Prose Poems or Microfiction?

    Rachel Barenblat

Prose poems, microfiction, "short-short" stories: regardless of what you call them, these small (usually), blocky (sometimes), paragraph-style pieces of writing have been a steady undercurrent in the literary ocean since Baudelaire published "Paris Spleen," also known as "Petits Poemes en Prose."

"Which one of us," Baudelaire wrote, "in his moments of ambition, has not dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical, without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience?" He dreamed this poetic prose into being, and called it the prose poem.

In poetry the basic unit of construction is the line; in the prose poem, as in prose, the basic unit of construction is the sentence. So what are prose poems, beyond writing that fulfills Baudelaire's fantasy of "poetic prose, without rhythm and without rhyme..."? What distinguishes prose poems from microfiction or the short-short? And what makes them so absolutely wonderful, since wonderful they clearly are?

My answer may frustrate you, but it's the only answer I have: there are no distinguishing rules. The line between the prose poem and the short-short is invisible, if not nonexistent. Some contemporary writers, like Lydia Davis, straddle the boundary between them; one of her pieces has been anthologized as a poem in the Best American Poetry series, and as a short-short in an anthology of microfiction.

Many of us who write one or the other have had similar experiences; a prose poem of mine was published online as microfiction a while ago. I know short-short writers who submit their work to the journal The Prose Poem. And so on.

As a genre, microfiction -- AKA the short-short -- is growing. A few good anthologies of microfiction exist, usually of fiction that's under 500 words long, and some writers of traditional fiction -- like Amy Hempel -- also write beautiful short-shorts.

Microfiction and short-short are both names that convey the substance of the form. Microfiction is to ordinary short fiction what short fiction is to the novel or novella: it's an attempt to tell a story, a good story, in an even smaller package than usual.

"Prose poem," on the other hand, is a strangely unsatisfying term, since it seems to elide the boundaries of genre by combining prose and poetry. However, that elision is precisely what a prose poem does, and precisely what makes it so interesting -- and since I am a prose poet, rather than a writer of microfiction, the prose poem is where I will focus.

"The prose poem," says David Lehman, poet extraordinaire and author of more books than I can list here, "is poetry that disguises its true form. In the prose poem the poet can appropriate prose forms, like the letter, the memo, the list, the parable, the speech, the dialogue." Interestingly, most of these forms exist in Baudelaire's seminal book, originally published after his death in 1867.

But what makes a prose poem? What makes it something other than a simple paragraph of text? If Baudelaire was the first to coin the phrase "prose poem," why did the form originate in France, and why has it lasted?

Some prose poem history will contextualize the modern prose poem. To start at the beginning: just as the French revolt against form gave the world vers libre, it also gave the world the prose poem.

The French are not necessarily more creative than the rest of us; they were simply more constrained. The rules of French verse are much more inflexible than those of English verse. French verse was traditionally written in alexandrine, lines of twelve syllables governed by strict metrical and rhythmic constraints, such as the obligatory caesura in the middle of each line. It's no wonder that French poets were chafing at the bit to write something different.

The idea of poetic prose jumped the Channel to England fairly quickly. When MacPherson invented his imaginary Ossian, and published "translations" of Ossian's verse in prose, he showed that poetry could appear in prose. The seeds of the English-language prose poem were sown. (And MacPherson's hoax displayed the prankish sensibility that has characterized many prose poems since.)

Influence didn't only move from French writers to English-language ones, of course. Poe had a tremendous influence on Baudelaire and Mallarmé, particularly because of Poe's notion of the "imp of the perverse," which Baudelaire pounced on.

Baudelaire's prose poem "The bad glazier" is a marvelous example of the imp of the perverse; after a discourse on personality and action, a man calls a glazier up to his fourth-story apartment. He inspects the glazier's glass, "discovers" that there is no colored glass in the man's pack (which we sense he may have known all along), and sends the glazier back on his way. When the poor glazier reaches the ground floor and leaves the building, our protagonist throws a flower pot at him and breaks his glass. "And drunk with my madness," the protagonist tells us, "I shouted down at him furiously: 'Make life beautiful! Make life beautiful!'"

This delightfully perverse sensibility is one of the prose poem's distinguishing characteristics. The prose poem, as written by its early French practitioners, is permeated with humor.

In addition to ironic humor, the French prose poem gave us the voice and point of view of the modern alienated artist. The modern alienated artist appears for the first real time in the work of Baudelaire, and of his compatriot Rimbaud, who wrote all of his poems by the age of 17, and renounced poetry a year later.

Rimbaud's prose poems have an allegorical quality but there is no key to the allegory. (One wonders if the unsolvable allegory is Rimbaud's particular sense of humor, his particular perverse imp shining through.)

The French poet Max Jacob wrote beautiful prose poems that borrow liberally, in their narrative style, from fiction. I am especially fond of his prose poem "Beggar Woman of Naples," about tossing a coin at a beggar woman and then realizing that she is a trash can. The entire poem follows:

When I lived in Naples there was always a beggar woman at the gate of my
palace, to whom I would toss some coins before climbing into my carriage.
One day, surprised at never being thanked, I looked at the beggar woman.
Now, as I looked at her, I saw that what I had taken for a beggar woman was
a wooden case painted green which contained some red earth and a few
half-rotted bananas...

A careful examination of the poem's diction makes the reader immediately suspicious: palace? Carriage? Who exactly is our narrator -- or perhaps more accurately, who does he think he is? Is he crazy? Is he pulling our leg? Are we supposed to take this talk of palaces and carriages seriously, or is this all a joke? The fact that we can't tell whether this is meant to be "fact" or "fiction" is part of the poem's charm.

The poem has the cause-and-effect of fiction -- phrases like "When I lived," "One day," "Then I saw" -- but it's truncated. It could be a short-short; but he chose to call it a prose poem. So a prose poem it must be.

(Perhaps you have sensed my theme, which is if a writer calls something a prose poem, then it's a prose poem.)

Anyway, because "French" became synonymous with "modern," American poets took to the prose poem quickly and well. If one wanted to escape the potentially stifling weight of Yeats and Pound, one turned to the French; postwar American poets wrote many prose poems as a way of being different from the American and English-language poets who had come before them.

Frank O'Hara is one of my favorite examples of a postwar American poet who adopted the prose poem form, in addition to traditional verse forms, to the betterment of both.

Meditations In An Emergency was published by Grove Press in 1957; the book contains many wonderful poems, including "To The Film Industry in Crisis," "Les Etiquettes jaunes," and "Mayakovsky." These poems, like most of the rest of the book, are immediately recognizable as poems; they form poetry's familiar shape on the page, justified left margins, jagged-edged right margins. Some even have regular stanzas, tercets, couplets.

But the book's title poem, "Meditations in an Emergency," is a long prose poem, in the form (unsurprisingly) of a meditation. The poet, or the voice he has chosen, begins by thinking to himself: "Am I to become profligate as if I were blonde? Or religious as if I were French?" We are plunged immediately into a plaintive, ironic, deliciously funny world.

"I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love," O'Hara proclaims, a few short paragraphs later. The two sentences are their own paragraph.

What strikes me about O'Hara's prose poem is that, in adopting the form, he makes it his own. "Meditations in an Emergency"doesn't precisely follow Baudelaire's recipe, although the resemblance is there. Each writer's prose poem follows the same general path as prose poems which have come before, but the form lends itself unusually well to reinvention.

The prose poem lends itself unusually well to reinvention because it is itself a reinvention of traditional verse. The prose poem came into existence through reinvention. Because of this, it reinvents well.

In breaking the traditional boundaries of verse, the form creates a kind of "deregulated zone" for itself. Poetic devices become less important, or in some cases vanish completely away. Enjambment, for instance, is incredibly important in traditional verse; in the prose poem, it is impossible. The writer of a prose poem does away with the expectations of verse, and is thereby freed to borrow from other forms of discourse and create something new and surprising.

Although prose poems have come to be relatively accepted in the literary world today, the form still retains something of its original oppositional nature. The words "prose" (that which is not poetry) and "poem" (that which is not prose) add up to a paradox. Perhaps there is something dialectical about the form's success: the contradiction of "prose" and "poem" provides a writer with an impetus and an opportunity to synthesize something that transcends the boundaries implicit in the name.

In Posse: Potentially, might be ...