Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Prose-Poetry 101

The prose-poem, like the haibun, is a form I like to use a lot, because it blends poetry and prose, without being purist about either. Still a controversial form, that some poets will even deny exists, 150 years after it's origin in the prose-poems of Bertrand and Lautremont and Baudelaire, it can do things with words that more boxed-in forms cannot. One can move between poetic syntax and tone, into more prose-like sections, and back again, at will. I like haibun, as I have said, because of its use of dense poetic prose combined with haiku. Leave off the haiku, and you have a prose-poem.

A little history, to start us off:

The earliest writer credited with writing prose-poems, as a distinct genre, is Aloysius Bertrand, whose collection of prose poetry, Gaspard de la Nuit, was published in 1842. The prose-poem emerged in part as a reaction against the strict rules and conventions, and definitions, of French Neoclassicism. Originally the idea was to write in a poetic prose using elements of language considered more typical of pure poetry: rhythm, metaphor, surprising imagery, rhyme, musical form. But it was Charles Baudelaire who gave the form its characteristic shape and definition, when he introduced his collection of prose-poems, Paris Spleen, by asking: Which one of us, in his moments of ambition, has not dreamed of the miracle of poetic prose, musical, without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough to adapt itself to the impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience?

Paris Spleen was published in 1869, two years after Baudelaire died. Only two years later, Artur Rimbaud, then 17, was trying his hand at the form. (His seminal book of prose-poems, Illuminations, was published in 1886, by which time Rimbaud had long since given up poetry.) We have a clue to what Rimbaud was thinking from letters he wrote in may of 1871, excerpted here:

To arrive at the unknown through the disordering of all the senses, that is the point. The sufferings will be tremendous, but one must be strong, to be born a poet: it is no way my fault. It is wrong to say: I think. One should say: I am thought. . . .

He [the poet] searches his soul, he inspects it, he tests it, he learns it. As soon as he knows it, he cultivates it: it seems simple: in every brain a natural development is accomplished. . . . The poet makes himself a visionary through a long, a prodigious and rational disordering of all the senses.


After these beginnings, the prose-poem explodes. It seems to be a form many poets find congenial precisely because it allows them to say things not possible in the more constricted conventions of traditional verse. It expands both mind and perception, as Rimbaud intimated, and allows one to view life from new and different angles. Under Modernism, the prose-poem becomes more explicitly anti-authoritarian again, because it is flexible enough to transcend convention. Even a partial list of poets who have tried their hands at the prose-poem can make up a list of some of the greatest writers of the past 150 years: Stephane Mallarme, Guillaume Apollinaire, Antonin Artaud, Andre Breton, Rainer Maria Rilke, Rene Char, Franz Kafka, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Lawrene Durrell, Oscar Wilde, Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Italo Calvino, James Wright, Robert Bly—to name only a few.

Not too long ago there came into my possession an anthology of the prose-poem that attempts to trace its history as well as providing a sample of more contemporary pieces. It's one flaw is that it's too short an anthology, and only a few pieces by each writer are included; this is done to highlight the prose-poem's variety and history, so rather than getting many pieces by the most important prose-poem writers, we get a few by very many writers. The anthology is:

Models of the Universe: An anthology of the prose poem. Edited by Stuart Friebert and David Young. Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College Press, Field Editions. 1995.

An excerpt from the editors' introduction:

The prose poem is a very special invention, like a chair that flies or a small dish that produces food for forty people. In turning to it the poet seems to put aside the discreet or flamboyant costume of poetic identity and, in a swift and unpredictable gesture, raid the other world, the world of prose, subverting categories and definitions, defying the drag of the prosaic, turning everything inside out for a moment.

It shouldn't happen, this gesture; it upsets the makers of categories and the givers and second-guessers of prizes. If poets don't even stay where we put them, among their lines, then there is no way to account for and contain their doubtful magic, their darting forays into the language whose meanings and habits we work so hard to categorize and make stable.


Poetic innovators and explorers write prose-poems, because adventurers and innovators also tend to ignore the rigid boundaries of categories and rules. (Innovation almost always comes from the margins, the yawping barbarians at the gates, not from the center of the mainstream.) Indeed, these works "upset the makers of categories." But if there is an upset here, the problem is not with the prose-poem as a form, but rather with too-rigid definitions of what poetry is or isn't.

When I encounter a category that is too rigid, a boundary that is too fixed, I feel the grip of death around my throat, around the singer's throat, the lark's throat. I want to ask, what is the maker of such a rigid boundary afraid of? For fear is at the root of such rigidity, always. The usual dictatorial regime that would try to dismiss, diminish or deride the makers of prose-poems is a regime based on fear of change, fear of difference, fear of (ultimately) wildness. In the end, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." That means inner wildness, too, not only the national parks. Real poetry is not tame, polite, mannered, or snivellized. That's a battle we still fight against the forces of entropy. Prose-poetry is a tactic of real poetry, then.

This wildness is aptly summarized by the editors of Models of the Universe, vis:

That prose poems still provoke snarls and yelps is an excellent sign of their fundamental health and success. We are identifying a tradition that is not only fun to review as history but alive and well and trying on disguises at Woolworth's at this very moment.

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