This is the only way in which new lives—not ours—can ever begin again. But the thought haunts me—will they be defined in terms of what we never were? Will the negative outlines of our never doing define their being, a repoussoir, and so enmesh themselves even more disastrously with their warning to become? If that were the case it would be better to stop right here, in this room . . . —John Ashbery, “The New Spirit”
Prose poetry in America is not a continuous tradition. It is not a tradition at all, really, in spite of the number and variety of poets who have written in the form. At most an intermittent stream of prose-poetry experiments has remained a familiar feature on the poetic landscape: just as modernists like Eliot, Stein, and Williams tried their hand at poetry in prose, many poets of the postwar period—Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, W. S. Merwin, Robert Creeley, and Mark Strand, to name a few—have written prose poems yet remain better known for their poetry in verse. Robert Bly and Russell Edson are possible exceptions to the rule of writing prose poetry on the side in that they have both published several volumes of prose poems and called some attention to their choice of poetic form. 1 On the whole, however, the prose poem has not fared particularly well in American poetry, at least until recent years.
John Ashbery's Three Poems (1972) marks a turning point in the story of the American prose poem. To place such importance on a single collection of poems risks misunderstanding: Ashbery is not the only important poet writing prose poems, nor does he represent the culmination of a particular trend in the form, nor has his influence since the publication of Three Poems determined the direction of American prose poetry. The reception poets and critics have given his prose poems is unique, however. Three Poems has not only received Harold Bloom's blessing as canonical and exerted the sort of influence that