I’m grateful to Peter Johnson for bringing Charles Simic’s brilliant, unpublished “Essay on the Prose Poem” to my attention. Although Simic wrote this essay ten years ago, twenty one years after he won the Pulitzer Prize for his book of prose poems titled The World Does Not End, it reads as freshly today as it did in 2010. Rife with Simic’s signature sprezzatura, it flows with enlightening commentary on the prose poem’s anomalous “form,” along with a bit of personal history behind his first impulse to write prose poetry in 1958, which he recalls had to do with “nerve.” “You just go on your nerve,” he remembers Frank O’Hara saying. “If someone is chasing you down the street with a knife, you just run.” And so he did, discovering a new paradoxical muse who carries a dual passport for traveling in the hybrid territory that prose poet master Russell Edson simply called “poetry mind.” Simic has traveled there ever since, while also continuing to write in lines. In explaining the prose poem’s enduring ironic appeal and validity as a legitimate poetic mode, Simic opines, “They “look like prose and act like poems because, despite the odds, they make themselves into fly-traps for our imagination.”
Essay on the Prose Poem by Charles Simic,
delivered on June 1, 2010 at The Poetry Festival in Rotterdam
“. . . a cast-iron airplane that can actually fly, mainly because its pilot doesn’t seem to care if it does or not”
Prose poetry has been around for almost two centuries and still no one has managed to explain properly what it is. The customary definitions merely state that it is poetry written in prose and leave it at that. For many readers, such a concept is not just absurd but a blasphemy against everything they love about poetry. Free verse, of course, still has its opponents, but no one in their right mind would maintain that all genuine poetry must adhere to rhyme schemes or regular meters. It’s an entirely different matter when it comes to prose poetry. When a book of mine consisting entirely of poems in prose received the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, there was considerable protest from some of our more conservative literary critics, who demanded to know how a prize meant to honor poetry could be given to something that by definition is not poetry. I didn’t bother to defend myself from my detractors, but if I had, and had told them the true story of how the poems in The World Doesn’t End got written, they would have been even more outraged. Here then, finally, is my confession: I never once in my life sat down to write a prose poem. In other words, everything in that book came to me as if by accident.
I knew a number of my contemporaries who wrote prose poems and I liked what they wrote, but, for me, the writing of poetry was always about form and the struggle to fit words inside a line or a stanza. My notebooks are full of passages of verse endlessly revised and often crossed out. They also contained, in the years preceding the publication of that book, other kinds of writing that looked like narrative fragments, along with ideas for poems consisting of isolated phrases and images strung together.
It is my habit to revisit old notebooks from time to time and see if any of the drafts I’ve left behind can be salvaged. I never paid any attention to this other stuff, though, until the summer of 1988 when I inherited a computer from my son and decided to teach myself how to use it, and in the process store my poems on disks. One day, not having anything else to do, and since I suddenly liked how they sounded, I read and copied a few of these short passages of prose. By the time I had gone through a dozen notebooks, I had some one hundred and twenty pieces, most no longer than a few short paragraphs. Nevertheless, I begin to think that I might have a book there. After fussing over them for several months and reducing the manuscript to sixty-eight pieces, I showed it to my editor, who, to my surprise, offered to publish it. Oddly, it was only then that the question of what to call these little pieces came up. “Don’t call them anything,” I told my editor. “You have to call them something,” she explained to me, “so that the bookstore knows under what heading to shelve the book.” After giving it some thought, and with some uneasiness on my part, we decided to call them prose poems.
Once I reacquainted myself with these pieces, I began to recall something of the circumstances in which they had been written. A few words, a phrase, or an image had set me off and I had scribbled down quickly whatever came to my mind. As Frank O’Hara said, “You just go on your nerve. If someone is chasing you down the street with a knife, you just run.” For instance, one of the oldest dates back to 1958 when I was living in a rooming house in Greenwich Village and heard one night someone mutter outside my door, “Our goose is cooked.” Another one of these “poems” was a reaction to being asked by a publisher to compose a small memoir of my childhood. Thinking about this period of my life, and worrying about my ability to remember accurately many important events and understand their meaning, I realised how much more satisfying for me and the reader it would be if I made everything up. Here is what I wrote:
I was stolen by the gypsies. My parents stole me back. Then the gypsies stole me again. This went on for some time. One minute I was in the caravan suckling the dark teat of my new mother, the next I sat at the long dining room table eating my breakfast with a silver spoon.
It was the first day of spring. One of my fathers was singing in the bathtub; the other one was painting a live sparrow the colors of a tropical bird.
The hardest thing for poets is to free themselves from their own habitual way of seeing the world and find ways to surprise themselves. That’s what I liked about these pieces. They seemed effortless and, like all prose poems, came, as James Tate once said, in “deceptively simple packaging: the paragraph”. They were unpremeditated, and yet they could stand alone and even had a crazy logic of their own.
I was having fun, of course. All poets do magic tricks. In prose poetry, pulling rabbits out of a hat is one of the primary impulses. This has to be done with spontaneity and nonchalance, concealing art and giving the impression that one writes without effort and almost without thinking − what Castiglione in his sixteenth-century Book of the Courtier called sprezzatura. As such, prose poetry can be regarded as a remedy for every bane of affectation.
Once I mulled over these pieces of mine, I realized that they were not without precedent. I was well-acquainted with the thick international anthology, The Prose Poem, which my late friend Michael Benedikt edited and published back in 1976. Starting with Aloysius Bertrand, the reader of this book encountered sixty-nine other practitioners of the art from all parts of the world. In addition to the the familiar names like Baudelaire, Lautréamont, Rimbaud, Jacob, Michaux, Ponge, there were lesser known ones like Kunnert, Cortázar and Björling, as well as total unknowns like Kharms, Arreola, Hagiwara, and many others. In his introduction to the anthology, Benedikt did not try to account for these differences, or even to attempt an extended definition, saying predictably that prose poetry is a genre of poetry written in prose, characterized by the intense use of virtually all devices of poetry except for the line break.
I would have placed emphasis on the subversive character of prose poetry. For me, it is a kind of writing determined to prove that there’s poetry beyond verse and its rules. Most often it has an informal, playful air, like the rapid, unfinished caricatures left behind on café napkins. Prose poetry depends on a collision of two impulses, those for poetry and those for prose, and it can either have a quiet meditative air or feel like a performance in a three-ring circus. It is savvy about the poetry of the past, but it thumbs its nose at verse that is too willed and too self-consciously significant. It mocks poetry by calling attention to the foolishness of its earnestness. Here in the United States, where poets speak with reverence of authentic experience and write poems about their dads taking them fishing when they were little, telling the reader even the name of the river and the kind of car they drove that day to make it sound more believable, one longs for poems in which imagination runs free and where tragedy and comedy can be shuffled as if they belonged in the same pack of cards.
In the 2009 anthology An Introduction to the Prose Poem published in the United States, the editors Brian Clements and Jamey Dunham attempt to classify the various kinds of prose poems in existence. Some of the twenty-four types they discuss and give examples of are more persuasive than others. Certainly, the use of anecdote, fable, autobiography, extended metaphor, parable, description of inanimate objects, journal entries, lists and dialogue have been frequently noted, but as Michel Delville has pointed out, often a poem may suggest a genre at the outset only to shed its guise and become something entirely different by its end. He also wonders whether there may be as many kinds of prose poems as there are practitioners. I agree. How do you describe a genre that declares total verbal freedom and about which every generalization one makes tends to be contradicted by a poem that has none of the properties one has just spelled out? As Russell Edson has written, “If the finished prose poem is considerate a piece of literature, this is quite incidental to the writing.” What makes us so fond of it, he says elsewhere, is its clumsiness, its lack of expectation or ambition.
Blue Notebook Number 10
There was once a red-haired man who had no eyes and no ears. He also had no hair, so he was called red-haired only in a manner of speaking.
He wasn’t able to talk, because he didn’t have a mouth. He had no nose, either.
He didn’t even have any arms or legs. He also didn’t have a stomach and he didn’t have a back, and he didn’t have a spine, and he also didn’t have any other insides. He didn’t have anything. So it’s hard to understand
who we’re talking about.
So we’d better not talk about him anymore.
(translated by George Gibian)
The old Russian avant-garde storyteller and playwright, Daniil Kharms, most likely didn’t regard this piece of his as a poem. Naturally, one of the main impulses for writing such a piece is to escape all labels. David Lehman, the editor of Great American Prose Poems (2003), even argues that some of the works he includes in the anthology may be both poetry and short fiction. Still, the question remains: what makes it poetry? Or more to the point, what made me believe that the fragments I found in my notebooks might indeed be poems?
The answer lies in the contradiction I have already alluded to. Prose poetry is a monster-child of two incompatible impulses, one which wants to tell a story and another, equally powerful, which wants to freeze an image, or a bit of language, for our scrutiny. In prose, sentence follows sentence till they have had their say. Poetry, on the other hand, spins in place. The moment we come to the end of a poem, we want to go back to the beginning and reread it, suspecting more there than meets the eye. Prose poems call on our powers to make imaginative connections between seemingly disconnected fragments of language, as anyone who has ever read one of these little-understood, always original and often unforgettable creations knows. They look like prose and act like poems, because, despite the odds, they make themselves into fly-traps for our imagination.
‘Blue Notebook Number 10’ was first published in Benedikt, M. The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, Dell, New York, 1976.
And a bonus: a poem from Chard DeNiord, written on the occasion of Harvard Review’s publication of a feature issue on Mr. Simic in which Chard’s essay, “He Who Remembers His Shoes”, appeared. The poem also appears in his book Night Mowing in 2005, as well as in the journal ForPoetry.
DINNER WITH CHARLIE
I am moved like you, Mad Tom, by a line of ants;
I behold their industry and they are giants.
We’re at the White Hotel.
I pick up my fork
straight out of hell
and pin down my steak.
Cut it with my knife.
Tongue all alone.”
Charlie does the same
with his duck.
We feed each other
to practice for heaven.
A red ant appears
on the table in front of us.
We watch him climb the dune
of a napkin, traverse
the desert of the table cloth.
“High yellow of my heart,”
says Charlie, reciting Emile Roumer.
“I had to search for him
as a youth in New York.
This ‘lowly’ Haitian
who raised me up.
This solitary ant
on the table of America.”
The hawk-eyed waiter notices
the ant from across the room
and descends on him
with a silent butler.
“I apologize for this intrusion.
There must be a nest somewhere
that escaped our exterminator.”
“We were rooting for him,”
says Charlie, “to make it
this once, like Lawrence of Arabia.”
A beautiful woman removes
her coat and enters the room
with an ugly man.
“You want dessert?” I ask.
“I can’t decide between the creme brulé
and chocolate mousse.”
Charlie is silent for a moment,
staring into space
through the shadow in his glasses.
“I’ll have some more wine
is all,” says Charlie.
“The Cabernet Sauvignon.”
There is a draft in the hall
that blows through the room
and stirs the hem
of the beautiful woman.
The ant returns
with a crumb on his shoulder
and bruise on his head.
We give him cover.
Charlie shifts in his chair
with a smile that’s clipped
at the corners.
“We’re on that ant,” he says.
“He’s our Atlas bearing us
into the world.”
Those interested can find biographical information on Charles Simic here
Chard deNiord is the poet laureate of Vermont and author of six books of poetry, most recently Interstate, (The University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) and The Double Truth (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011). deNiord is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Providence College, where he has taught since 1998, and a trustee of the Ruth Stone Trust. He lives in Westminster West, Vermont with his wife Liz.