Peter Johnson, whose essay appears below, almost singlehandedly revived the currency of the prose poem during the nineties and early oughts with his journal The Prose Poem, which has now been digitized in full by the Phillips Memorial Library at Providence College. In addition to reviving Russell Edson’s career, Johnson has had a substantial impact on establishing the arc of the prose poem in contemporary poetry from its provenance in the work of Aloyisius Bertrand and Baudelaire to such poets as James Tate, Denise Duhamel, Charles Simic, Nin Andrews, Harriet Mullen, Jeff Friedman, Robert Bly, Bill Knot, Stephen Berg, Mark Strand, David Ignatow, and W.S. Merwin. His new anthology of prose poems, The Cast Iron Airplane That Actually Flies is scheduled for publication this fall.
— Chard deNiord, Associate Editor Criticism and Essays
“The Prose Poem and the Problem of Genre”
When it comes to deciding on whether a work of short prose is a prose poem, a flash fiction, a microessay, or any other short genre you can think up, no one seems to care anymore. “Forget about genre,” people say, “All that matters, is if the piece is any good.” Well, of course, but these same people forget to mention that what’s “good” is very subjective. Many people love the prose in Tender Buttons. I too appreciate Stein’s wit and intelligence, but I can’t say I enjoy reading the book. To me, it’s like going to bed with someone who wants to discuss Wittgenstein all night. “Yeah, fascinating stuff,” you say, “but when are we going to get to the fun part?” So does “good” have to do with the artistic appreciation of what an author is attempting, or does it refer to the pure enjoyment of the text without knowing anything about genre or literary precedents or autobiographical details, or what the author says about his or her work?
What makes a discussion of the prose poem-as-genre even more confusing is that it has a long history of borrowing from other genres, and it often does this playfully. The prose poem likes to have fun, and to most poets poetry is a very serious business. To simplify matters, I’d like to begin by accepting the notion that it is impossible to define the prose poem, which doesn’t mean that issues of genre are irrelevant. The best we can do is to argue that the prose poem exhibits certain characteristics, and even those characteristics are determined by the literary background and tastes of the person reading the prose poem. Any approach to it as a genre must necessarily be eclectic. When pressed, my go-to description of prose poetry is Michael’s Benedikt’s. He writes that prose poetry “is 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,” except for the line break. This description works for me because it privileges the “poetry” part of the genre, and it’s broad enough to be fairly inclusive.
What I’d like to do is to offer brief personal readings of three very different works of prose that I consider to be prose poetry. After that’s done, I’ll make a few generalizations that will annoy everyone. Let it be known that the following readings are offered by a guy who writes prose poetry, exclusively, who has read the major studies of the genre, who founded a journal on the prose poem and edited it for nine years, who has been sent and has read about 150 books of prose poems published as prose poetry, who taught a course on the prose poem for twenty years, and who recently finished editing an anthology where he asked eighty contemporary American poets to choose a prose poem and to write a commentary on it (A Cast-iron Aeroplane That Can Actually Fly: Commentaries from 80 Contemporary American Poets on Their Prose Poetry, forthcoming from MadHat Press, Fall, 2019).
And now the poems:
Clear of oak groves, sunrise stretched a thin reach deep into the chamber, tripping the
setting of fires on hilltops: signals relayed to the quarters. A day to plant or hunt, enter
women or agreements.
Night skies were laid on fields in perfect orientation before the plates opened, wandered,
collided; they continue and will. There is so much to take into account. It may be
impossible to choose for myself; all pleasures might hand me loneliness.
I find the dark room, tip the white table to catch a shaft bent by a mirror, shot through a
pin hole, and I’ll watch the ocean upside down. Foam churns at the edge of a vision. It is
time to do something in particular.
I was stolen by the gypsies. My parents stole me right 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.
(from Lawn of Excluded Middle)
I worried about the gap between expression and intent, afraid the world might see a
fluorescent advertisement where I meant to show a face. Sincerity is no help once we
admit to the lies we tell on nocturnal occasions, even in the solitude of our own heart,
wishcraft slanting the naked figure from need to seduce to fear of possession. Far better
to cultivate the gap itself with its high grass for privacy and reference gone astray. Never
mind that it is not philosophy, but raw electrons jumping from orbit to orbit to ready the
pit for the orchestra, scrap meanings amplifying the succession of green perspectives,
moist fissures, spasms on the lips.
Killarney Clary’s untitled piece is the perfect poem in prose. It has a recognizable prose narrative structure, but because of its internal leaps, normal narrative syntax is subverted. Thus, the leaps act like line breaks in verse. Throughout the poem, poetic descriptions are often followed by statements. Consider this poem without those statements:
Clear of oak groves, sunrise stretched a thin reach deep into the chamber, tripping
the setting of fires on hilltops. Night skies were laid on fields in perfect
orientation before the plates opened, wandered, collided. I find the dark room, tip
the white table to catch a shaft bent by a mirror, shot through a pin hole, and I’ll
watch the ocean upside down. Foam churns at the edge of a vision.
On its own, this is a very fine prose poem, containing many characteristics we associate with verse poetry. It has figurative language and the kind of “I” we find in lyric poetry. How often have natural descriptions, from the time of the Romantics, mirrored the internal state of the poet? But the poem gains more complexity with the addition of those discursive statements: “There is so much to take into account. It may be impossible to choose for myself”; “all pleasures might hand me loneliness”; and “It is time to do something in particular.” These statements provide the leaps and juxtapositions of discourses so characteristic of prose poetry. To borrow a description of prose poetry from Charles Simic, it seems that Clary’s piece “looks like prose on the page, but acts like a poem in your head.”
My reading of Clary’s piece is also influenced by other knowledge about prose poetry I’ve absorbed over the years. The first time I read Clary’s poem I appreciated its poetic language and interesting shifts in consciousness that made its meaning elusive. But then I began to situate it in tradition. I saw it in the context of the associative leaps that Robert Bly says characterize prose poetry. Much of the deep imagery in Clary’s poem even approximates the spirituality of Bly’s best object prose poems. Her poem reminds me, too, of the austerity of Jean Follain’s prose poems. Both poets are exceptional at recreating what Follain calls, “a world rich in anniversaries.” Was Clary inspired by Follain or Bly? Was she also influenced by the very short epiphanic moments of her friend Gary Young’s prose poetry, who himself was influenced by “Basho’s haikus”? Are Clary’s prose poems, in a way, extended prose haikus? Who knows? What matters is that once a prose poem is written it becomes part of a genre tradition, and knowing that tradition affects how we read and evaluate it, and that evaluation changes over time.
Does it help, too, knowing that Clary’s poem was submitted and first appeared in a journal on the prose poem, and later appeared in a book that was published and marketed as a book of prose poems? Of course.
Charles Simic’s piece is a very different animal, though, in some ways, easier to evaluate as a prose poem. Ignoring genre for a second, we can see many of the classic traits found in Simic’s verse poetry. He starts with an odd first sentence, then follows its logic, a strategy that, as in Russell Edson’s prose poems, often creates humor. Simic’s interest in folktales is also here. He seems to have fun flipping the prince and the pauper genre on its head. Instead of there being two narrators who choose to change places, Simic’s narrator involuntarily lives a double life, endlessly being stolen, and then stolen back. This kind of repetition and juxtaposition also creates humor. Look at Edson’s prose poem “The Captain” to see a similar example of how this kind of repetition works.
It seems then that it helps to read Simic’s poem if we come to it with the above knowledge. But there’s more! Simic has actually written on prose poetry, calling it a “veritable literary hybrid, an impossible amalgamation of lyric poetry, anecdote, fairy tale, allegory, joke, journal entry, and many other kinds of prose.” This sounds to me like a perfect description of “I was stolen by the gypsies.” To make things easier he’s even confessed that while writing the poem he was thinking about the “brevity and stunning lunacy” of the prose poems of Max Jacob, Daniil Kharms, and Russell Edson. Even the book the poem appeared in, The World Doesn’t End, was published, marketed, and received the Pulitzer Prize as a book of prose poems, much to the horror of many verse poets.
With all this information in mind, it would be difficult not to read “I was stolen by the gypsies” as a prose poem, or to evaluate it in the context of the other prose poems and genres Simic mentions. But not so fast! In this same commentary, Simic confesses that the “prose fragments” in The World Doesn’t End were never meant to be labeled prose poetry. “What I had done,” he writes, “is to copy some of my nearly illegible scribblings from old notebooks, which after I rediscovered them and read them, struck me as having poetic qualities of their own and strung all together surprisingly read like a tongue-in-cheek autobiography [yet another genre].” But his editor insisted that they had to call the book something, so she and Simic settled upon prose poetry.
Should we care about this revelation? Does it change the way we read and evaluate the fragments in The World Doesn’t End? I’ll try to make sense of this later.
Coming to Rosmarie Waldrop’s piece with no knowledge of her or the milieu she operates in can be very frustrating. Meaning is very elusive. We have the lyric “I” but it’s very different from Killarney Clary’s “I.” Waldrop’s “I” is more ruminative. On the first reading, the piece seems deliberately obscure, even mean-spirited in the way it thumbs its nose at referentiality. We are used to being spoon-fed poetry, and even when we come upon a difficult poem, there are usually recognizable metaphors to guide us. In contrast, we have to read Waldrop’s poem in a whole new way. The key sentence is: “Far better to cultivate the gap itself with its high grass for privacy and reference gone astray.” Thus, the poem itself is a defense of the method and sensibility informing the poem. Waldrop herself is “worried” that people might not “get” the poem, but she ends up feeling it’s better and more authentic to cultivate the “gaps,” which will lead us to a new way of reading poetry and of experiencing the world.
This interpretation is borne out by Waldrop’s own comments on the poem. First, she argues that the prose poem should not be confused with fiction. “Of the two terms yoked together in its name,” she write, “poem is the more important. It needs to have the poem’s density and intensity. It must take wing.” She goes on to say that in her prose poems, “I cultivate cuts, discontinuity, leaps, shifts in reference. ‘Gap gardening,’ I have called it, and my main tool for it is collage.” Perhaps it might be best to describe Waldrop’s poem, and much of Language poetry-in-prose for that matter, as exploratory prose, which often appeals more to the intellect than to the emotions.
As in the case of Simic and Clary, Waldrop’s poem was published as a sequence of prose poems and marketed as such. She also edited Burning Deck Press for years, which published many seminal books of prose poems, especially from writers abroad. This information must also affect our reception of the poem.
So where does all this leave us? I would suggest the following common sense generalizations (at least to me) about how to read prose poetry.
1) Any formal definition of the prose poem fails. Description should be privileged over
prescription. In his study of the prose poem, Michel Delville provides us with one
possible interpretive strategy: to draw “inductively on an existing body of works
labeled, marketed, or simply received as prose poem.”
2) It is impossible to look at the prose poem outside of the context of other genres that it
shares traits with or subverts. We can’t come to a work as blank slates. We bring our
knowledge of other genres with us, even if we have absorbed those genres unconsciously.
In terms of the prose poems, fables, fairy tales, riddles, and folktales come to mind.
3) Extraliterary information can be helpful. Even what an author says is useful. Even if an
author says that his short prose wasn’t self-consciously written as prose poetry, that
information helps us in evaluating a work. Take Simic’s case, for example. Although he
suggests that he never expected his prose fragments to be received as prose poems, he
does admit that he’s always been a fan of the prose poetry of Max Jacob, Daniil
Kharms, and Russell Edson. Perhaps, then, he has unconsciously adopted some of their
strategies in his fragments: the unexpected juxtapositions that cause humor, for
instance. And even if he hasn’t, once he mentions those writers, it is fruitful to revisit
the prose poems in The World Doesn’t End with those writers in mind.
4) The connections between genre and interpretation and evaluation are important. As
Steve Monte says, “’What does it mean to read X as a prose poem?’ may turn out to be
a more significant question than ‘Is X a prose poem?’” Later he adds, that when “we try
to decide the genre of a work, then, our aim is to discover its meaning.” Some of
Picasso’s Cubist paintings viewed out of context are unintelligible. But when we
discover that one is called “Still Life with a Bottle of Rum,” suddenly previously
enigmatic lines and angles make sense, and the painting can be partially evaluated by
how it adds to or subverts the still life genre.
5) All of the above is negotiable and fluid. Or as Monte writes, “Our sense of genre is
therefore always ‘in progress,’ changing as we read onward and encounter new
interpretive frameworks.” It is, in fact, this dynamic quality of the prose poem, always
straddling the lines between poetry and prose and the borders between genres, both feet
planted precariously on banana peels, that makes it so appealing.
So to all who say, “Forget about genre. All that matters is if a work is any good,” I say “Hooey!” Statements like these privilege the reader to an absurd degree, while also being an example of the kind of narcissistic, lazy thinking responsible for much of the weak criticism and poetry being written today.
Clary, Killarney. Who Whispered Near Me. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989.
Delville, Michel. The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1998.
Johnson, Peter. Pretty Happy! Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press, 1997. “Introduction” by Charles Simic.
Johnson, Peter. A Cast-iron Aeroplane That Can Actually Fly: Commentaries from 80 Contemporary American Poets on Their Prose Poetry. Asheville, NC: MadHat Press, September 2019.
Monte, Steven. Invisible Fences: Prose Poetry as a Genre in French and American Literature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
Simic, Charles. The World Doesn’t End: Prose Poems. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.
Waldrop, Rosmarie. Lawn of Excluded Middle. Providence, RI: Tender Buttons Press, 1993.