An Introductory Angle on Prose Poetry
    James Grinwis
Prose poems are everywhere. While they have carved their own comfortable niches, igloos, and fortresses in the global literary landscape, the question "what are they exactly?" has been posed often, sometimes with a kind of internecine sneer. An answer to the question is suggested quite nicely by one of the masters of the form, James Tate, in his early "Prose Poem," from The Oblivion Ha-Ha (1970):
    I am surrounded by the pieces of this huge puzzle: hereís a piece I call my wife, and hereís an odd one I call convictions, hereís conventions, hereís collisions, conflagrations, congratulations. Such a puzzle this is! I like to grease up all the pieces and pile them in the center of the basement after everyone else is asleep . . .
Here, Tate indirectly evokes the lovely, royal mess we call the prose poem. Like life, it is paradoxically hard to compartmentalize, while being a complete compartmentalization of it. Itís a place for a great conglomeration to occur, a puzzle to be concocted, an unruly though neatly-shaped square box in which the writer selects and mixes his or her ingredients for the meal, the project, the machine. On the very first line of his introduction to his prose poem anthology (co-edited with Stuart Friebert) Models of the Universe, David Young proposes: "The prose poem is a very special invention, like a chair that flies or a small dish that produces food for forty people." Baudelaire, while he could have been writing of free verse in general (a new invention at his time), called prose poetry a "miracle . . . musical without fixed rhythm or rhyme, flexible and irregular enough to match the lyrical movements of the soul, the wave motions of dream, the sudden starts of consciousness."

There is something nice about imagining the prose poem as a kind of machine filled with unusual parts or a dish composed of a great variety of ingredients. "Letís see what we can do inside a single paragraph sized space," a prose poet might mumble as he chooses his objects and tools, "letís see how efficient, surprising, and powerful I can make you." It is for this reason that effective prose poems often fit snugly within a single paragraph: the whole stew bubbling wildly in the pot while nothing spills over, the sweetest effect simmering inside the most compact of spaces.

Often, the world of the language arts seems coated in a crocodilian hide which gets segmented, by those who shape such things, into several often divisive schools and trends. Within this world, the prose poem, a confident loner, remains a gem nestled deep that can be touched by anyone who wants a piece of it. At its best, it is prose and poetry distilled into a form that isnít one or the other but both, existing in a kind of Tao Te Ching evanescence. It is like a small creature who wakes up everyday to go about her business, or like certain compounds and poultices created from the most basic elements out there; it exists in its own scope with its own definitions. A moth owl. A cube of whatever shade is flickering in the trees.

Prose poems exist in a variety of places. Purists may disagree, but they can be appear as excerpts from novels or stories, glistening like stray creatures digging for an unnamed thing. This is one of the most pleasurable experiences I know of in literature: reading for some time and then stumbling quite innocently enough across one or two paragraphs that seem to exist outside the context of the book to flash across your experience with a peculiarly fell swoop. Novelists donít achieve this as often as perhaps theyíd like; and given the greatness of some fictions in their entireties, it is perhaps something they donít care to aspire to. Still, many do pull it off. I am thinking of Proust. Steinbeck (check out chapter 17 of Cannery Row, one of the best examples of prose poetry in all of his work; a lesson of love, truth, and the beer milkshake). Toni Morrison. Yasunari Kowabata (the mono no aware infused "palm in the hand" stories). Calvino. Tolstoy. Such moments in fiction require a stepping outside the context of plot, and it is for this reason that prose poetry is generally the domain of poets. Conversely, prose poems that pack a complete narrative within them belong to the kingdom of fiction, tiny "flash fictions" with a punch. When its done well, the prose poem is an arena where poets and fictionists merge and share a tall one, or enter the ring for a friendly bout, swing into a march where their writing is least broken into form. There is no battle here; itís a win-win situation.

I had an assignment to do at work recently that entailed plodding through numerous high school literature textbooks of the seventies and eighties, in search of among other things passages from short stories, novel excerpts, and essays that conveyed a clear theme (or multiple themes) and used at least one literary device in its evocation of that theme. These passages had to be essentially self-contained; in other words, they had to be able to exist on their own, distinct from the action of the text as a whole. (While those of you with a similar nine-to-five grind as me may gasp about my luck in landing such a wonderful assignment, I will say that I did enjoy it immensely, though clearly many high school textbooks are, sadly, like some high school curriculums: nothing to get very excited about). I discovered that often these passages, while rare, seemed to at once distill the story to which it belonged.

Typically these passages maintain their strength all the way through with imaginative leapings that lock into one another with surprising grace and fluidity, and they end with a real clincher of a sentence. . . . Here are a few examples, not from the job described above, but from my recent reading in general:

Yuri Oleshaís Envy (1927) is packed with comic ingenuity and resonance, fine ingredients for an effective prose poem. Here, as translated by Clarence Brown:

    In the room where I lived before I moved here there was a terrifying bed. I feared it as though it were an apparition. It was hard as a barrel-head. My bones would creak on it. It had a blue blanket on it, which I had bought in Kharkov at a Lady Day fair during one of the famine years. An old peasant woman was selling pies. They were covered with a blanket. As they cooled off they still had enough of the warmth of life to sizzle and squirm like a litter of puppies. I was living poorly at the time, like everybody else, and that whole picture exuded such an air of well-being, coziness, and warmth that I firmly resolved to buy myself just such a blanket. My dream came true. One fine evening I slid beneath a blue blanket. I writhed and squirmed under it, its warmth made me shake as though I were made of jelly. It was rapturous falling asleep. But as time passed the patterns on the blanket swelled out and turned into pretzels.

    Now I sleep on an excellent sofa. I deliberately move about so as to evoke the sound of its new, tight, virginal springs. Little separate droplets of sound come running out of its depths. It creates the impression of air bubbles streaming up to the surface of the water. I fall asleep like a child. On the sofa I fly back into childhood. I know bliss. Once again, like a child, I can control the little interval of time separating the first heaviness of the eyelids, the first blurring of vision, from the onset of real sleep. Once again I am able to prolong that interval, to savor it, to fill it with agreeable thoughts, and -- before being completely engulfed in sleep, while still in command of conscious awareness -- to watch these thoughts already take on dream-flesh, as when bubbles of sound from watery deeps are transformed into quickly rolling grapes, and then a plump cluster of grapes appears, and a whole vineyard, thick with clusters, and the path along the vineyard, a sunlit road summer heat . . .

The surreal bizarreness hops along, we delight in it, it exists on its own and requires no context beyond itself. Hereís one by Luiza Valenzuela, translated by Deborah Bonner, from her 1982 work of fiction Other Weapons:
    The photograph is lying on the lamp-table as evidence. He and she, staring into each otherís eyes with a just-married look about them. Sheís wearing a veil and, behind the veil, an absent expression. Whereas he has the triumphant look of those who think theyíve gotten somewhere. He almost always does -- almost always when heís within her sight -- he takes on that triumphant air of those who think theyíve gotten somewhere. Suddenly it turns off, suddenly, as if someone had hit a switch, it turns off, and the triumph turns into doubt or something far more opaque, hard to explain, unfathomable. That is: eyes open but with a sort of lowered curtain, hermetic eyes, staring but not seeing her at all, or maybe only seeing what sheís lost on some curve along the road. Whatís been left behind and he wonít get back because, deep down, the last thing he wants to do is get it back. But there was a road, that much she does know, with all the atmospheric conditions of the human road (the big storms).

    Living like that, in the absolute present, in a world thatís born every instant or at most was born a few days back (how many?) is like living in cotton wool: somewhat soft and warm, but with no taste at all.

Valenzuela here achieves a moment outside the concerns of plot, hammering out a contemplative design that resonates on its own. Hereís one more of these poems in fiction, this one by Rudyard Kipling, writing in 1898, from his short story "The Ship That Found Herself."

    In the next few days they stowed some two thousand tonsí dead weight into the Dimbula and took her out from Liverpool. As soon as she met the lift of the open water, she naturally began to talk. If you lay your ear to the side of the cabin the next time you are in a steamer, you will hear hundreds of little voices in every direction, thrilling and buzzing, and whispering and popping, and gurgling and sobbing and squeaking exactly like a telephone in a thunderstorm. Wooden ships shriek and growl and grunt, but iron vessels throb and quiver through all their hundreds of ribs and thousands of rivets. The Dimbula was very strongly built, and every piece of her had a letter or number, or both, to describe it; and every piece had been hammered, or forged, or rolled, or punched by man, and had lived in the roar and rattle of the shipyard for months. Therefore, every piece had its own separate voice in exact proportion to the amount of trouble spent on it. Cast iron, as a rule, says very little; but mild steel plates and wrought iron, and ribs and beams that have been much bent and welded and riveted, talk continuously. Their conversation, of course, is not half as wise as our human talk; because they are all, though they do not know it, bound down one to the other in a black darkness, where they cannot tell what is happening near them, nor what will overtake them next.

The personification of all parts of the ship, along with virtuosic rhythm, repetition, and language play, finished off with that gauntlet of a last line, serve to make this paragraph resonate and exist quite comfortably enough on its own as a prose poem.

Letís progress from the fiction angle of things to that of poetry, because nobody nails a prose poem like a poet, and it is in the ranks of poets where the prose poem reaches its greatest heights. While the prose part of prose poetry seems to have been the result of a distillation of prose to its raw ingredients in as powerfully compact a form possible, the poetry side seems to have been neither a rally of sorts, nor a diminishment of effect, but rather a simple expansion of line and content, a friendly Eros-like barb aimed at the organs of fiction. Given the sense of imagery and movement that must be embedded in the minds of poets, the result is a refreshing shot of mysticism. One of the best sharpshooters of the form is Charles Simic, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book of prose poems The World Doesnít End (1985). Hereís one of the first (and regularly anthologized) pieces from the book:

    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.

Funny, sad, swift, lethal . . . it wastes no time, not an ounce. The book has 74 of them. They show how the prose poem can be exciting and moving and all those things we want from literature through its use of the leap of imagination, from image to image or phrase to phrase. These leaps arenít required to fall in quick, thrusting succession, however; they can emerge quietly and perhaps place their weight on the impact of a final line.

According to David Young and Stuart Freibert in their fine anthology, the earliest practitioner of the prose poem was Aloysius Bertrand, in the mid 1800s in Belgium. While this is as clear a place to start as any from a European perspective, the form really originated in East Asia. In China, for instance, the prose poem enjoys exceedingly deep and vibrant roots; all the way back to the Han Dynasty in fact (206 BC-AD 220), where a style of poem in prose, called fu, emerged. Fu emphasized description over lyricism, and abandoned the rythmic and rhyme structures of the predominantly formal poetry of the time. During the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), fu poems really took off under the philosophical works of authors such as Ouyang Xiu and Su Tung-pío.

In Japan, too, a form of prose poetry developed relatively early on. Uta monogatari, or poem tales, grew into a distinct literary genre in the 10th century. These works consisted of a poem followed by the poet's own explicaton of his or her work; the refined prose explications were poetic in their own right, growing to inspire more interest than the poems themselves. Later, in the 1400s, in Japan and throughout Asia, the prose poetics of Zen parables became quite popular. Alongside these gems of wind and sense strode an abundance of sui pi, the inspired random jottings of learned individuals on practically any subject under the sun. The famous Sei Shonagon of Japan and Li Yu of China are among the lions of this genre. While sui pi remained non-fictional, their deft feints of language gave them a well-lit space in the developing landscape of prose poetry. Clearly, while nobody in the west was aware of it, prose poetry had been on the global literary map long before Aloysius Bertrand ever got to it.

In Europe, however, none of this East Asian tradition seemed to be known to the art/literature world, outside the fascinations of a young Van Gogh and his fascination with Japanese prints. Bertrand's new form, however, so impressed Baudelaire that Petites poemes en prose was written. This was followed rigorously by all manner of French poets. Indeed, the prose poem in French is one of the most thickly embedded literary roots for the whole of prose poetry. While all regions have poets who take a crack at prose poetry and have contributed to some extent to its growth, nowhere has it been as prevalent as in France. Since Bertrandís time, the likes of Rimbaud, Jacob, Desnos, Reverdy, Michaux, Tzara, Ponge, Follain, Char, Dupin, and Deguy have focused on the form. Itís just everywhere. The French precedent has been followed in the US by many of our great poets.

Hereís a sample from Rimbaudís "Illuminations," one of the earlier forays into the form, in my own hopefully passable translation:

    I embraced the summer dawn.

    Nothing moved on the palaces. The water was still. The shadowy camps had yet to leave the road. I walked, my rousing breaths brisk and warm, and the stones watched, and noiseless wings rose. The first adventure: in the pathís clear and pale gleams, a flower who told me its name. I laughed at a blond waterfall who unfurled between the first: on the silver crest I recognized the goddess. Then I lifted, one by one, her veils. In the alley, she waved her arms. On the plain, I denounced her up to a rooster. In the big city, she flew through the bell towers and domes and, running like a beggar across the wharves of marble, I chased her. At the top of the road, near a stand of laurels, I encircled her with her gathered veils, and I felt a little her immense body. The dawn and the child tumbled to the bottom of the wood.

    When I awoke it was noon.

His pace leisurely, Rimbaud no less succeeds in providing an array of imagery and voice that reshapes his subject, dawn. Also, it exemplifies how mood can take center stage and be a the tool to gauge the prose poemís overall effect.

The pieces in Juan Ramon Jimenezí Platero (1917) are beautiful examples of mood in prose poetry. Expressions of a speakerís love for his donkey, named Platero, and the people and landscape of the Andalusian countryside, these prose poems breathe of a deep humanity and sensitivity. They are easy targets for hunters who seek to denounce anything remotely infused with sentiment, for it is with a profound feeling for the world that Jiminez creates these dialogues of consciousness between the speaker and his burrow. While Jiminez, who won the Nobel Prize in 1956, wrote many prose poems through his career, it is Platero that, when translated well, remains one of the loveliest and most complete books of prose poems to date. Hereís "Chill," as translated by Eugenio Florit:

    The moon accompanies us, large, round, and pure. In the slumbering meadows some indistinguishable black goats can be seen among the brambles . . . someone silently hides as we pass. . . . Above the stone wall a huge almond tree, snowy with blossoms and moonlight, bending down its top in a white cloud, blankets the roadway, shot with March stars. A penetrating odor of oranges . . . moisture and silence . . . the Ravine of the Witches . . . "Platero . . . how . . . cold it is!"

    Platero is trotting, I donít know whether from my fear or his; he enters the brook, steps on the moon and shatters it. It is as if a swarm of clear, crystal roses, trying to stop him, gets entangled in his trot. And Platero trots uphill, tucking in his rump as if someone were about to overtake him, now feeling the gentle warmth of the approaching village that never seems to be reached.

With that, you have finally reached the end of this introduction. I hope you enjoy the prose poems, these wonderful, shy, and hard to classify organisms, that follow. Cheers!



James Grinwis lives in Amherst, MA. His poems, prose poems, and flash fictions have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of publications including American Poetry Review, Columbia, Indiana Review, New Orleans Review, Pindeldyboz, Quick Fiction, and Quarterly West. He has worked as an environmental educator, a high school teacher, a university instructor, and most recently as an editor for a big company.


 
 
 
 

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