How do you define a prose poem? I was often asked this question as I put together The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem. It is a form of writing that has sometimes been regarded with suspicion but is now suddenly everywhere. Collections of prose poems – such as Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014) – win major prizes, and anyone who picks up a poetry magazine will almost certainly spot one. My book includes a range of names that might be expected to feature in any representative anthology of modern poetry: John Ashbery, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Rita Dove, T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich. But it also celebrates neglected poets who have written with brilliance in a form habitually overlooked by anthologists. Together, they comprise an alternative history of modern poetry and an experimental tradition that is shaping its future.
How, then, to define the prose poem? After reading so many, I can only offer the simplest common denominator: a prose poem is a poem without line breaks. Beyond that, both its manner and its matter resist generalization. The prose poem has been called a ‘genre with an oxymoron for name’ (Michael Riffaterre). What strikes me is the prose poem’s wayward relationship to its own form – and it is this, I believe, that makes it the defining poetic invention of modernity. In an age of mass literacy, our lives are enmeshed in networks of sentences and paragraphs as extensive as any urban grid. The prose poem drives the reading mind beyond the city limits.
Our habitual expectation when we see a passage of prose is that it will explain, not sing. The information-giving sentence – logical, functional, linear – is the conveyor belt that carries the business of our lives. The rhythm of prose, believed the Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky, contributes to the ‘automatizing’ of perception, which the images and rhythms of poetry work to disrupt – a theory that his friend the poet Velimir Khlebnikov illustrates in ‘Menagerie’, with its startling pen-portraits of the animals of Moscow zoo, often dashed off in a single sentence (‘the falcon’s breast reminds us of the feathery clouds before a storm’). Poetry, we might say, bends the bars of the prose cage.
Far from becoming a literary party trick, the twenty-first-century prose poem seems full of energy to discover what emergencies it can cause next.
The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem maps a tradition of lyric writing in prose form which begins in the latter half of the nineteenth century with the French poet Charles Baudelaire and a posthumous volume known by two titles: Le Spleen de Paris or Petits Poèmes en Prose (1869). In the private letter to his publisher that serves as the book’s preface, the poet asks:
Which of us has not, in his ambitious days, dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and choppy enough to fit the soul’s lyrical movements, the jolts of consciousness? This obsessive ideal came to life above all by frequenting enormous cities, in the intersection of their countless relationships.
Baudelaire’s ‘Windows’, translated here by Arthur Symons, meditates on a common sight of city life:
He who looks in through an open window never sees so many things as he who looks at a shut window. There is nothing more profound, more mysterious, more fertile, more gloomy, or more dazzling, than a window lighted by a candle. What we can see in the sunlight is always less interesting than what goes on behind the panes of a window. In that dark or luminous hollow, life lives, life dreams, life suffers.
For Baudelaire, the shut window is a symbol of the ‘dark or luminous’ mystery of modern life itself, as relished by the flâneur of a metropolis such as Paris, who drifts among the nameless masses of the street seeking a gleam of insight. Walter Benjamin characterized Baudelaire as a poet haunted by ‘the phantom crowd of the words’, and the restless cacophony of urban life returns again and again as the raw material of the prose poem, right up to the present day.
In a crowded world, the prose poem clears an imagined space for mind-expanding revelations, whether ‘a tiny incident’ of intimacy, ‘hidden like a rare jewel in the casket of Time’, as in Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘A Day’ (1921) or a moment of ramifying horror, as in Ottó Orbán’s ‘Chile’ (1976), translated here by Edwin Morgan:
‘Cheerio, kid,’ the lieutenant said to the child. ‘We won’t be here again.’
‘Why, did you find daddy in the attic?’ the child asked.
‘We did,’ said the lieutenant and went back into the house and brought the man down and shot him dead in the yard in front of the child and the woman.
Pupils stare like great worlds: the Earth, in its green dress, tells lies about sea and spring, surrounded by the searing stars.
‘If prose is a house, poetry is a man on fire running quite fast through it’ (Anne Carson). Far from becoming a literary party trick, the twenty-first-century prose poem seems full of energy to discover what emergencies it can cause next. Some contemporary poets continue to employ fragmentary prose as a prism through which to refract (in John Ashbery’s exquisite phrase) the ‘crystalline jumble’ of modernity. Others, however, are drawn to prose for the poetry of plain statement. The precise, documentary prose of a poet such as Claudia Rankine, for example – whose most recent books, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004) and Citizen (2014), are both subtitled ‘An American Lyric’ – evinces an ambition to rewrite literary tradition that recalls the radical claim made two centuries ago by Wordsworth when, in Lyrical Ballads (1798), he presented ‘incidents and situations drawn from common life’ in ‘language really used by men’.
My anthology aims to capture something of the same moment of change and renewal in contemporary writing, as the prose poem dissolves and reforms along the same horizon that enraptured Baudelaire’s ‘stranger’ on the first page of his Petits Poèmes en Prose: ‘the clouds that pass . . . over there . . . the marvellous clouds!’
Charles Baudelaire, Windows
Gertrude Stein, Red Roses
Katherine Mansfield, Pulmonary Tuberculosis
Francis Ponge, Rain
Jorge Luis Borges, Borges and I
Allen Ginsberg, A Supermarket in California
James Tate, Goodtime Jesus
Carolyn Forche, The Colonel