From The Graceful Lie: A Method for Making Fiction, Michael Petracca, Prentice-Hall, 1999.
I have been asked on more than one occasion to defend the prose poem, and to explain in particular how a poem can be a poem without ‘the line’. Curiously it is often poets working in free verse who make the most strenuous objection to prose poems, the same poets who argue for the legitimacy of free verse against those who champion poems written in formal meter and rhyme. Both arguments are absurd, and disingenuous as well. One might just as well be asked to defend the sonnet.
The prose poem has a history in the poetry of Europe and America that extends back more than a century-and-a-half. It was appropriated by many nineteenth century poets who ﬁrst experimented with other free verse forms, and in China the fu, or poem in prose, has a history that stretches back millennia.
There are certain formal elements the prose poem shares with ﬁction and creative non-ﬁction, and there are other elements that more closely resemble the tropes and strategies of verse. Brooke Horvath has suggested that poems written in prose attempt to “hide” the poetry behind the prose in part to reclaim an audience that has for the past two centuries been seduced by prose. He also suggests that the prose poem provides a home for fugitive content, and “may well offer a means of saying the no-longer sayable as well as the as-yet unsaid.” Certainly the prose poem is enjoying a spirited rise in acceptance and practice. There are many lively journals dedicatedexclusively to the genre, and several anthologies—Models of the Universe: An Anthology of the Prose Poem (Oberlin College Press, 1995), The Party Train: A Collection of North American Prose Poetry (New Rivers Press, 1996), No Boundaries (Tupelo Press, 2003)—are testament to the genre’s vitality and acceptance.
There are those who argue that a poem written in prose is neither poem nor prose, but something altogether different. The distinctions, ultimately, are unimportant to the reader, though the writer may wish to position his or her work in one genre, or in one particular philosophical or theoretical camp. This raises the important question of expectation. What preconceptions does a reader bring to any given text, and how do those preconceptions alter the reader’s apprehension and appreciation of that text?
Traditional poetic forms create an anticipation of the ‘poetic’ that prose does not. It is this very lack of expectation that makes the prose poem supremely subversive and supple; the reader may be seduced in wholly unanticipated ways. The prose poem’s ﬂexibility is due in part to the fact that the form comes with so little baggage. The reader may be alerted that he or she is about to experience a poem, and yet they are greeted with comforting, unintimidating prose.
The reader’s diminished expectation of a poetic experience also makes the prose poem an especially demanding form. There are no signposts that telegraph: this is a poem. Because it is prose, and shares more visual equivalence with the language we use to negotiate newspapers, contracts or personal correspondence, it must work especially hard to embrace the rapture of language we identify as poetry. Ezra Pound once said, “Poetry should be at least as well-written as prose,” and we should expect prose poems to incorporate the best elements of both: concision, syntactical intelligence and rhythmical eloquence. By eschewing the ornamental apparatus of received poetic forms, the prose poem must rely wholly on the music and the honesty of its own utterance.
Charles Baudelaire’s Little Poems in Prose was published in 1869, but even before the term was coined we can ﬁnd hints of the form in Thoreau, Emerson and Hawthorne, among others. There are even traces of the form in the earliest literature produced in this country. In the mid-seventeenth century, Anne Bradstreet, one of the ﬁrst poets in the Americas, wrote a series of short prose pieces titled Meditations Divine and morall. Their brevity, allusiveness and their lyricism recommend them as prose poems:
A ship that beares much saile, and little or no ballast, is easily overset, and that man, whose head hath great abilities, and his heart little or no grace, is in danger of foundering.
Walt Whitman may be said to have liberated the poetry of meter and rhyme with the ranging free verse lines we admire in Leaves of Grass, but sections of his prose book, Specimen Days frequently approach the intensity and focus of his poems, and share more equivalence with his poetry than with his other prose works:
A MEADOW LARK
March 16.—Fine, clear, dazzling morning, the sun an hour high, the air just tart enough. What a stamp in advance my whole day receives from the song of that meadow lark perch’d on a fence-stake twenty rods distant! Two or three liquid-simple notes, repeated at intervals, full of careless happiness and hope. With its peculiar shimmering slow progress and rapid-noiseless action of the wings, it ﬂies on a ways, lights on another stake, and so one to another, shimmering and singing many minutes.
Whitman has pared his vision and his language to essentials here, and considers a single brief episode with precision, and without haste. He has created a text that is more poetic than prosaic, more poem than story.
Charles Baudelaire’s affection for the work of Edgar Allen Poe is well known, and Poe’s Eureka: A Prose Poem no doubt inﬂuenced Baudelaire’s Little Poems in Prose. These poems, often moralistic and always a bit fantastic, heralded the modern prose poem in Europe, and were to inform the work of Arthur Rimbaud and countless others. Their fabulist quality has had a particular inﬂuence in America, the echoes of which we can hear in the work of Russell Edson and others.
Ernest Hemingway punctuated the stories in his collection In Our Time with short prose vignettes that also seem closer to poetry than to prose in their condensation, their impact, and their intention. The following piece describes a scene that could be part of a larger story, but it manifests its character, and achieves its power by standing alone. The reader must apprehend this unique offering with undivided attention.
We were in a garden at Mons. Young Buckley came in with his patrol from across the river. The ﬁrst German I saw climbed up over the garden wall. We waited till he got one leg over then potted him. He had so much equipment on and looked awfully surprised and fell down into the garden. Then three more came over further down the wall. We shot them. They all came just like that.
Prose is characteristically literal, and we use it to describe, to document and to establish our hold on the everyday world. The prose poem subverts this quotidian use of prose, and employs it to retrieve or re-establish a connection to the poetry of our lives. Robert Hass, whose work is represented in this anthology, frequently combines prose and lineated verse within the same poem, stretching even further the boundaries between the two genres. The following poem is one of a series of prose poems from his book, Human Wishes.
A STORY ABOUT THE BODY
The young composer, working that summer at an artist’s colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused and considered answers to his questions. One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, “I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you that I have had a double mastectomy,” and when he didn’t understand, “ I’ve lost both my breasts.” The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity—like music—withered very quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, “I’m sorry. I don’t think I could.” He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl—she must have swept them from the corners of her studio—was full of dead bees.
A Story About the Body telegraphs its resemblance to the short story with its title, and the poem possesses those characteristics of plot, discursiveness, and character development we might expect from a short narrative. What sets this poem apart from a short story is its compression, concision, and its lyrical intensity. This is another case in which the particular attention asked of the reader by the poem is rewarded by the poem’s subtle movement and ﬁnal revelation.
The paradox of any poetic form is that it simultaneously liberates and constricts. Any formal strategy will structure a speciﬁc logic, and every form accentuates or encourages a particular mode of thinking; I am tempted to say, a particular mode of wonder. Form is merely an architecture necessary to support the ceremony of the poem.
My own intention has been to quiet my poems, not to silence, but to equilibrium, where a calm voice need not interrupt itself with self-consciousness or artiﬁce but speak simply in the knowledge that the breath propelled represents a faithful utterance of the heart.
I have found it more difﬁcult to lie in prose, either through omission or ampliﬁcation. Poems written in prose encourage—at least in me—a stricter honesty, and as a result the mysteries they reveal seem more genuine and profound. I have tried to write with as much clarity as I can about those brief, disquieting moments that deﬁne our lives. Where the impulse might be to reﬂect and elaborate, to draw a broader reality from the moment at hand, I have tried in my poems to pare away peripheral reﬂection to touch surely the moment, and to freeze it. The concept of a lyric moment is itself a conceit, of course; even the shortest poem takes time to read. But each instant understood thoroughly—understood as God might understand it—is of a caliber with any other, not because it has been demoted to some lowest common denominator, but because each is a kernel and a mirror of eternity.
My attraction to the prose poem is emotional rather than critical. The prose poem is a maternal form. It is comforting and embracing, but it can also be smothering, constricting; once inside there is no way out, no place to rest until the poem is ﬁnished. It is a clot of language, and must convince through revelation.
But in truth, what I treasure most about this form is the moral pressure it exerts. The prose poem encourages a particular kind of modesty. It might even at times achieve a certain humility, a humility which may, through grace, be reﬂected back upon the poet’s own heart.
A longer version of this essay appeared in The Graceful Lie: A Method for Making Fiction, Prentice Hall 1999.
Charles Baudelaire, “The Soup and the Clouds,” Twenty Prose Poems, translated by Michael Hamburger.
Anne Bradstreet, Poems of Anne Bradstreet, edited by Robert Hutchinson, Dover Publications, 1969.
Robert Hass, “A Story About the Body,” Human Wishes, The Ecco Press, 1989.
Ernest Hemingway, “Chapter III,” The Stories of Ernest Hemingway, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1938.
Brooke Horvath, “The Prose Poem and the Secret Life of Poetry,” The American Poetry Review, September/October 1992.
Walt Whitman, “A Meadow Lark,” from Specimen Days; Walt Whitman: The Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, edited by Justin Kaplan, The Library of America, 1982.