Prose poems, or poetic prose, little sand sized pieces and whole narratives, written as ‘regular prose’ but sounding, and feeling, like poems when read allows us the room to wonder, what exactly is a poem? Does it a piece have to have line breaks? Does it have to use all the poetic devices, tricks, and trades in order to ‘count’ as a poem? Or can the writer (poet) simply record an idea beautifully, with images and metaphors and careful construction, and call their new child ‘poem’? As romantic and teary eyed as the idea is, I have to say that I’m not comfortable with the idea of ‘prose poetry.’ I think that there is a difference between that which is written using careful craft and that which is written using poetic crafting. Let’s consider some examples that have been labeled ‘prose poetry’ and decide whether or not they are actually poems.
First, an excerpt “from the waist–so that, turned the bulb that’s oneself (thorax)…” by Leslie Scalapino which does, in my opinion, count as a ‘prose poem’ because the work just feels like a poem.
‘from the waist–so that, turned the bulb that’s oneself (thorax)
–only–then–doesn’t have any existence–turned (wherever one
as conception–at waist of magnolia buds that exist in the day
sewing the black silk irises–not when one turned at waist
sewing them, they have no shape literally except being that–
from one’s hand (being, in the air) …’
The poem doesn’t ‘look’ like a plain block of prose text. There’s what seem to be line breaks and special indentation at the beginnings of some lines. There’s strange and unusual uses of dashes and pauses in both reading and thought, as well as a disjointed sort of extended metaphor about flowers, insects, life in general… the whole poetic grab bag. The works also exhibits an extreme lack of punctuation with only ending punctuation at the end of the last two ‘paragraphs.’ I feel like this particular poem was lumped in to prose poetry because no one was quite sure what else to call it. The structure of the poem isn’t really uniform and doesn’t fit into any of the prescribed line counts. Or meter counters and where there are ‘breaks’ in the lines, it just might have easily happened from word processing settings. Is this case, the ‘prose’ poem is more poem than prose, and doesn’t feel like death or some strange and strangled approximation of poetry.
Next, though, is an excerpt from If You Said You Would Come With Me by John Asbery. While a lovely pieces and a technical beauty, the ‘poem’ doesn’t feel like a poem at all. The work feels like a strange dreamy story told through a fog of half memory perfectly preserved.
‘In town it was very urban but in the country cows were covering the hills. The clouds were near and very moist. I was walking along the pavement with Anna, enjoying the scattered scenery. Suddenly a sound like a deep bell came from behind us. We both turned to look. “It’s the words you spoke in the past, coming back to haunt you,” Anna explained. “They always do, you know.”
Indeed I did. Many times this deep bell-like tone had intruded itself on my thoughts, scrambling them at first, then rearranging them in apple-pie order. “Two crows,” the voice seemed to say, “were sitting on a sundial in the God-given sunlight. Then one flew away.”
“Yes . . . and then?” I wanted to ask, but I kept silent. We turned into a courtyard and walked up several flights of stairs to the roof, where a party was in progress. “This is my friend Hans,” Anna said by way of introduction. No one paid much attention and several guests moved away to the balustrade to admire the view of orchards and vineyards, approaching their autumn glory. One of the women however came to greet us in a friendly manner. I was wondering if this was a “harvest home,” a phrase I had often heard but never understood.’
Story, right? Just a short story about a memory mixed with a dream. Carefully crafted and spoken with a poetic authors voice, but not really reading as ‘poetry’ per say. If prose poetry is simply dead words in chopped randomly to lay in a page coffin, plain text written using poetic devices, as Houlhan says, then everything that I’ve written from term papers to research on Ancient Egyptian burial rites is a ‘prose poem.’ Very unlikely and not at all how I intended any of my ‘regular’ or ‘plain’ prose works to be taken. Of course, my intentions have nothing to do with the way any single work is read, but having a defined and unavoidably poetic voice has produces some carefully crafted images where unexpected and possibly unwanted, but needed in order to properly present my idea. But Houlihan has a point: a poem needs to be something more than flat words and plain facts (or fiction.) While I don’t see prose poetry as definitely dead, I don’t see all poetically write prose as a poem either. Let’s consider a last example: The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
One of the most frustrating yet shockingly beautiful works I’ve read in ages and minutes long gone is this book. To those that have not read it, please allow me to explain. The author does not use any punctuation except end punctuation. There are no quotation marks to signal the reader that someone is talking. Commas only appear during the dialogue exchanges between son and papa (hope I’m not giving anything away.) The strange punctuation goes on to make distinction between the way each main character speaks. One has apostrophes in his speech and the other does not. The entire novel can be read as an epic poem, formed and executed much like the works of ancient Greeks and Romans. Whoa, hold up one second, pretty extreme idea growing. How can a novel written in plain ‘prose’ in 2006 and later adapted into a movie starring Viggo Mortensen be an ‘epic poem?’ Well, not to give away too much of the plot, since that’s really for a different discussion, let’s just say that it’s a hero’s journey. What makes it an epic poem? The author’s use of metaphor, images, punctuation, pauses, and structure. Consider this: If we were to take written conversation and remove all the punctuation, what would it look like? A slim and simple column of poetry.
‘How long can we stay here Papa?
How long is that?
I don’t know. Maybe one more day. Two.
Because it’s dangerous.
Do you think they’ll find us?
No. They wont find us.
They might find us.
No they wont. They wont find us.’ – From The Road
A poem, right? One that we can read into, think about, digest, and come up with our own inner meanings about. I’m uncertain as to McCarthy’s intentions in writing the novel. Was it meant to be a prose poem? Maybe? But it certainly could be a poem in itself. What makes it epic? Not just the length (a 6,027 line poem would be epic by any standards) but the combination he’s constructed with his narrative the strange structure of the novel, and his use of poetic devices. Which brings us back to the main point: is ‘prose poetry’ really a poetic style, or is it just prose called poems because the work possesses some poetic aspects?
I think that the label ‘prose poetry’ lies in the intention of the author as well as the mind of the reader. I certainly didn’t intend for my history term paper to be ‘prose poetry.’ I don’t think that Mr. McCarthy intended his novel to be an epic poem (though I can’t be sure of that) and I don’t even think that the very first poet discussed today, Leslie Scalapino, intended her poem to be ‘prose.’ But because each written work could be ‘read’ as poetry, it morphs into such in the mind of certain readers. Now, if John Ashbery had intended his ‘prose poem’ to be a poem is also unknown. But, I don’t think it really is a poem. It’s well written and entertaining, but not structured as a poem.
I guess what it all really boils down to is that I don’t feel like ‘prose’ can be ‘poems.’ Prose is beautiful and function and used every day in everything, but lacks the small things that makes ‘poem’ read, be, breathe ‘poem.’ While this is a personal opinion of a non-expert, it’s still a reading, and thus can be seen as true to ‘me’ just as your reading an be seen as true to ‘you.’ I see no ‘prose’ poems, only prose and poems. Sometimes there are works that blur that line and can be either, like The Road or If You Said You Would Come With Me and sometimes there are works that are misclassified such as from the wist-so that, turned the bulb that’s oneself (thorax)“. Anyway the problem is looked at will have support from one or the other. I vote for neither and both.
Sarah Ockershausen Delp
Ashbery, John. “If You Said You Would Come With Me.” 2007. Poetry Foundation. Web. Dec 2016. <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/52166>.
Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems (The Ecco Press, 2007)
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Random House, 2006. Print. Dec 2016.
Scalapino, Leslie. “”from the wist-so that, turned the bulb that’s oneself (thorax)”.” 1999. Poetry Foundation. Web. Dec 2016. <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/49997>.
New Time (Wesleyan University Press, 1999)