July 2010

Anya Groner


The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice edited by Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek

What “plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels?” The answer is a prose poem -- at least according to Peter Johnson, former editor of the now out-of-print journal The Prose Poem: An International Journal. But what exactly is a prose poem? In The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry, editors Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek set out to answer that most elusive of questions, or rather, find thirty-four practitioners of the form to do it for them. Comprised of brief personal essays followed by poems, The Field Guide interrogates prose poetry from multiple angles, discussing the history of the form, the prose poetry’s contentious relationship to genre, the sentence (instead of the line) as a unit of poetic cadence, and the short form’s relation to the schizophrenia of contemporary life.  A prose poem, the contributors tell us, can be anything from a “cramp” that “sits close to the rot,” a “comic operetta,” a “theatre for grief,” and most boldly, the “last genre…, fus[ing] two of the basic categories of literature that have been divided since the time of Socrates” (Robert Miltner).

Despite its long history -- many contributors cite Charles Baudelaire’s 1869 collection La Spleen de Paris as the beginning of modernist prose poetry -- William Olsen points out in his essay “Paragraphic Verses” that prose poetry has been “in effect blackballed from canonical English literature.” This canonical ostracism accounts for the rebellious tone in many of the anthology’s essays. Unholy glee at the prose poem’s rise in recent decades -- the triumph of the underdog -- characterizes much of the writing, and the mood is infectious. David Keplinger, for instance, declares that “By abandoning the line, all prose poetry… snubs its nose at traditions that precede it, traditions that, incidentally, encouraged a rational chartering of emotional states (e.g., the rigidly crafted Elizabethan sonnet)” and riffs on the McLuhan maxim "the medium is the message” when he says “The revolt became the form.” Mark Wallace ups the ante, stating “If for human beings the most crucial division may be between life and death, and the original genre division is that between poetry and prose, then matters of life and death must lie very near to what makes the prose poem.”

Some prose poems, perhaps, are radical lyrics that flow, like the River Styx, in the liminal space between life and death, prose and poetry. But the essays that interested me the most weren’t the ones that flew the flags of revolution, but extolled the breakthroughs that make the revolution worthwhile, the specific challenges and rewards of the form. Take the square shape of the prose poem: the block. David Shumate calls the stanzagraph “homely,” “inelegant,” “a bulbous dirigible there on the page.” Maureen Seaton imagines “the small rectangle as a bomb. Or an urn,” and Jeffery Skinner dubs the prose poem a capacious interior, “like a mirror, it holds as much as the world it reflects.” While these metaphors seem to contradict, they suggest the flexibility of a strict container, strong enough to hold the comic insanity of Russel Edson or the labyrinthine pathos of Sabrina Orah Marks. As Arielle Greenberg puts it, prose poetry defies “the very nature of formal poetry,” setting her  “free to be as fanciful as [she] like[s].”

The power of the prose poem, many of the contributors suggest, comes from the tension inherent to concision. Tung-Hui Hu comments that “Nothing stops a lyric poem from going on indefinitely… But a prose poem has to stop; too long and it turns into a short story.” As Carol Guess points out, in prose poetry “what’s unsaid matter as much as what’s said.”  It’s precisely the constraints of size that, like a reduction in cooking, produce the prose poem’s zany power, the pull between urgency and irreverence (Keplinger) or “the impulse to make meaning and the impulse to focus on sound alone, on letters as musical notation” (Guess). Writers need not choose between narrative and lyric. The sentence is the drum, and the subject matter is limitless, as long as it fits in the box. It’s like Pandora’s box, but in reverse.

If these anarchic claims confuse you, there’s good reason. There’s an identity crisis inherent to a form that claims both to be both poetry and prose, and the desire to define prose poetry, to pin it down and label it, is as irresistible as it is impossible. Perhaps the true test of a prose poem is a piece of writing that is rejected by all genres: prose, poetry, flash fiction, nonfiction.  Denise Duhamel jokes that “A prose poem parts his hair on the left instead of the middle, and his barber tells him he’s flash fiction. A prose poem walks into a bar, and the bartender says, ‘What’ll you have? The usual paragraph?’”

While The Field Guide feels at times essay heavy and poetry light, the joy of this tome comes from the lively debates that emerge between writers in love with the form and, more importantly, from the poetry itself which spans from comical to dark, elliptical to narrative. Each essay is followed by two prose poems, giving the reader a chance to pause between essays and admire the application of all this lofty craft talk.

After reading David Lazar’s essay “Out of My Prose Poem Past: Using the Prose Poem to Enter the Language of Films Noir,” his sultry poem “The Dark Lady of the Movies” emerges desperate and shadowed, commenting, it seems, on the outsider status of prose poetry and the beauty of loss: “the church in a red dress, the sacrifice of self-sacrifice, a union of necessity and a torn piece of white linen… I’m a hall of mirrors that no one should ever shoot in.”

Mary Ann Samyn’s “Wish You Were Here,” similarly drips with longing and sass, despair and flirtation:

Postcard of time, stolen time. And I have such wide need. How can I tell you of all the birds visiting me? First, geese at night -- just as you said -- flying by the light of the river. No, I mean, by the absence of the light of the river. Then, cranes, three: a dream, a painting, a photograph. Also, this paper if you fold it: origami sign of -- what? Good fortune against great distances, against exhaustion, or so I’ve read. Remember, you said you wanted birds at parting. Okay then, take mine. Let this be the feather in your mailbox. 

But perhaps Marc Wallace disguises the most relevant question in his poem “Party in My Body,” when he inquires “Am I transcendent or drunk?” When it comes to prose poems, the answer is likely both.   

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice edited by Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek
Rose Metal Press
ISBN: 0978984889
192 Pages