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Response and Bio Michael Cross

I’m extremely suspect of the argument (conveyed here by a number of Double Room contributors) that the prose poem, as a form, is somehow more “honest” than verse writing. David Shumate, in response to William Stafford’s 1971 interview writes, “I am drawn to Stafford’s suggestion that the prose poem is an honest form which renounces using white space to ‘bamboozle’ a reader and instead forces heavier reliance on other poetic conventions.” Tina Brown Celona’s response further complicates the relationship between verse and violence as she writes,

Line breaks feel to me like a kind of aggression, an imposition of the poet’s will on the reader. Prose poetry is subtler and less condescending. At the same time, the reader who can hear the rhythms of prose is more discerning than a reader who can hear only the heavier rhythms of verse. Verse is like an elephant running whereas prose is like the same elephant stepping carefully over a pile of droppings.

I wonder how this sits next to Joyelle McSweeney’s argument, which, while it seems to condone a kind of aggression all its own (“I like to fill up…the whole damn page”), seems to add a necessary nuance to the argument above:

I like prose poetry because it obliterates silence for the time that it exists. I like to fill up the whole line, the whole damn page, many many pages. At the same time, I like its temporality, its ‘flash in the pan’ existence. There’s an honesty in that. I like that it exposes itself. Everything shows in a sentence.

I read the argument here (taken as a whole) as a kind of two-fold proposition. On the one hand, the prose poem is “honest” in the sense that it aspires to a kind of Heideggerian active-passivity: the poem “calls” to the reader (in a “middle voice”), but does not explicitly teach her how to read. Said reader invents the poem as she discerns (or doesn’t!) its measure, reading to the rhythm of her internal metronome (as Pound would have it); in other words, the reader may or may not “hear” the more nuanced or subtle polyrhythms of the poem, depending on her skills as a reader, but that’s out of the poet’s hands. The second “fold” of the proposition is that, according to McSweeney, the prose poem is a democracy of constituent parts. By allowing “everything to show(s) in the sentence,” by creating a window for the reader to exist next to the poem’s “flash in the pan,” she (the reader) experiences the very real autonomy of “choice.” Some aspects of the poem will speak to her; others will blend in with the wallpaper of language on the page. But she has a choice, and she’s not “bamboozled” into making it (and this is, finally, “honest”).

Interestingly, Joshua Marie Wilkinson responds to McSweeney by suggesting that the “everything equal” approach can “obliterate the honesty… in prose poetry.” He continues,  

I also love the way the sentence doesn't showcase anything—as she says, “Everything shows in a sentence” and that rings true with me; each moment even fragments are reduced to another intelligence and remain at the level of every other thing.

While Wilkinson challenges McSweeney’s use of the term “honesty” (or at least it’s Platonic connotations), he’s really suggesting something very similar: the leveling of the poem’s parts to “things among things” only serves to increase the writer’s alterity and passivity, which kind of gets us back to the very same argument above: the prose poem is “honest” in that it promotes a kind of authorial-passivity that “gives” the reader a kind of nonviolent experience of autonomy. Because the writer, herself, is “estranged,” the poem loses its power to “bamboozle.”

I find this all very dubious for two very important reasons. Maybe three.

Reason the first: who says the reader somehow “knows” how to read a poem because it has line breaks, or that the verse line forces a reading? Huh? Isn’t this rather ahistorical? Any reader with even a glimmer of knowledge about 20th century poetry knows that, if anything, the line break, the caesura, enjambment, etc. complicates the reader’s experience of the line as he or she negotiates its meaning(s), trying to carry multiple possibilities into the next line. In other words, the line break is perhaps one of the most important tools in the poet’s arsenal (aggressive?!) to increase indeterminacy. This is especially true of Black Mountain poetics. Read some Creeley, or Zukofsky to further complicate things, and do your damnedest to argue that either author forces the reader to experience a line in a single manner, or that either beats you over the head with the line break (Of course the line break can be aggressive, often intentionally so for affect, but it can be so subtle that, four lines down, the reader has to return to the top of the stanza because there are so many variant readings). For nuance of measure and complexity of rhythm, see A-22 and A-23 and count the gazillion ways a single line can be read (and read over a line break). Zukofsky has three elephants racing to stanza’s end, and a handful gracefully pirouetting over their poop amongst them, all in the very same line.

Secondly: the “everything equal” argument, the “honesty” of leveling the moment to its parts (things among things), seems to me to be the very problem with the contemporary prose poem, or, at least, this coupled with the fallout of the New Sentence. Tina Brown Celona claims, at the end of her response, “I personally find writing prose poems very relaxing, because I don’t constantly have to make decisions about where to break the line. The poem spins itself out like a spiderweb, leading to an inevitable conclusion.” The passivity here, that the poem simply makes itself, the poet just “arranges” things, seems unethical to me. As if one isn’t choosing what to include. As if one’s perspective is objective. This leads to what I’m calling the “fallout of the New Sentence,” thousands of MFA students composing the same prose poem, letting the parataxis lead “to an inevitable conclusion,” writing a poetry that is all surprise, all parataxis, in which “everything shows,” but the poem is essentially empty of transition and decision. Weird and surprising (alone) doesn’t a poem make. And, finally, what about the myriad decisions regarding measure, rhythm, and timing throughout the rest of the line (given that we’re not going to stress about the line break)? As the one-time editor of a magazine and the current editor of a chapbook press, I can’t even begin to count how many poems I see that are all parataxis and no bite. The poet simply lets the poem decide what is included (which means, in other words, that everything is included, because the poet shouldn’t have to decide!). How can we challenge ourselves as prose poets to rethink the form? I don’t think it’s enough to argue that a prose poem is different from verse simply because it doesn’t have line breaks, or that a prose poem is different from fiction simply because it relies on parataxis. How could we complicate the prose poem, critically, by rethinking these distinctions? Why would we want to “relax,” and aren’t we trying to come to conclusions that are not inevitable?           

And finally: what does it even mean for a poem to be “honest”?

I’m interested in a poetry that challenges what can be done with the line. A poetry that never relaxes, but thinks itself, its composition, at every moment. Every turn of composition is decision, and the polysemy of this fact increases the poem’s potential to mean otherwise. The poem’s autonomy, the reader’s autonomy, is a product of multivalence—horizontal and vertical movement (and this is true of all poetry). I suppose I write a kind of prose poem, in the sense that I’m interested in the possibilities of the long line, but I absolutely cannot ignore the fact that the line must end (even in prose). I’m interested in challenging the line to hold all of its possibilities at once—a line that embeds verse in a prose sentence. Isn’t the “honest” poet working toward the complexity of the situation as she has it in the moment? And isn’t the “honest” reader comporting to this moment in the complexity of her understanding as a subject split into thousands of subjectivities? What does this have to do with the prose line specifically? Isn’t it time we give it more thought?


Michael Cross edited Involuntary Vision: after Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (Avenue B, 2003), and is currently editing an anthology of the George Oppen Memorial Lectures at San Francisco State University. He publishes Atticus/Finch Chapbooks (, and his first book, in felt treeling, is forthcoming from Tucson, Arizona’s Chax Press. He is currently a doctorial candidate at SUNY Buffalo.