Today's post title comes from the first poem, "Why We Chose Northampton, 1977," in Brad Crenshaw's My Gargantuan Desire, released this year from Greenhouse Review Press. The book (all prose poems) came to me courtesy of prose poet extraordinaire, Gary Young, who runs GRP. Gary has some fantastic things to say about prose poems in the latest issue of Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics, things, in fact, that I've quoted in various application statements; for instance: “The prose poem is both supple and brazen, and it’s subversive insofar as it doesn’t look like a poem; the reader can be led to places he or she might ordinarily resist in a lined poem.” In a parallel statement, Crenshaw closes his book with "Apologia: Why Write Prose Poems?" and offers this sentiment:
"I know there are languages that are not auditory—American Sign Language for one—but I am not composing poems in them. And let me admit I have nothing truly against the written word—I'm actually glad to have the alphabet. But I don't choose to accentuate its visual presence over the auditory being of language, and so I present my poems as prose: the invisible format. I have conceived of these poems as spoken aloud to someone dear to me; it could be you. I have also composed them as formal Shakespearean sonnets, after which I then dissolved the lines into their basic sentences. As I've said before, the rhythms and aural characteristics of language are integral. Visually breaking the flow of speech into lines is not. As prose, I am presenting poems with the metrical and auditory sophistication of the sonnet but embedded within the sinuous poetry of personal utterance."
In the past few months I've become more and more interested in the prose poem. I've learned that it is a subversive genre and rejects the formal constraints of poetry (obviously) but also of prose (which was a revelation to me). It has the power to do things with time that short stories and novels would die to do; the prose poem doesn't need white space to denote a shift in time or space; the prose poem can cover a second or span a lifetime; the prose poem can have its cake and eat it too, but it would rather shove the cake in your face and then punch you when you're blinded by frosting roses. Some, like Young and Crenshaw, favor prose poems that come gently, the kind of prose poems high school students could read and enjoy without feeling like they missed the point, even if they miss the technical metrical stuff that may be happening ever so unobtrusively within those sentences. Then there are more aggressive prose poets, whose words spiral and dip, twist and flip and do not let up. The prose poem can do it all.
I'm especially interested in (and have been granted time and space to research/investigate) the idea that if a single prose poem, all by itself, is subversive to both the tradition of prose and the tradition of poetry, then the cumulative effect of prose poems—when arranged into a fragmented, yet single-narrative full-length book—might also be subversive to the traditions of the novel, the autobiography, the essay collection, and the poetry collection. On the other hand, I will also examine lineated novels and attempt to better understand the roles of (a) the line break (or line ending) within the context of narrative, expository scenes and (b) the relationship between sentences and fragments; and see if there is a connection between fragments/sentences and prose poems/full-length, single narrative books.
It's an exciting project, and I'm grateful to have Sentence, Young's books, and now Crenshaw's, as models to discuss. Others on the list include:
- Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red
- Selah Saterstrom's The Pink Institution
- CA Conrad's The Book of Frank
- Jacques Roubaud's Some Thing Black
- Alix Cleo Roubaud's Alix's Journal
- Harry Mathews' 20 Lines a Day
- Robert Walser's Speaking to the Rose
- Jenny Boully's The Book of Beginnings and Endings
- Mary Ruefle's The Most of It
- Carole Maso's Aureole
- Marie Carter's The Trapeze Diaries
- Maggie Nelson's Jane: A Murder
- Claudia Rankine's Plot
- Johannes Goransson's Dear Ra
- Eula Biss's The Balloonists.
- (I'd be grateful for recommendations, too, if you have any.)
To close, I'll add that Gary also sent along Carol Lem's Gathering the Pieces, which consists of lineated poems, and I'm looking forward to reading both titles.