Some Notes on the Art of Uncovering the Art of the Prose Poem or, Confessions of a Prose Poetry Writer
By CX Dillhunt
My dear friend, I send you this little work of which one couldn’t say, without injustice, it has neither tail nor head, since all of it is, on the contrary is at once head and tail, alternatively and reciprocally. Consider, I ask you, what an admirable convenience this offers us all, you, me and the reader. We can “cut” whatever we like, I my reveries, you the manuscript, and the reader his reading; because I do not hang the latter’s restive will on the interminable thread of a superfluous plot.—Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen: Little Poems in Prose, Dedication to Arsene Houssaye,1862
I want to tell you what a prose poem is. I have several reasons, but perhaps it won’t lead to as clear a definition as you'd hoped for. It's easy to say, “Oh, that's the nature of the beast.” But, first, here are my reasons: I’m writing this because I've been told that I write prose poems and I believe that I write prose poems.
So, when this all came to the attention of the editors of Verse Wisconsin, I said, “Sure, I can write an essay about prose poetry.” Well, I must tell you, I have been out hunting, looking for them in the woods and works of others and studying every definition of “prose poem” I could find in the English fields.
I have shelves in my home library dedicated to prose poetry—anthologies, essays, collections by the best, most well-known prose poets—from Charles Baudelaire to Charles Simic, from Whitman to Wilde to William Carlos Williams, from France to the frenetic Russell Edson and the fanciful Louis Jenkins.
You know, I can’t really tell when James Tate is in prose story (my term) or prose poetry mode, nor do I think the National Book Award (Worshipful Company of Fletcher, 1995) or the Pulitzer Prize (Selected Poems, 1991) committees have worried as much about it as I have.
When Charles Simic won the Pulitzer Prize for his (prose poetry) collection, The World Doesn't End, some argued that it was settled once and for all, that it was decided that prose poetry is poetry. But not all listened and not all that did agreed. Anyway, I think the best definition of prose poetry I’ve come upon is one of Charles Simic’s from his essay “The Poetry Village Idiots” (Verse,1996):
Writing a prose poem is a bit like trying to catch a fly in a dark room. The fly probably isn't even there, the fly is inside your head; still, you keep tripping over and bumping into things while in hot pursuit. The prose poem is a burst of language following a collision with a large piece of furniture.
The point being, I think, is that it is a process, this prose poem beast; it is something a writer does, it’s not so much a goal or a finished anything as an ongoing action, an animal in motion, “a burst of language.” As a prose poetry writer, I must confess that I don't really know what a prose poem is, but I think I know what Simic is talking about.
Let my try to explain in my own words. I’ll start with nine things I think I’ve figured out about prose poetry so far:
- Don’t over-think it.
- If you don’t know what it is, it’s not a prose poem.
- If you set out to write one, you won’t get there, it’s not like writing a sonnet or a haiku.
- Like most things in life, shape can be misleading.
- Contrary to what you may have heard or thought you saw, it’s still about the line.
- You can’t want to write a prose poem, it’s got to want to write you or at least with you.
- A prose poem begins, ends in one fell swoop—pull out all the stops, write like crazy.
- If it walks like a prose poem and talks like a prose poem, it still could be a duck.
- One rule never changes: write, your life does depend on it, there is nothing else.
From the Mallarme-Rambaud-Lautrement trinity crossing the oceans to the Stein-Ashbery connections in the US, to all the so-called prose poets in between, all I have to say is, I’m a poet, I’m a story teller. Call it, call me what you want.
It’s said that everyone has one good story, so tell it. If it’s a prose poem it’ll let you know. As you’ve already learned, if it’s a prose poem, it’s not a piece of furniture; however, I’m thinking, if it is furniture, it could be a large piece of prose poetry.
Let the arguments rage. Let the furniture fly!
I can live with most of Ron Padgett’s rather prosaic definition of prose poetry [my complaint added in brackets] in the Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, and I admit I use it in my own teaching. Listen, it’s a good working definition:
As its name suggests, the prose poem is a cross between prose and poetry. It looks like prose but reads like poetry without rhyme or rhythm. [Well, both r & r show up in mine!] Often it has the imagery, density, and quickness of language associated with poetry. Prose poems tend to be short (from a couple sentences to a couple pages), but there are exceptions that run as long as fifty pages. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between poetic prose and prose poetry (as for example in the writing of Gertrude Stein).
So, you ask, is prose poetry prose or poetry?
A new genre, perhaps? Either way, I disagree with those who say it’s poetry because it’s got metaphor and something some call “heightened language.” It seems the argument would be just as strong to claim such a beast as good prose. For example, my five-year-old niece once called me her favorite boy-girl, and my friends call me a prose-poet. If my niece were a nephew and I were a woman, would she/he call me a girl-boy? I know I’m one or the other. Also, I’m a poet, so, I’m wondering if I actually write poetry-prose—a poet-proser, so to speak.
How about you?
All I can say is, once all the arguments are out of your system, get back to work; write, and write some more, and ignore the gender and genre police. Don’t stop. And don’t look out for furniture, no matter what room you’re in!
How to Write A Prose Poem
When you can't sleep wake wake up this poem make it recite itself over over over until it goes goes to sleep rocking you now back now forth now somehow waiting for one more breath before going under singing of syllables smash smashing into consonants constantly tapping sapping what's left of your memory of not sleeping here not drowning there just in time for all these old vowels buried in the bowels of the line floating gloating over this space time continuum in which even this poem will not have even one clue to whom it began or if when it began ending or who is awake who is not asleep and begins comparing silence to air to this sleep to poetry while above all looks under the bed finds just dust says stay stay there there for this while.
How to Write A Prose Poem
When you can't sleep wake
wake up this poem make
make it recite itself over
over over until it goes goes
to sleep rocking you now
back now forth somehow
waiting for one more breath
before going under singing
of syllables smash smashing
into consonants constantly
tapping sapping what's left
of your memory of not
sleeping here not drowning
there just in time for all
these old vowels buried
in the bowels of the line
floating gloating over this
space time continuum in
which even this poem will
not have even one clue to
whom it began or if when
it began ending or who is
awake who is not asleep
begins comparing silence
to air this sleep to poetry
above all looks under the
bed finds dust says stay
there there for this while
This is Not a Prose Poem
This is not a prose poem. This is not a lyric poem. This is not an
essay. This is not a letter. This is not an airplane. This is not the sky.
This is not the tree next to the house. This is not the sidewalk or
the driveway, the curb the gutter, and this is not the road. This
is not anything leading to or from or anything anywhere near your
house or my house or any house. This is not what I think it is.
And certainly I can tell you that this is not what you think it is.
This is not written by the poet. This is not the poet. The poet does
not know who writes this. If this is a poem the poet doesn’t know it.
If this is not a prose poem it ends wondering what it is. This doesn’t
care what it is or what it has been told.
This is not the end.
This line does not exist.
This line is not part of what you were just reading.
This is not a prose poem.
This is the last line of this.
from Things I’ve Never Told Anyone, Parallel Press, 2007