The Literary Fragment, Black Humor, and the Ampersand: Three Short Essays by Peter Johnson

The Literary Fragment, Black Humor, and the Ampersand: Three Short Essays by Peter Johnson
May 23, 2024 Johnson Peter

In his three short, pithy essays on the prose poem for this issue of Plume, Peter Johnson assays the oxymoronic character of the prose poem that finds its freedom, as well as strength, in its anomalous genre by virtue of what one of the prose poem’s most accomplished masters, Russell Edson, simply called “poetry mind.” In his more prolix definition of the prose poem, Johnson describes it more humorously as an ironic poetic form that endures while “straddling the lines … between genres, both feet planted precariously on banana peels.” As one of the leading proponents, editors, and masters of the prose poem over the past three decades, Johnson has almost singlehandedly ushered the prose poem into the mainstream of American poetry with his journal The Prose Poem. The three short but brilliant essays that appear in this month’s issue of Plume exegete the wit of three prose poets in particular, Russell Edson, James Tate, and Nin Andrews, all of whom entertain their readers with oneiric allure, reconciliations of opposites, exquisite wit, shameless iconoclasm, and spontaneous humor. As for the act of writing prose poetry, Johnson quotes his mentor Charles Simic’s mimetic description of the enterprise: “Writing a prose poem is a bit like trying to catch a fly in a dark room. The fly probably isn’t even there, the fly is inside your head, still you keep tripping over and bumping into things in hot pursuit.” One comes away from reading these essays feeling that if prose poetry is the stepchild of traditional poetry, then it is a proudly independent one whose smarts, verbal economy, and risible wisdom cut to the heart of the human condition with metaphorical conceits and absurd profundity.

–Chard deNiord

The Literary Fragment, Black Humor, and the Ampersand: Three Short Essays



The Literary Fragment

I want to talk about the “literary fragment.”  I realize that a topic that’s even esoteric for many literary critics must seem completely irrelevant to the average person’s life, yet I would argue that it’s important for everyone to think about the fragment in general, because in our manic world we are force-fed nothing but fragments of language and images, which we are expected to quickly digest and make sense of. And, more often than not, the purveyors of those fragments have sinister motives and even more sinister ends in mind. But more on this later.

The literary fragment, in contrast to other short forms, like the aphorism and pensée, has a bad reputation, mostly, I think, because of the connotations of the word. Fragments are to some dim-witted critics “unfinished” thoughts, part of nothing substantial. Critics both now and in the past have thought that although fragments are amusing at times, they don’t teach or enlighten us, in contrast to the aphorism or pensée (the latter term which is a fancy word for “thought”). For example:

Here’s an aphorism from James Richardson’s collection, Vectors, that seems to abide by the generally accepted definition of an aphorism as being a pithy observation that contains a general truth: “How much less difficult is life when you do not want anything from people. And yet you owe it to them to want something.”

Next, a pensée from the philosopher Blaise Pascal, who wrote a whole book called, Pensées:

Order.—Men despise religion; they hate it, and fear it is true. To remedy this, we must begin by showing that religion is not contrary to reason; that it is venerable to inspire respect for it; then we must make it lovable, to make good men hope it is true; finally, we must prove it is true. Venerable, because it has perfect knowledge of man; lovable, because it promises the true good.”

And finally, consider this fragment from the pre-Romantic philosopher Frederic Schlegel, who with other great thinkers and poets from an early 19th-century group called the Jenna Romantics, brought the literary fragment to prominence:  “The most insignificant authors have at least this similarity to the great Author of the Heavens and Earth: that after a day’s work is done, they have a habit of saying to themselves, ‘And behold, what he made was good.’”

And another from Schlegel: “One should drill the hole where the board is thickest.”

I provide two examples from Schlegel to point out that, even though Schlegel championed the “fragment,” making it crucial to how European thinkers and poets expressed themselves during his time, his second fragment could very easily be called an aphorism. Likewise, I could go through all of Pascal’s pensées and Richardson’s aphorisms and point out where many overlap with the other two genres. I could do the same exercise with Kafka’s aphorisms, some of which even morph into tiny prose poems, such his famous: “Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.”

The important point is that what critics say about one genre often can be applied to other genres. Consequently, I tend to look at all of these short genres as “fragments,” since they all are indeed fragments of prose.

Schlegel himself stressed the importance of the autonomy of the fragment when he wrote: “A fragment ought to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world like a little work of art and complete in itself like a hedgehog.” Thus, he recognized that the fragment must have room to breathe, though later in life he also saw the need for it to be a part of something much bigger, a system of thought, so to speak.

As he puts it: “It is equally fatal for the mind to have a system than to have none. It will simply have to combine the two.”

That is, fragments can stand alone while also being part of a system, and in fact systems themselves are part of other systems. After all, we humans crave completeness, which is why we gravitate toward systems of thoughts, which we develop into grand narratives, such as religions, political platforms, schools of art, and so on.

Rather than explaining the intricacies of the above, let’s look at some of my favorite fragments from the notebooks of the late, great poet Charles Simic, collected in a book called The Monster Loves His Labyrinth. I do this partly to exemplify how the borderlines between the fragment, the aphorism, and the pensée are often nonexistent, and partly because Simic is a very funny guy. More important, his fragments prove that the comic can indeed be very serious, and that in the hands of a genius like Simic, the possibilities of fragments are endless. Ponder these gems:

“History is a cookbook. The tyrants are chefs. The philosophers write menus. The priests are waiters. The military men are bouncers.
The singing you hear is the poets washing dishes in the kitchen.”


Headlines in Supermarket Tabloids:








“The new American Dream is to get to be very rich and still be regarded as a victim.”


“Snow arriving this morning at my door like a mail-order bride.”


“I always had the clearest sense that a lot of people out there would have killed me if given an opportunity. It’s a long list. Stalin, Hitler, Mao are on it of course. And that’s only our century! The Catholic Church, the Puritans, the Moslems, etc., etc. I represent what has always been joyfully exterminated.”


“To be a poet is to feel something like a unicyclist in the desert, a pornographic magician performing in the corner of the church during Mass, a drag queen attending night classes and blowing kisses at the teacher.”


“One-eyed cat in a fish store window.”


The above “fragments,” fragments that steal from many different genres (tabloids, cookbooks, historical facts, and so on), are as isolated and complete in themselves as a hedgehog, but they are necessarily also part of a whole. Why? Because they are all filtered through Simic’s consciousness, a consciousness with certain obsessions and preoccupations. I think this is what Schlegel was referring to when he wrote, “My whole self is a system of fragments.”

Moreover, a quick look at the structure of Simic’s book, most likely decided upon long after writing a few hundred entries, suggests that he came upon a thematic arrangement before publication. This process is not unusual. It’s one that Kafka went through with his aphorisms and Pascal with his pensées.

Now what does all of this have to do with us? In a sense, even if we can’t discern an organizing principle behind a book of fragments, I think that we create a certain order every time we try to make sense of a text by relying on our previous reading and personal experiences. And a truly good book of fragments offers an inexhaustible number of interpretations, which are altered every time we return to it with fresh eyes.

This is the kind of reading experience I tried to create when writing my book of fragments/prose poems, called Observations from the Edge of the Abyss. In the introduction to Observations, I explain my process of composition and how I came to a kind of structure to the book. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that my process involved, paradoxically, the interplay of intuition and reason. I rely on intuition to get down the raw materials of my fragment/prose poems and then I look for connections.

I like to think that new interpretations are created every time Observations is read. That is, that the reader, upon multiple rereadings, will experience each fragment differently, and see how they relate to each other in each section, and how each section works with and against other sections. In the end, the reader is the architect. I’m just the dope who dropped off the raw materials one night while on something resembling a crystal meth high.

As a final word to you, my readers, please beware when you absorb all the fragments that are inflicted on you every day. Take your time. Examine them. Interpret them. Look at the motives behind them. It can be dangerous to let power freaks do the work for you, not to mention that it’s an insult to your intelligence. Remember, there’s a hell of a lot more at stake in the real world than the literary one. Democracies can fail. Women can lose control of their lives. Poor people can become dead people. The bad guys, and they’re usually guys, aren’t fucking around.

A Few Words On Black Humor and Prose Poetry

I’d like to offer a few words about comedy—more specifically, about the kind of comedy I enjoy, which is black humor and its subgenres, satire and parody. I also want to explore why what some people find comic, others consider to be silly, stupid, and sometimes even, a bit disturbing. At the same time, I hope to champion a literary genre I am very fond of—the prose poem—and suggest why it provides such a fertile ground for comedy.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote that the “comical is present in every stage of life, for wherever there is life there is contradiction.” Although even the biggest sourpuss might agree with this statement, anyone who has ever taught a course on comedy knows that it’s very difficult to decide just what is comic.

In my dissertation on black humor in the novels of John Hawkes, I went to great lengths to describe the dark comedy of a scene in his novel The Lime Twig where a woman is bound by a thug, appropriately named Thick, then seriously roughed up. I explained how Hawkes distances us from the horror of that event by narrating it through the point of view of the woman, who, at the moment of the beating, is considering, among other odd things, how the position she’s tied in is bad for her figure. It is the juxtaposition of how we think she should perceive the event, and how she actually experiences it that elicits a bizarre and uncomfortable black-humorish cringe from us. In other words, we are literally caught in between the horror of the event and her comic response to it.

Imagine my shock when a friend of mine, a woman, angrily pointed out that there never was and never would be anything funny about a woman being beaten. Did my friend lack a sense of humor? I wondered. Not at all. In fact, by any decent moral standards, she was right. I, too, was appalled by the scene, and yet wasn’t she missing what Hawkes was trying to accomplish, that is, to deliberately make us uncomfortable by forcing us to straddle the fine line between comedy and tragedy.

The problem was that I was writing about it as a literary critic, relying on cold-blooded analysis, focusing on Hawkes’s techniques; her interpretation was based on human decency, a response that’s impossible not to sympathize with. Our differences in approaches suggest that comedy shares the same problem as pornography. As D. H. Lawrence said, “What is pornography to one man is the laughter of genius to another.” Teach Woody Allen’s short fiction to a class of freshman; some will laugh so hard they’ll nearly fall off their chairs; others will find him stupid and silly. Teach a few classes on the literary and artistic experiments of an avant-garde movement like Dada; some will rejoice in its nihilistic hijinks, others will find them incoherent, childish, or needlessly obscure—all of which responses, ironically, would have pleased the Dadaists.

This lack of consensus on comedy was driven home to me about twenty years ago when I was editing a journal, called The Prose Poem: An International Journal. The well-known prose poet Russell Edson had sent me a number of prose poems, and I was trying to decide which ones to accept. One of the poems was called “The Encounter.”


A hand was resting on the table in front of me in a sleepy fist. Suddenly it flipped on its back and opened its fingers as if asking to have its palm read.

But as I looked into its lines it suddenly flew up and slapped me in the face.

I began to cry.…

Then this hand, I forget which, began to wipe away my tears.…


A cute poem, but certainly, not an extremely funny poem in any complex way. Consequently, I placed it on the end table and began paging through his other submissions. At that moment my nine-year-old son stumbled in, grabbed the poem, and read it, whereupon he broke into uncontrollable laughter. What did he see that I didn’t? And his reaction was important because I was editing a journal and teaching a course on prose poetry, and the prose poem has a long history of veering toward the comic. In fact, a majority of the submissions I received were darkly comic poems, or at least attempted to be so.

Why do the prose poems I like have a generic predisposition toward comedy?

Here are a few thoughts on the subject. Kierkegaard’s emphasis on contradiction is certainly important. What can be more contradictory than a poem in prose, with its oxymoronic name and paradoxical nature? Edson alludes to this inherent contradiction, comparing the prose poem to a “cast-iron aeroplane that can actually fly.” Charles Simic notes the slapstick element in its composition when he writes: “Writing a prose poem is a bit like trying to catch a fly in a dark room. The fly probably isn’t even there, the fly is inside your head, still you keep tripping over and bumping into things in hot pursuit.”

One reason for the recent prose-poem renaissance is that the postmodern is the norm, almost a cliché. We’re not surprised to see a bald, fully tattooed young woman with three nose rings walking down the street, reading the sermons of Cotton Mather, wearing a Versace blouse, cutoff jeans, and a pair of wingtips. That’s the spirit of the prose poem, which is why it flourished during the glory years of Dada and surrealism, even appearing in the collage experiments of the Cubists. It’s only appropriate that the outrageously quirky poet Max Jacob shared living space with Pablo Picasso.

And what better approximates the comic juxtaposition and disruption of the prose poem, not to mention its parodic inclinations, than a work like Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride, which visually debunks one of the sacred symbols of romantic love by splintering planes and connecting shifting forms with odd pipes and tendons, forcing us to yoke two different and opposed views of the human anatomy. Indeed, so much of the art and literature that springs from cubism, surrealism, and Dada, not to mention the comic hijinks of so many 20th century modernist and postmodernist works, relies heavily on the above kind of comic juxtaposition and disruption, where we have to recognize and reconcile two opposing responses to a work.

The novelist and journalist Arthur Koestler calls this interpretive act “bisociation.” He begins his discussion by referring to a joke from Freud’s essay on the unconscious, a joke that reads like a prose poem:


Chamfort tells the story of a Marquis at the court of Louis XIV who, on entering his wife’s boudoir and finding her in the arms of the Bishop, walked calmly to the window and went through the motion of blessing the people in the street.

“What are you doing?” cried the angry wife.

“Monsignor is performing my functions,” replied the Marquis, “so I am performing



Koestler attributes the humor of this joke to the Marquis’ unexpected reaction, which overthrows our own expectations. But more important, he argues that we laugh at the joke because it contains two separate and self-consistent “frames of reference,” in this case “codes of conduct.” The logic of one code of behavior suggests that the Marquis will be so angered that he might throw the Bishop out of the window. But, simultaneously, we recognize another code, which deals with the “division of labor, the quid pro quo, the give and take.” And this code, too, has its own logic, which makes sense to us in another context. The “clash of these two mutually incompatible codes or associative contexts” can best be seen in a prose poem like Edson’s “Sleep”:


There was a man who didn’t know how to sleep, nodding off every night into a drab unprofessional sleep. Sleep that he’d grown so tired of sleeping.

He tried reading The Manual of Sleep, but it just put him to sleep. That same old sleep that he had grown so tired of sleeping …

He needed a sleeping master, who with a whip and chair would discipline the night and make him jump through hoops of gasolined fire. Someone who could make a tiger sit on a tiny pedestal and yawn.


We laugh at this poem because of the juxtaposition of the simple, hopefully natural act of sleeping with the stern discipline we associate with manuals and circus trainers. The comic absurdity of the poem is captured with the phrase “sleeping master.” Yet the poem is held together not by absurdity but logic. Certainly, if there is such a thing as “unprofessional sleep,” then there must be “The Manual of Sleep” and a “sleeping master.” This poem, in a sense, works overtime, being a parody of self-help manuals while also poking fun of a flaw in human nature which makes us slavishly obey the advice of an absurd manual.

We can also see this kind of humor playing out in a poem like Nin Andrews’ “Spontaneous Breasts”:


All her life Rena had prayed to develop breasts. When she confided this to Barry Slick, the great Rishi, he informed her that she need only act as if she already had breasts. “It’s all in your mind,” he said. For seven days and seven nights Rena pondered. On the evening of the eighth night, a tremendous bosom flew out of her left side, soon to be followed by another on the right. A feeling of their presence filled the room, along with a soft white haze and the scent of rain. Rena could almost hear the breasts breathing. For many years after, Rena felt as if she were walking through a heavy fog with unexpected visitors.


Concerning this poem, Andrews has said: “Deep down many of us seem to believe that there is some kind of magic, a secret recipe, lover, prayer, or, in the case of Rena, a big bosom or two, that could deliver us whatever we wish for, that could transform us from Cinderellas into queens, from humans into angels, from couch potatoes into Olympians, from frigid souls into athletes in bed. Of course, advertisers feed on our unconfessed beliefs and yearnings, selling us potions, gowns, diets, drugs, faiths and mantras of every flavor, species, and dimension. There are, after all, so many seductive myths, parables, and fairy tales of both positive and negative transformations, how can we resist them?”

Her comments suggest that to make sense of this poem, we must recognize how it pokes fun of a certain behavior, while also parodying the genres she mentions. Substitution is at work here, a mental process that has always been crucial to comedy.

Although these prose poems by Edson and Andrews may seem silly, I would argue that the humor, especially in Andrews’s poem is dark and serious. The kind of human behavior satirized in both poems is the same one that allows us to look for simple solutions and accept the crackpot theories of half-baked charlatans, phony psychic plumbers, and sanitized witch doctors. We don’t have to look far to see how far that dumb human characteristic has gotten us today.

Now you might ask, “Couldn’t a verse poem manipulate some of these same conceits?” Most certainly, yet I believe that the paradoxical nature of the prose poem, the way it so willingly embraces opposites, makes it an ideal destination for such bisociation, which is why so many comic poets are attracted to it.

Elsewhere I have 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. Certainly, the blending of these unlike characteristics makes us laugh at the platypus, just as we are amused by the way prose poems merge elements of the parable, the fable, the aphorism, and so on. But, unlike the prose poem’s indeterminate generic makeup, the platypus’s genetic code is predetermined. It can’t all of a sudden grow an elephant’s trunk out of its backside, or a rhinoceros’s horn out of its forehead, then have a Venus flytrap sprout from the tip of the horn. If it could endlessly reinvent itself like this, then it would resemble a prose poem, and a pretty good one at that.

In Praise of the Ampersand

There’s a tattoo of a tiny gun on my hand symbolic of the tiny wars I wage inside myself. Its barrel beckons like the phallus that’s visible when you stare directly at the sun. My father said, “A man who can’t fight is disgusting.” He was half-right about that. Most fathers are, even the one who erected a basketball backboard outside my bedroom window. In the evening, when the sun shrugs its tense shoulders, neighborhood children are rewarded with ice cream. But I’m sent to bed, where I stare at the tiny doorknob tattooed on my other hand until I fall asleep.


We experience much of life through symbols and imagery. Being an English professor, I could bore you endlessly with the subtle differences between the image and the symbol. I mean, that’s what English professors do. But, in reality, I often don’t think there is much difference between the way we process images and symbols, and that they often resemble two jazz musicians who complement each other while doing their own things.

The perfect example of this interplay between image and symbol occurs in that old movie Citizen Kane where the main character, Charles Kane, played by Orson Welles, on his deathbed, murmurs the word “Rosebud.” It’s an enigmatic exhalation that only becomes intelligible at the end when all of Kane’s belongings are going up in flames, and we see Kane’s childhood snow sled on top of the burning heap, with the word “Rosebud” emblazoned on it. At that moment, we realize that the image of the sled is a symbol of the simplicity and innocence of Kane’s youth, in contrast to his troubled, chaotic adult life.

Note how I use “image” and “symbol” interchangeably here, because the sled cannot be a symbol until we absorb the image of it burning.

We have lost a lot of symbolism in our culture, and most images inflicted on us are meant to manipulate not to enlighten or uplift us. But on a very personal level, we all have relied on symbols to navigate life’s uncertain terrain. Whenever I was terrified as a child and experienced the anxiety of being unable to sleep, and when my prayers seemed to disappear into the deaf ear of darkness, I would stare at the brass knob on my bedroom door until I drifted off. It was a kind of meditative exercise.  Years later, I didn’t need a Jungian psychologist to read the symbolism of that doorknob. To my childhood consciousness the doorknob represented a way out. The claustrophobia suggested by the closed door was indeed real, but, at any time, I could get up and escape by grabbing the knob. The doorknob became a friend of sorts. It was hard, shiny, and stubborn. It basically said, “I’m here if you need me.”

Which brings me to the ampersand: &

The ampersand is my favorite logogram. As a reminder, the logogram is a sign or character representing a word or phrase and is often used as shorthand in some writing systems. Take the dollar sign ($), for example. But the ampersand has a more interesting history than the dollar sign, and before you can consider its symbolic possibilities, you have to look at its literal history. Something can’t stand for something else until you know what that something “literally” is.

& is a ligature. It’s a combination of the Latin letters “e” and “t,” which put together spell the Latin word et. Et means “and” in Latin. If you look at different renderings of the ampersand on the internet, you will see that in some of them, the “e” and “t” are more obviously visible. The Romans used many ligatures in their writing, but the ampersand persisted throughout history, reaching its peak in the mid-19th century when it was often included as the 27th character of the alphabet.

I could delve deeper into the ampersand’s history, but I am more interested in what it symbolizes. You could argue that its long history suggests its stubbornness, or that its ability to effortlessly absorb two letters suggests it has a welcoming nature, or that its elegant design exemplifies a certain grace. But just as all symbols have general connotations, we also, as individuals, have personal reactions to symbols. Note my “reading” of the doorknob as a symbol of freedom when I was a child. Not many people would feel the same way about a doorknob.

For me, the effortless visual looping and crisscrossing of the ampersand represents acceptance.  It also symbolizes a way of life mentioned in one of my favorite novels.  In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, the phrase “So it goes” often appears after a tragedy, especially after a death. It was Vonnegut’s way, I think, of dealing with the frightening unpredictability of life and accepting our powerlessness to change certain things. He had been a prisoner of war in Dresden after World Ward II, and after the city had been firebombed and burned to a crisp, he was forced to clean up the mess—the destroyed building and charred bodies, the stench of burnt flesh probably never leaving his nostrils. In short, he witnessed the worst of humanity. But Vonnegut didn’t see the “So it goes” approach to life as being a sign of helplessness. In fact, you could argue that the “goes” part of the phrase encourages one to persist, to endure, in spite of what life can throw at you.

For some reason, I have always thought of Vonnegut’s phrase as being, “And so it goes,” probably because that is the title of one of his biographies I read years ago. So whenever I see the ampersand, I think of the “So it goes” line from Slaughterhouse-Five. Whenever I butt heads with something cruel or unfair, some behavior or happenstance that can’t be rationally explained, I say to myself, “And so it goes.” It has been almost a mantra for me, which is why, much to my wife’s consternation, I have decided to have a tiny ampersand tattooed on the “V” between my left forefinger and thumb. I plan to look at it every time I am completely frustrated by the random nonsense that often rears its ugly head. That tiny ampersand will be a symbolic antidote to all things unexplainable and dumb. It will lead me to a kind of Stoic acceptance of the unpredictability and fragility of my life. Oh, to invent a symbol as complex and adventurous as the ampersand!

Some may search for the mythological island of Atlantis or the Fountain of Youth, but the joy of getting lost in the symbolic intricacies of the ampersand is enough for me.


Note: All of these essays first appeared in a different forms on my Substack page at , and the one on comedy was first published in different forms in the Green Mountains Review, then later in my books of essays on prose poetry, Truths, Falsehoods, and a Wee Bit of Honesty: A Primer on the Prose Poem, with Selected Letters from Russell Edson, which is available at

Peter Johnson has published seven books of prose poems, six novels, two collections of short stories, a book of essays on the prose poem, and three anthologies of prose poetry. His poetry and fiction have received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Rhode Island Council on the Arts, and his second book of prose poems was awarded the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. His most recent book is While the Undertaker Sleeps: Collected and New Prose Poems. More information can be found at and on his Substack site at