PETER JOHNSON'S LECTURE, History of the Prose Poem f/ Russell Edson
IT TURNS OUT I'M NOT THE ONLY ONE confused about what a prose poem is. Apparently, Peter Johnson, editor of the now-defunct journal, The Prose Poem, doesn't know either! After his hour-and-a-half lecture, I had more questions than answers.
To be fair, Johnson's presentation on this oxymoronic 'genre of a thousand faces' was extremely informative, just not definitive. Most helpful was his booklet A Short Primer on the Prose Poem in which Johnson traced its history from its 19th century French origins in Baudelaire and Rimbaud into 20th century America with Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams and into the so-called 'golden age' of the prose poem in John Ashbery, Charles Simic, and countless others in the 1960's and 1970's. Also included were a number of essays on the form, plus an assortment of examples including a prose passage from a William Faulkner novel and a 'still life' from Gertrude Stein.
Essentially, what distinguishes poetry from prose is the line break, right? Wrong. Chopping a passage of prose (like say, this paragraph you're currently reading) into lines does not make a poem. Likewise, taking a poem in lines and presenting it in a blocky paragraph doesn't make a prose poem. What makes a prose poem is that it simultaneously employs poetic craft elements such as metaphor, imagery, and rhythm while relying on the sentence as its basic building block instead of the line.
The prose poem variously owes its lineage to: the fable, surrealism, psychological condensations, and even -gasp!- poetry minus the line breaks (a description which caused conniptions with faculty member, Michael Waters, the resident 'line'
Judging from all of the ruckus the discussion caused, it seems the label, prose poem, is, to say the least, controversial. A large part of the problem seems to be a matter of intention: Did the author set out to write a prose poem? Many authors after Baudelaire - and even before - wrote pieces with characteristics often attributed to the prose poem but which just used different names. Half-breed. Mule. Mutt. Which is to say, some poets find the term derogatory. Other poets refuse to have their work classified. These and other factors make it all the more difficult to define. And as Johnson's pithy partner-in-prose, Russell Edson, began to speak, the discussion deteriorated into a poetry versus fiction slugfest, only adding to the confusion.
While the elder Edson remained essentially mute at first, the younger Johnson described pure prose as the form of the masses, of colloquial everyday speech; and that pure verse, on the other hand, was the language of formal structures like the court, and of highly educated people. The prose poem is, essentially, the middle ground between the two. But later in the discussion, Russell Edson ruffled feathers all over the room by referring to poetry as primitive and prose as the ‘higher art.’
No sooner than he had offended the room of MFA in Poetry students, Edson the Barbaric contradicted himself, after saying that poetry was primitive, by saying that fiction was the original literary art: "The first stories were when hunters came back from the hunt. When they began to embellish, then it was called fiction." As murmurs rose in the room, Alicia Ostriker argued that the lullaby and the nonsense syllables that a mother says to a child (which more approximate poetry) would have pre-dated the 'tall tales' of hunters. It seemed this ’History on the Prose Poem’ was going in circles. Ironically, in one of Johnson’s many definitions of the form would quote from Kierkegaard, “All comedy involves contradiction.”
Perhaps the most lucid illustration of what makes a prose poem was the poem, “Vodka Veracity.” It seems that this poet pulled off what was not only unethical but the unthinkable: she published the same poem, word-for-word, in two journals simultaneously - in one journal with line breaks and in another as a prose poem.
However, seeing both versions side by side, virtually everyone in the room - even Michael Waters - agreed that the piece was far more effective without the line breaks. Yet, its language achieved something which was undeniably poetic. The rambling, drunken nature of the poem’s voice benefited from the prose poem’s longer-lined presentation. “Vodka Veracity” demonstrated the importance of form echoing content.
Finally, something everyone could agree on!
This is an excerpt from a residency journal I was required to keep as part of the low-residency MFA in Poetry program at New England College.