Cassandra Atherton, “The Life and Times of Big Mr. Prose Poem”: While the Undertaker Sleeps: Collected and New Prose Poems by Peter Johnson

Cassandra Atherton, “The Life and Times of Big Mr. Prose Poem”: While the Undertaker Sleeps: Collected and New Prose Poems by Peter Johnson
March 25, 2023 Atherton Cassandra

“The Life and Times of Big Mr. Prose Poem: While the Undertaker Sleeps:

Collected and New Prose Poems” by Peter Johnson

An essay from Cassandra Atherton


Self-confessed “wise guy of the prose poem” and also its unofficial laureate, Peter Johnson is one of America’s foremost practitioners and critics of prose poetry. The publication of his While the Undertaker Sleeps: Collected and New Prose Poems provides an important opportunity to reflect on the reputation of a master of the form, who, according to poet and critic Chard deNiord, “almost singlehandedly revived the currency of the prose poem during the nineties and early oughts.” Indeed, Johnson has been a major force in the development of the American prose poem for more than three decades and has contributed significantly to its prominence on the world stage.

His prose poetry emphasizes the juxtaposition of comedy (often black humor) and the quotidian, which is at the heart of much of the prose poetry being written in the United States. His poems also reaffirm the importance of French prose poetry to the American prose poem tradition, re-energizing, as he has argued, the early prose poem’s appeal to humor:

We can see the beginnings of comic and absurd juxtapositions and puns associated with
surrealism, Dada, and cubism in the works of Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Perhaps, then, part
of the comedy we’re discussing is organic in the prose poem itself, and part is learned.

Furthermore, he has embraced prose poetry’s challenge to “the ‘formalized’ aspect of poetry,” appreciating prose poetry’s flexibility as well as its particular demands.

Besides being an accomplished prose poet, Johnson is also an astute critic and editor. He founded the pioneering journal The Prose Poem: An International Journal, and has edited or coedited The Best of the Prose Poem; A Cast-Iron Aeroplane That Can Actually Fly: Commentaries from Eighty American Poets on Their Prose Poetry; and Dreaming Awake: New Contemporary Prose Poetry from the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Johnson is also well known for his memorable observations about the prose poem, including the often-quoted remark that “just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels.” And he has wittily compared “the genre-blending nature of the prose poem to the platypus, which is an egg-laying mammal with webbed feet, a beaver-like tail, and a duckbill.”

However, it is his darkly comic and often deeply poignant prose poems that have done most to advance the form. His own writing possesses many of the characteristics he prioritizes and supports as a critic and editor. These include a sobering directness, a persuasive and unostentatious intellectualism, and a powerful sense of the ironic and absurd—and, in Johnson’s case, such qualities have many of their roots in the complications of his childhood and education. He was born in 1951 in a working-class, Irish-Catholic neighborhood of Buffalo, New York where three generations of Johnson men (including Johnson and his brother) worked in the steel plants not far from his family home. His father also worked as a mailman so that his children could attend an exclusive Jesuit high school. There, Johnson had a classical education, studying French, Latin and Greek, and also forging a strong interest in various forms of storytelling and writing, including myths, fables, parables and translation. During these years Johnson, as a Greek Honors student, “straddle[ed] high and low cultures,” translating Homer during the day and reading MAD magazine at night.

While Johnson went on to receive his B.A. from the State University of New York at Buffalo, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in English from the University of New Hampshire, his experiences in the steel plant always remained one of his work’s touchstones. He explores his time as a steelworker in the recent genre-blending, “Truscon, A Division of Republic Steel, 1969-70: A Prose-Poem Sequence Disguised as a Lyrical Essay, Itself Aspiring to Be a Fictional Memoir” —a piece which provides a powerful exclamation point to this Collected volume. The work is highly original and witty—a tragicomedy that is at once devastating and heartbreaking, buoyant and joyful, demonstrating the prose poem’s elastic and even cannibalistic properties. In this extraordinary piece, the prose poem becomes part lyric essay, part fictional memoir, and part truncated epic. Its hybridity as a form is both persuasively organic and disturbingly chameleonic. Johnson interrogates the past in bright bursts, in which we find “Railroad cars vexing the night with their abundance of steel. Linked like sausages. Follow it through memory.” He repeatedly switches modes in order to offer a series of unforgettable vignettes, where hazing and pranks at the plant are set against the real risk of being maimed. Furthermore, while a steel plant might initially seem antithetical to poetry, Johnson explains:

The plant, indeed, was the perfect apprenticeship for a prose poet—a museum of found
material: fragments of dialogue, remnants of old grudges, historical documents, latent
socio-economic inconsistencies, and a history of bad behavior to be assembled by a
postmodern consciousness comfortable with, to borrow from T.S. Eliot, “constantly
amalgamating disparate experience.” I was just the man for the job.

As a young man, after going west and working as a manual laborer, Johnson returned to Buffalo and attended the local university. Combining his classical interests and nuanced understanding of l’humour noir, his Masters thesis was an introduction to and translation of the Psychomachia—a thousand-line Latin poem written by Marcus Aurelius Prudentius—while his dissertation was on black humor in the novels of John Hawkes. Johnson’s attraction to “opposites converging” has found its further expression in his exploration of the question, “Why does the prose poem have a generic predisposition toward comedy?” He comments that “the prose poem wants to be funny. It steals the techniques of verse and discourses of prose, then shows up at the party and flaunts them in the most unlikely ways.”

Johnson playfully recounts, “I began to write prose poems because I was a terrible verse poet, mostly because I couldn’t have cared less about line breaks,” but he also acknowledges, “it’s more complicated than that.” His attraction to the prose poem, and mastery of it, is reflected in his investment in, and commitment to, the intersections between high, low, and popular culture. And, indeed, Johnson’s prose poems are engaged in constant dialogue between line and sentence, exploiting the power of skilled phrase-making and razor-sharp observations about human conduct.

His rich juxtapositions led Russell Edson to identify a particular breed of eponymous prose poem: “The Peter Johnson prose poem.” The features of Johnson’s work include a magnetic poetic voice and style, along with particular constellations of images, motifs, themes and narratives. Perhaps, most importantly, are his sometimes-startling linguistic leaps and, also, an appeal to humor in all forms—especially his own brands of satire and black humor, which he uses in clever and disarming ways. His humor simultaneously deflects from and gestures towards the narrator’s anxiety and grief, often anecdotally. He notes that “if humour has become part of the very ‘fabric’ of my poetry … that’s occurred simply because I view the world comically. I’m a wise guy. I didn’t have to invent that persona.” Even the title of this collection, While the Undertaker Sleeps, ironically invokes the idea of cheating death and a kind of hoodwinking of mortality.

Johnson’s enduring relationship with fellow American prose poet Russell Edson has long been a significant part of his prose poetry practice. He began corresponding with Edson in 1992 after the publication of the first volume of The Prose Poem: An International Journal and their friendship continued until Edson’s death in 2014. A sample of the 350 letters Edson wrote to Johnson were published in Truths, Falsehoods, and a Wee Bit of Honesty: A Short Primer on the Prose Poem, with Selected Letters from Russell Edson. They demonstrate a shared enjoyment of prose poetry practice and criticism. While Johnson acknowledges that Edson “was an original, and without him the prose poem probably never would have taken hold in America,” Edson reciprocated by addressing Johnson as “Big Mr. Prose Poem” after the publication of Johnson’s first volume of prose poems. Having referred to himself as “Little Mr. Prose Poem,” it was a moment where Edson recognized the contributions of his fellow prose poet.

As if to poke fun of Edson’s canonization, Johnson wrote a prose poetry manifesto that was both tongue-in-cheek and searingly honest:

I do think that we could create a better literary climate if we would become more honest and organized about our politics. For example, every literary movement could be run like a political party, and every poet could be made to join one of these parties. To show my good faith, as of today, I am officially founding the Prose-Poem Party. It will include both living and dead authors. Russell Edson will be the President and Gertrude Stein his First Lady, with Rimbaud their enfant terrible. All prose poets will move to Why, Arizona, where we’ll create our own state. Our constitution will be the preface to Paris Spleen. The state mascot will be the platypus; the state seal, a question mark. Any prose poet refusing to join the Party will be banished to Bread Loaf without a tennis racket. Our literary journal will be called Linear—Sometimes, and its content, except for the editor’s name, will be published in invisible ink. You will have to read our journal backwards; you will have to read it blindfolded. Solicited poems will be returned unread; unsolicited ones will be glanced at between 4:00 and 4:05 p.m. on January 13th.  Please no prose poems about mothers, fathers, children, flowers, or sex acts. Definitely no working-class poems.

So let it be written.

So let it be done.

This statement alludes to a wide variety of issues, including the subversive nature of the prose poem and its characteristic hybridity. It is also obliquely addressed to many of the prose poem’s early proponents while criticizing a variety of editors and writers who had misunderstood or been dismissive of the prose poem form. In short, it is a call to action as much as a comic critique.

Pretty Happy! (1997) is Johnson’s first book of prose poetry. The ironic eponymous poem articulates the often-dark sense of absurdity that permeates this collection in which evocations of happiness are tempered, unresolved, or fleeting. “Pretty Happy!” ends as the protagonist “reach[es] for the baseball bat” he hides under the bed. Throughout the volume, the effortless mingling of high and low registers and associated references to popular culture are expressed through intertextual moments or fragmentary hauntings of text. The book alludes to Goldfish Crackers, Arabian Nights, Voltaire, fake diamonds, Spiderman, Einstein, Kafka, the Pope, the President and First Lady, Young Werther, Flaubert, Joyce, Tender Buttons, Vaseline, Last Tango in Paris, Dunkin’ Donuts, swanzola, potato chips and a La-Z-Boy. Johnson has even suggested Pretty Happy! can be read as “a history of the prose poem” that begins with Theophrastus’ character sketches and progresses through Kafka’s parables, Novalis’s short prose, reaching its pinnacle with Charles Simic’s vignettes. In fact, Simic wrote the introduction to this volume describing prose poetry as “the culinary equivalent of peasant dishes, like paella or gumbo, which bring together a great variety of ingredients and flavors, and which in the end, thanks to the art of the cook, somehow blend”—and perhaps it is this emphasis on sharply striking elements of the quotidian that Johnson’s book most convincingly demonstrates.

Throughout Pretty Happy! the reader experiences both humor and pleasure in encountering Johnson’s clever juxtapositions, which are all reminiscent of the unconscious leaping that the surrealists and neo-surrealists so often give priority to in their prose poetry. Robert Bly discusses this “leaping poetry” as involving “a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.” The leaps in Johnson’s prose poetry privilege the unconscious while exposing various, sometimes inexplicable disjunctures. For example, he depicts a “somber librarian [who] believes he’s Kafka” and “says things like, ‘Coitus as punishment for the happiness of being together.’” And in the prose poem, “I’m With Stupid,” the “Pope and President are wrestling.” In works such as “The Genius,” “Poet Laureate,” and “19th-Hole Condom Poem,” Johnson’s characteristically taut juxtapositions expose the strangeness and absurdity of a poetry scene where a “failed poet” ends up famous after writing a poem “about a light green condom with a little flag on top”.

The family unit is also integral to many of Johnson’s prose poems. While narrators’ wives, mothers and grandmothers are featured, it is the patrilineal line of fathers and sons with which these prose poems are most preoccupied. For example, in “Penates” the narrator’s father is strangely “omniscient”; and in “Family Romance” the clerk is noted parenthetically as a man “(who could be his father).” In “The Quest,” in which the narrator’s son “poses question after question,” the narrator states, “In the beginning, I was the termite on the Tree of Knowledge.” And in “Somebody’s Fool,” “a father figure appears, clad only in stained boxer shorts.” But although fathers in Pretty Happy! have acquired knowledge, they are often ineffectual, or their wisdom is compromised by their upbringing, anxieties, and the sense of their own mortality. When sons become fathers, they appear to have learned little, repeating patterns of behavior across multiple generations.

The final prose poem in Pretty Happy!, “The Millennium,” has been singled out by Johnson for its importance in the organic expression of his “high/low sensibilities.” He wrote this prose poem “longhand” after having broken his back on Christmas Eve in a sledding accident with his eldest son, and it brilliantly evokes the detritus of inhabiting the quotidian before suddenly and piercingly being inflected by the observation, “Not enough bulbs to poke holes through this night’s black logic.” Once again, Johnson brings the extraordinary and ordinary into a telling and salutary coalescence.

Johnson’s second book of prose poetry, Miracles & Mortifications (2001), won the James Laughlin award from the Academy of American Poets. In this collection, the epiphany Johnson had in his composition of “The Millennium” is extended into further idiosyncratic leaps. Indeed, the first prose poem, “Home,” begins with a cracked vertebra and a vibrating bed. In further highly charged and parodic prose poems, a Calvino-esque imaginary travelogue unfolds. Peripeteia, flaneurism, the epic, and even flights of fancy focus the collection on sometimes conflicting ideas of travel, movement, and stasis. Johnson has suggested that the “unconscious feels less restricted in prose … the difference between writing in prose or verse is similar to the difference of being lost in an endless field or in a city. There are no boundaries in an endless field, but in a city you’re going to have to make some turns once in a while, maybe even pause at a stop light.”

Russell Edson has described Miracles & Mortifications as “a poet’s atlas.” In an exploration of the Freudian Fort-Da (or home and away) the 24 locations in Part I: “Travels with Gigi” are bookended with prose poems entitled “Home.” In Part II: “Travels with Oedipus,” the first prose poem in the sequence comments rather mordantly on the idea of “Departure” and ends with a rumination about the problematics of the notion of “Return,” playing on a sense of the uncanny. This collection is deeply invested in word play, the operations of language and of naming, especially the naming of the main character/nymphet Gigi. A few examples: Gigi is “a childhood nickname, but one that stuck”; “Je suis Gigi; Gigi is “a white poodle”; “Gigi-magician”; “Dr Gigi”; “Sister Gigi”; Gigi is Lola and Lolita; she is “Gigi-girl”; “Gigushka”; and autobiographically, Johnson has also identified Gigi as representing aspects of his partner Genevieve, whose childhood nickname, coincidentally, was also Gigi. Trying to come to grips with the erratic behavior of this Gigi in the first section of Miracles & Mortifications becomes so important that the narrator states, “If there is no Gigi, there is still her name.”

The narrators in both parts of this volume tenaciously nurture their preferences for high culture—including the courtly love, classicism, and just about the whole Western canon—even as the prose poems subversively challenge, parody, and erode these preferences. With humor and a searing sense of exposure, the first section, “Travels with Gigi,” juxtaposes the concept of courtly love with feminism, and the second parodies a father taking his teenage son on a trip to become a “man,” via a tour of “great men and women” in the Western historical tradition. The narrators of both sections are unreliable and obsessive. They try to experience life vicariously through the great books or grand narratives of the Western world, only to find that the commonplace unpredictabilities of life are far more playful and sustaining. And, of course, Johnson himself inhabits all of these points of view, characteristically setting them in motion and in opposition, testing them all for the insights and absurdities they reveal.

Eduardo and “I” (2006) extends Johnson’s experiments with personae, probing the limits of language and travel. In raw and rollicking prose poems, he examines American society from both insider and outsider viewpoints. A quintessentially post-9/11 book, the first prose poem includes the line “For once, the eye before the ‘I,’” giving priority to the act of witness (and self-scrutiny) as Johnson examines the sense of national crisis that accompanied the demolition of the Twin Towers. Johnson undercuts the myth of America’s invulnerability and highlights problematic aspects of its self-identification as a superpower through his idiosyncratic, ironically inflected and self-obsessed character, Eduardo. In Part I, the narrator states, “Eduardo is a punk. But Eduardo is my friend, Eduardo is my enemy.” This Pessoan-like distribution of Eduardo’s heteronymic identities creates destabilizing patterns in the sequence, as Eduardo “thinks he’s Bukowski,” or is “Entombed” or “Entropic.” Johnson says that there are “So many Eduardos, it’s hard to know who’s the real one.” While Eduardo may sometimes represent the narrator’s alter ego (reminiscent of John Berryman’s Henry in The Dream Songs), a doppelganger, or, as the narrator says, “child of my idle brain, poor pagan in Hyding,” the narrator—who also appears to speak for various of Johnson’s points of view—usually acts as his foil. This sets up some devastating dualities such as:

“Life is worth living,” I tell Eduardo, encouraging him to remove the plastic bag from his
head. “Peach trees blossom, water continues to flow.” But, for Eduardo, the word
“apocalypse” exerts a strong attraction.

In Part II, the narrator tries to piece together a world where very little makes sense. In a powerfully metaphorical moment, he “sits by the window and watches a great mythological bird go down in flames.” Chaos and madness reign and, even as the speaker finds comfort in his family, he remains skeptical about key aspects of the prevailing intellectual climate. There are wonderfully compelling and eccentric moments in Part II where the narrator depicts himself as a “jive-ass caddy reciting Shakespeare to over-compensated bad golfers,” and where wearing sandals sparks thoughts “about Jesus’ teenage years—was he happy? sad?” Other apparently self-deprecating statements such as “The truth is I was a fat child, boring as meatloaf. The truth is I was a skinny child with a ‘very special glow’” once again demonstrate Johnson’s penchant for destabilizing humorous leaps and comic juxtapositions.

In Eduardo & “I”, especially in the second part of the book, the speaker of the poems is overwhelmingly grieving a world and life that are gone forever. Wistful, and ironically self-analytical prose poems such as “I Know You’re Probably Sick of Me”—which begins, “You’re probably thinking, ‘This guy should cheer up’”—only heighten the sense of insufficiency or defeat. Furthermore, in “Hawk,” while the narrator’s student draws “a cartoon called the ‘Devolution of Man,’” and writes, “Artists have to try, no matter how hard, to love their enemy because it is up to artists to save humanity,” the final line is dark and existential as, upon finding out about his student’s death, the narrator hears in “a squirrel’s lament [attacked by a hawk] … a bone-crushing sorrow for life, for death.” This characteristic see-sawing between hope and despair provides a powerful sense of a probing and almost giddy uncertainty in many of the prose poems.

The collection ends with “One Hell of a Year” in which the narrator listens “to my teenage son tell the whole damn neighborhood just how much he loves me.” Hope triumphs despite the speaker’s sense that he’ll “have to pay for [the wonderful year] because that’s how it works.” For Johnson, nothing is simple, or fully explicable, or resolvable. There are provisional pleasures and unexpected enjoyments allied to a sense that things may at any moment go wrong. The poems in Eduardo and ‘I’ foreground the underbelly of the American Dream, playing subtly and brilliantly with the idea of alter-egos, alternative visions, and intimate characters who are, after all, hardly knowable.

The collection Old Man Howling at the Moon (2018) was published twelve years after Eduardo and ‘I’ and in the intervening period Johnson wrote a number of highly successful young adult and middle grade novels. As a result, it is perhaps unsurprising that the prose poems in this collection are more dialogic and employ their prose resources with great versatility. This is visually evident in the way that many of the prose poems are written in tight micro-paragraphs or in single line paragraphs (or free lines) that are separately indented. In these works, Johnson maneuvers between right and left margin in a sometimes staccato, almost tetris-like style.

Concerning this collection, Michele Delville notes, “Johnson is a fabulist of the grotesque, a curator of lost causes and broken dreams, a pasticheur of imaginary styles, and a cartographer of early 21st century spleen.” The prose poems in Old Man Howling at the Moon fit such a characterization nicely, spoken by a curmudgeon savant who bitingly satirizes contemporary American culture and society. He is both sage observer and grumpy older man. For instance, in “Special,” the speaker opines that though “They say everyone deserves someone special … I know people who don’t.” Furthermore, the speaker’s obsession with mortality provides a kind of recurrent gallows humor: in “Hurricane,” he observes, “They were watching a hurricane on TV, hoping someone would die,” before extending this assertion with the claim that “This is how you live, waiting for death to nudge you with its big black horn.” In the prose poem “And Nothing Else Matters,” we learn that “Sue Anne overdosed in a motel in North Carolina when she was supposed to be alive in a motel in White Plains.” The reasons are “Supposedly because of a man, which is another way of saying Fate” or “Supposedly because of her mother, which is another way of saying Unloved.” As such writing excoriates aspects of contemporary culture, including its superficiality, it also finds room for sadness and a cautious kind of pathos, asking “Will you collapse at the next rest stop … where a family of pine trees … [are] paying homage to a god much kinder than ours?” In “American Male, Acting Up,” the speaker demonstrates his social conscience and impatience with the crass and self-indulgent when he states, “they say your whole life flashes before you when you die, but I’m sure I’ll witness the lives of others”. Then he recounts a trip to the zoo where a bully is tormenting animals. And in the brilliantly self-conscious prose poem “Neil” the speaker’s “teenage son stirs safely in his bed, oblivious to the many ways people can die,” a comment made especially poignant because it is framed by reflections on “my dead friend Neil.”

In these prose poems, the lunatic, curmudgeon, poet, and seer are often interchangeable, even at times becoming aspects of one another. There are also finely tuned and juicy parodies of poets and the poetry scene which display Johnson’s genuine, if sometimes begrudging, affection for his fellow poets, as well as his capacity to lampoon those who take themselves too seriously. This creates a comically subversive effect, evident in works such as “The Robert Bly Affair,” in which the speaker “began calling [him]self Tomaz and having lengthy conversations with [him]self” and practices “‘Dueling Bashōs’ on [his] blues harmonica.” There is also the superbly savage “The New York School Poem,” in which the so-called New York School poets are hilariously caricatured: “I had a favorite poet until he kept writing about his friends, Beau and Binkie. About how they got drunk and tweezered hair from their noses, then thought they’d discovered a new way to make love.” In such works, as in all of Johnson’s prose poetry collections, there is a realization that things could always be worse, which leads to his statement at the end of “A Nun to Be Named Later”: “It makes no sense to hold a grudge.”

The final prose poem in Old Man Howling at the Moon, titled “Happy,” begins in an Austen-esque address: “Gentle Reader, in spite of persistent rumors, let me assure you that I am happy,” and ends by dwelling in language and the possibilities that gaps and spaces afford: “Even happy … for the chance—no, pleasure—to spend a few idle moments inside this here ellipsis.…” In such a statement, we are brought back to the idea that making art out of words and silences is what poetry is fundamentally concerned with and that it is a pleasure to be able to say, as Johnson does, that “‘I’ve got the baddest poem right here in my back pocket,’ and no one thinks I’m nuts.”

While the Undertaker Sleeps also includes new prose poems which tackle acutely, and with a droll and sometimes feisty tone, the challenges of Covid and quarantine. These poems are sharply observant and include memorable characters, such as an oaf at Home Depot, a “cute barista” at Starbucks, and Johnson’s persona as a young man “spending all night translating The Odyssey” after getting “hammered on tequila.” The barista in Starbucks suggests that “in twenty years it would be ‘inarguably argued’ that I was the greatest poet of the 21st century,” and this rather jocular preoccupation with the idea of literary fame recurs from time to time throughout Johnson’s oeuvre. He has remarked elsewhere: “I’d like to think that one day I will be attending a special ‘Peter Johnson’ literary conference in Key West, and a young man in a seersucker suit will describe how my work moved the prose poem in a new direction … But chances are, I’ll have to sneak into a similar Key West conference on another poet and upon leaving be struck by a pig’s head hurled from a passing pickup.”

Such pointed, sometimes self-deprecating and highly acute perspectives on society, history, poetry and human behavior underpin While the Undertaker Sleeps: Collected and New Prose Poems. This is a major volume of prose poetry by a writer who has, indeed, moved the American prose poem in new and daring directions and who, in doing so, has written prose poems to be savored for their complexity, lucidity and fascinating understandings of what it has been like to live in the latter half of the twentieth and early part of the twenty-first centuries.

I can think of no writer, certainly no prose poet, who captures the zeitgeist more brilliantly and with such linguistic verve as Peter Johnson.

Peter Johnson’s Collected and New Poems will be released by MadHat Press on May 1st.

Cassandra Atherton, Deacon University, Australia
Co-author of Prose Poetry: An Introduction
(Princeton University Press)