Although prose poetry has inhabited a cautious crevice in the literary fringes for a century and a half, it has had trouble breaking into mainstream vocabulary, and it is only now beginning to be recognized as an actual genre. Its hybrid status makes it at once avant-garde and suspicious. Writes David Young, co-editor of models of the universe: an anthology of the prose poem,
It shouldn’t happen, this gesture; it upsets the makers of categories and the givers and second-guessers of prizes. If poets don’t even stay where we put them, among their lines, then there is no way to account for and contain their doubtful magic, their darting forays into the language whose meanings and habits we work so hard to categorize and make stable.
The prose poem began about 150 years ago, in Belgium, with the publication of Aloysius Bertrand’s collection, Gaspard de la Nuit (1842). Charles Baudelaire, a French poet of high acclaim, tinkered with the genre, and his collection, Petits Poeme en Prose or Le Spleen de Paris, published posthumously, rocketed the genre into something like acceptance, as well as generating a flush of copycat prose poets. Gertrude Stein was the next major practitioner of prose poetry, and in her book Tender Buttons, she took the genre to new levels of abstraction approaching the fantastic. James Joyce, developed a collection of novelistic fragments, which he called ‘epiphanies’ in his book-ette Giacomo Joyce, written between 1911 and 1914, first published (post-mortem) in 1968. And more recently, Charles Simic won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1989 with The World Doesn’t End.
Other prose poets I love (by no means a complete list): Arthur Rimbaud, William Stafford, Carolyn Forche, Miroslav Holub, Margaret Atwood, Wislawa Szymborska, Italo Calvino, and Tom Andrews.
Some writers find in the prose poem the ability to free themselves of typical literary constraints and approach the realm of absurdism, some find a the ability to use even more exaggerated poetic language and devices, and some find the answer and reaction to the ‘high’ language of sonnets and odes, a forum for modern conversationalistic tones and easy (casually poetic) prose. The genre has developed in fits and starts, spastic zigs and zags, making room for as many new angles and ideas as there are writers with minds to conjure such things up.
Prose poetry was obviously the most subversive at its onset, when there was everything to upset and nothing to follow. Now that it has begun to claim at least a tentative degree of credibility, ‘schools’ are developing within its borders, whether by choice or by critically imposed definitions. If the prose poem can inch its way towards the acceptable, but not fall into the trap of laziness and codification; if prose poets can continue to push the boundaries of this seemingly boundless genre, and avoid getting sucked into complacent mimicry, this genre has the potential to remain as eclectic and subversive as its initial champions.
Prose poetry must be intense, succinct, and retain a sense of constant surprise and novelty. It cannot rely too heavily on description or incidental details, perhaps using only a couple of sketching sentences like shadowy brush strokes to ‘set the scene,’ although the ‘scene’ itself needn’t necessarily play out as such. Prose poetry is its strongest when describing snapshot moments, slices of life, which are themselves passionately concentrated and fascinating. At a basic level, a prose poem is a poem in sentence form minus the line breaks. But because the prose poem does this intentionally, consciously and self-consciously denying poetry and separating from its entire tradition, its emotional impact must therefore be even stronger. Because it cannot rely on page layout to give it pauses and subtleties, or an institutionally acceptable form to give it credibility, the prose poem must work even harder to achieve its impact. The burden of the prose poem is its nakedness: only the words count, and every word counts; there are no physical formations, decided boundaries, or devices of space to rely on.