Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Prose Poem

What exactly is a prose poem? 

I've been writing prose poems and thinking critically about the form for close to three decades now. In 1982 I published my first collection of poems, which included half a dozen odd looking miniature stories with justified margins. Over the next decade I published three collections of prose poems: The Masked Ball, Puppet Theatre, and Carnival Aptitude. Early on, I'd been reading Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and the French Surrealists and I found the open form exciting and full of potential. I also liked the idea of laying a trap for readers wary of poetry. If it looked like prose, maybe I could get them laughing before they realized they'd been had. 

In 1985 I wrote a M.A. thesis on the prose poem that included a long essay entitled "The Contemporary American Prose Poem: An Application of Paradox," which was later published in a collection of my critical writings.  In that essay I surveyed the origins of the form and tried to arrive at some kind of definition. Others have tried both before and since, some in essays and others in book length monographs. I'm not sure anyone has completely succeeded.

A couple years ago I co-edited a little anthology of prose poems called The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder. The short introduction I wrote for that volume invites the reader to enter into the spirit of the prose poem rather than attempt a rigid definition of the form. 

Here's part of what I wrote:

Though I've never been able to locate a can of striped paint or a stick with one end, over the past twenty years I have been asked to write about the prose poem on several occasions. Despite my best efforts to identify an underlying set of universal characteristics, or even to arrive at some more general kind of understanding of this shape-shifting literary form, I suspect my musings on the subject have never yielded a comprehensive definition nor much insight into the mysteries of the genre. Perhaps my dissatisfaction with my own efforts stems from the simple fact that prose poems follow few rules while at the same time insisting on many exceptions. And so with each successive attempt I've made to organize my thoughts on the subject, my efforts have relied less on the techniques and approaches common to scholarship and literary criticism, and more on strategies and practices associated with creative writing. In the end, it seems the prose poem is its own best, and perhaps only, definition.

One might say that trying to characterize and contain the prose poem is a bit like being sent on a "sleeveless errand," an April-Fools goose-chase to acquire sweet vinegar, a bacon stretcher or a box of straight hooks. After enduring the knowing grins of all the literary shopkeepers, one invariably comes to the realization that the prose poem doesn't really exist, except, of course, in the imagination. It seems to me there's no finer place to exist—especially for a hybrid literary form sired by the desire to loosen restrictions imposed by genre. Other writers have noted many times before that prose poems frequently employ the logic of dreams. Perhaps that's another reason why we love them—because they're so free to give voice to the unconscious...

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