. We do not need to endlessly debate whether Shakespeare wrote his plays or not, whether Homer was male or female, or which version of Joyce’s Ulysses is the “correct” one. This type of activity is no better than picking up the National Enquirer to find out about the latest Elvis sighting. Rome is burning, but too many are too content dancing to the fiddler.
But this might also be just pissing into the wind. Our current system of educating writers and critics and readers rewards only those who say what the “teachers” want to hear and does not reward those that challenge expectations.
Taxis & Other Means of Conveyance
How do we get from here to there? If the impulse is poetic, why express it in prose? If the impulse is prosaic, why express it poetically? Hello, is anyone home? The impulse is neither poetic nor prosaic, but sui generis, and, more importantly, it is unique to each individual prose poem. There is no single prose poetic impulse. Each of the critters has its own impulse that is best approached on its own terms.
The term, prose poem, is so unfortunate because it makes you veer to either poetry or prose when the thing itself is neither, but something of its own definition. Something that is constantly defining itself. Just because more poets write prose poems does not make it a form of poetry like a sonnet or haiku. Some writers write exclusively prose poems. Some fiction writers write prose poems (Cort zar, Calvino, Kafka, etc.). Mostly poets write reviews of poetry books. Is then a poetry book review a poetic form? Let’s get serious about coherent reasoning.
So much energy is spent in maintaining the dichotomy of poetry and prose. Maybe it is too late to venture new terminology. Maybe it defeats the point by focusing any debate on terminology, but what we do call things does shape our attitudes. I call my artifacts prose poems and get irritated if they are called poems, and I might be better off if I called them tales or something else more prosaic. Russell Edson calls his artifacts poems. Diane Williams calls her artifacts stories. Rose is a rose by any other name. Everything in a name. Sticks and stones, break them bones.
From Here on Out It’s All Nip & Tuck
Current literary thought assumes that profundity of thought and understanding is only expressed at length. No serious thought can be expressed clearly and briefly. A short story cannot offer greater depth than a novel. A long novel portrays a deeper, more significant reality than a short novel. An epic poem’s dialectic is far richer than one derived from a short poem. The message is: a lasting effect can only be achieved through length. The corollary is that if a work is short, it cannot have any seriousness, depth or lasting effect. We seem to be rewarding a writer’s intimidation of the reader through the “domination of attention.”9 We reward endurance. We also lament (in this age of video) the lack of any significant attention span in our culture. We seem to equate short with bad, lack of intelligence, etc.
A truth can most assuredly be distorted by truncating its exposition, but a truth can be also distorted or obscured by elaborating its exposition. Sound bites are as propagandistic as a long-winded speech that says, ultimately, nothing. All that sound and fury.
But this discussion is almost beside the point. John Simon, as well as many other writers and critics, posit that the prose poem (to be one at all) must be brief.3 This contention seems to form the basis of a spurious argument since a poem can be short or long (epic). Length does not preclude a poem from being a poem. However, if you do view the prose poem as a poetic form, then I suppose you could limit its length as a sonnet is limited in length. But if that is the case, how does one take into account Poe’s Eureka, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Lautr‚amont’s Les chants de Maldoror, Rimbaud’s Un saison de l’enfer, among many works? Back to the metal scraping stone. Back to a different, barely examined impulse of the human soul. More and more questions.
Chaos. Chimeras. Anarchic. Russell Edson stresses that “the prose poem has yet to yield up a method... In one sense it might be seen as an anti-form.”2 Baudelaire, in justifying and explaining his book, Paris Spleen, states that his work is “both head and tail, alternately and reciprocally.”10 He attempted to apply “to the description of our more abstract modern life the same method [Alyosius Bertrand] used in depicting the old days, so strangely picturesque.” He dreamed of a poetic prose “supple enough and rugged enough to adapt to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience...” His work was created “out of [his] exploration of huge cities, out of the medley of their innumerable interrelations, that this haunting ideal was born.”
Even though there is not a vast tradition or well-defined aesthetic developed around the prose poem, many expectations of these artifacts have already accumulated. Primary among these expectations is that the prose poem does not deliver up a “method” that there is not single set of expectations that can be applied to these artifacts.2,11 However, as soon as that expectation is articulated a tradition grows behind it. We expect these artifacts to be quizzical beings. If they aren’t, they aren’t prose poems. Do we now walk into the props of an airplane, caught in the prison of attempting to be free?
Three Trykes Out For the Tykes
In this bushwhacking, it’s time to backtrack a bit and try to find Livingston. Somewhere in this jungle was mentioned rewarding those who meet expectations. If an integral feature of the prose poem is that we don’t know what to expect from them, we can hardly reward those that meet our expectations (or, better yet, can only reward those that do not meet our expectations). There is in place a literary system that rewards certain work and fosters the development of an “aesthetic or compositional tradition.” This system does not accommodate or reward prose poems. In a group or academic environment, prose poets are pressured to write verse because poetry workshops are structured to analyze poetry. And because prose poetry is not viewed as a significant way to further our understanding of the human condition.
Without a body of work, there cannot be any way to determine what is “good” (and should be saved and rewarded) and what is “bad” and should be improved or forgotten. Courses are not taught on these artifacts on an undergraduate or graduate level at most colleges and universities. Samples of the work are not included in the curriculum of elementary and secondary schools (even though their construction and appearance might be an attractive way to convince students that verbal expression is an art with some value). Separate awards are not created. (How does one judge a body of prose poems against a body of formal verse?)
It was an inspiring feat that Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, but its selection meant that there were numerous other truly poetic works that should have received the award and didn’t. It’s even a greater shame, because over the last few generations there have been extraordinary prose poem collections that did not win such awards because there was no arena for their exposure.
If the impulse and the effect of these artifacts is different from a poem’s, how and why should they be judged (in an arena, whether writing workshop, award committee, tenure and hiring committee, editor on a magazine, or bookseller) as a poem? Again, really looking at these artifacts will cause havoc in the literary system that is entrenched. And we really don’t want to rock any boats. It’s a sad state of affairs when the “delivery system” becomes more important than the services it delivers. It’s a shame when laziness of thought is encouraged.
[This essay first appeared in lift #7, Summer 1991, edited by Joseph Torra.]
1. William Corbett, Harvard Book Review, Summer & Fall Books 1990, Nos. 17 & 18, p. 38.
2. Russell Edson, “The Prose Poem in America,” Parnassus, Fall/Winter 1976, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 321-25.
3. R‚my de Gourmont, “Dust for Sparrows,” in Ezra Pound: Translations, New York: New Directions, 1963.
4. John Simon, “The Prose Poem: A Study of Genre in 19th Century European Literature,” unpublished doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, 1959.
5. Michael Benedikt, introduction to The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, New York: Dell Publishing, 1976.
6. C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 3rd ed., Indianapolis: The Odyssey Press, 1972.
7. In Brooke Horvath, “Why the Prose Poem?” Denver Quarterly, Spring 1991, Vol. 25, No. 4, p. 106.
8. James Randall, “Some Notes on the Prose Poem,” Arion’s Dolphin, Summer/Autumn 1974, Vol. 3, Nos. 3 & 4, pp. 2-9.
9. For an excellent discussion of this point, see Charles Baxter’s introduction in Sudden Fiction International, R. Shapard and J. Thomas, eds., New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989.
10. Charles Baudelaire, “To ArsŠne Houssaye,” Paris Spleen, New York: New Directions, 1947.
11. In Brooke Horvath, “Why the Prose Poem,” Denver Quarterly, Spring 1991, Vol. 25, No. 4, p. 108.