Two Cultures of the Prose Poem
Taylor, John, Michigan Quarterly Review
TWO CULTURES OF THE PROSE POEM
Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present. Edited by David Lehman. New York: Scribner Poetry, 2003. Pp. 346. $16 (paper).
Dreaming the Miracle: Three French Prose Poets: Max Jacob, Francis Ponge, Jean Follain. Translated by Beth Archer Brombert, Mary Feeney, Louise Guiney, William T. Kulik, and William Matthews. Buffalo, New York: White Pine Press, 2003. Pp. 206. $17 (paper).
Wood Asleep. By Gérard Macé. Translated by David Kelley. Highgreen, Tarset, Northumberland, Great Britain: Blood-axe (distributed in the United States by Dufour Editions), 2003. Pp. 145. $21.95 (paper).
Blindsight. By Rosmarie Waldrop. New York: New Directions, 2003. Pp. 114. $15.95 (paper).
David Lehman's stimulating anthology of American prose poems gives me the impression that I am Montesquieu's Persian contemplating the strange mores of an exotic country that is none other than my own. Having long lived in France, I believed up to now-you, too, perhaps-that the prose poem was a genre not often practiced by Americans. Lehman shows me (and will show you) that we should know better. With 115 contributors ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), and Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) to Sarah Manguso (b. 1947) and Jenny Boully (b. 1976), this varied, representative, and often provocative selection is "a cobblestone tossed into the pond," as the French say. The splash should surprise us into reconsidering preconceptions and misconceptions about a complex literary form that is "the result," as Charles Simic (b. 1938) nicely formulates the paradox, "of two contradictory impulses, prose and poetry, and therefore cannot exist, but it does." Simic adds that the prose poem represents "the sole instance we have of squaring the circle." Square it he does in what, for me, is the most haunting piece in the anthology:
We were so poor I had to take the place of the bait in the mousetrap. All alone in the cellar, I could hear them pacing upstairs, tossing and turning in their beds. "These are dark and evil days," the mouse told me as he nibbled my ear. Years passed. My mother wore a cat-fur collar which she stroked until its sparks lit up the cellar.
In his introduction, Lehman intricately analyzes the origins and specific distinction of the American prose poem. His disquisition offers much food for thought about a genre which, like the short story, resists definition. As he explains how Americans appropriate "such unlikely models as the newspaper article, the memo, the list, the parable, the speech, the dialogue," he essentially associates the American prose poem with "its use of the demotic, its willingness to locate the sources of poetry defiantly far from the spring on Mount Helicon sacred to the muses." Be the vantage point that of e. e. cummings (1894-1962) "sitting in mcsorley's," Robert Bly (b. 1926) watching a hockey match, or Lydia Davis (b. 1947) observing "a man . . . making deliveries in the garment district," most pieces chosen for the anthology illustrate this grassroots, sometimes anecdotal, orientation. Even the philosophically resonant fantasies of Russell Edson (b. 1935) begin with, say, an ordinary taxi, never matter that the vehicle "crashes through the wall" and, continues Edson, "that my room is on the third floor, or that the yellow driver is really a cluster of canaries arranged in the shape of a driver."
This recurrent demotic element in American prose poetry nonetheless brings to mind how some writers were attracted to "demotic speech" and dailiness long before Amy Lowell's excitement, in 1916, about "red slippers in a shop window." Beginning in the fifth century B.C., the dramatic "mime" perfected by Sophron, Xenarchus, Herondas, and others-that is, the written mimos, not mime as a silent gestural performance-became a direct ancestor of the prose poem or, at least, the short prose narrative and terse dialogue. The mimos drew its name from its imitation of the everyday, from its realistic staging of the "vulgar incidents" occurring in the lives of unimportant people. …