from Bear Flag Republic: Prose Poems and Poetics from California, Christopher Buckley & Gary Young, Editors, Greenhouse Review Press/Alcatraz Editions, Santa Cruz, 2008.
The Unbroken Line
I remember picking up the Kayak edition of Robert Bly’s book of prose poems The Morning Glory when it was first published in 1969. I was moved by the simplicity of the poems, their clarity, economy and lyricism. I liked the way they sat on the page. I was an undergraduate at the time and hardly well read, but these were not the first prose poems I’d come across. I couldn’t imagine that the short prose vignettes punctuating Hemmingway’s In Our Time were stories—I assumed they were poems, and still do. Anne Bradstreet’s Meditations Divine and morall, Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, and of course my Peter Pauper Press edition of The Jade Flute: Chinese Poems in Prose led me to believe, naively it turned out, that the prose poem was a common and an accepted poetic form. Looking back, there was a genuine blissfulness to my ignorance.
In college I was introduced to the work of Francis Ponge, Jorge Luis Borges, Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. I fell in love with Russell Edson’s quirky fables, and I read the prose poems in Charles Wright’s The Grave of the Right Hand and James Wright’s Moments of the Italian Summer with admiration and delight. I considered the prose poem only one of any number of free verse forms available to poets, and I recognized the prose poem’s value as such. When I published my first book, Hands, in 1979, a single, long prose poem served as a fulcrum for the short free verse lyrics that dominated the rest of the book. There were no prose poems in my second collection, The Dream of a Moral Life, but while I was working on that book I was being drawn inexorably to the form, although I was unaware of it at the time.
I was experimenting with longer lines and longer rhythms, trying to write a poem of “equivalence” as I put it to myself. I wanted to negate hierarchy in my poems. I wanted to write poems with as little artifice as possible, poems that began and ended on the same rhetorical plane. I was fortunate that my work as a fine printer provided a confluence of this theoretical concept with its physical articulation on the page. I was printing an artist’s book, The Geography of Home, a volume of relief prints stitched together with a single line of prose that ran for nearly 100 pages. This long typographic line served as a kind of thread upon which the many woodcuts and other illustrations in the book were strung. More importantly, it mirrored what I wanted from my poetry: a horizontal rather than a vertical structure, a poem that one might walk along rather than fall through. My subsequent book, Days, was composed entirely of brief prose poems, but in execution and conception I considered them to be very long one-lined poems. Despite variations in length, I still conceive of my poems as meaningful utterances playing out upon a horizontal field, and my poems continue to adhere to this form.
The prose poem’s democratic itinerary, its horizontal rather than vertical trajectory engenders a resistance to hierarchy and to inflation. Its fundamental nakedness may offer solace, but within a block of prose there’s no place to hide. Karl Shapiro put it well in a poem from The Bourgeois Poet: “This is a paragraph. A paragraph is a sonnet in prose. A paragraph begins where it ends. A paragraph may contain a single word or cruise for pages . . .” It is this suppleness combined with a certain brazenness that keeps me working in the form. I have found it more difficult to lie in prose, either through omission or amplification, and the moral pressure the form exerts is well worth whatever I may have lost by abandoning stanza and line.
Although my last four books are comprised entirely of prose poems, I don’t think of myself as a ‘prose poet’, and I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the term. Language poet, Confessional poet, New Formalist, prose poet—I see little benefit to this balkanization of the art. It’s true that I am a poet who writes ‘prose poems’, but like most terms employed to describe some aspect of aesthetics, the label is convenient, but inaccurate, limiting and doctrinaire. I am a poet, a lyric poet, and my fundamental project, like that of most lyric poets, is to stop time. Among its many virtues, the prose poem allows me to write lyrical narratives that hold within their knot of language a world, a whole story. Some poets exploit the prose poem for different reasons, and other poets will find nothing of use there. In any case, the poem will find a way, with lines or without, and whatever form is most conducive to the poet is the one that he or she should take advantage of.
Robert Frost once famously said that writing poems without meter and rhyme was like playing tennis without a net. One wonders what he’d have said about poems that have abandoned the line as well. With the prose poem you don’t need a net; you don’t even need a court. You just hit the ball as far as you can, and follow wherever it goes.