In Defense of Prose Poetry
By Howie Good
In Defense of Prose Poetry
Occasionally – very occasionally – a relative or acquaintance will look up long enough from their phones to ask what a chapbook or a prose poem is. Their unfamiliarity with the terms suggests the general irrelevance of my writing to even people I’m related to. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, and it isn’t to me, but it is dispiriting.
According to my research (OK, Wikipedia), the tradition of chapbooks arose in the 16th century, as soon as printed books became affordable, and reached its height during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Many different kinds of ephemera and popular literature were published as chapbooks: almanacs, folk tales, ballads, nursery rhymes, poetry, and political and religious tracts. Usually between four and twenty-four pages long, and produced on rough paper with crude woodcut illustrations, chapbooks were the reading material of the poorer classes. “Twenty-volume folios will never make a revolution,” Voltaire said. “It’s the little pocket pamphlets that are to be feared.
The term “chapbook” for this type of cheap literature was coined in the 19th century and is still in use today for short, inexpensive booklets. I’ve had something more than 40 chapbooks of poetry published since the early 2000s. It’s very much like me to succeed in an area of publishing that most people have never heard of.
As for prose poetry, well, that’s rather harder to explain.
The sheer number of transition words (meanwhile, later, earlier, however, but, similarly, likewise, unfortunately, adjacent to, etc.) left me too overwhelmed to be able to decide which to use. Without transitions to bridge the gaps between sentences, thousands plunged to their deaths or drowned screaming for help. I grew a beard, for a diversion as much as a disguise. My own countrymen preferred simplicity, clarity – the sharp bang of thunder to the eerie dark blue vibrations just afterward. Looking back, I can’t pinpoint the precise moment I first became aware of the dead birds hanging from their stretched necks in the shop windows like ornaments.
I offer the above as both a definition and an example of prose poetry. If the definition seems amorphous, it’s largely because prose poetry itself is. Prose poetry is poetry that doesn’t look like poetry. It doesn’t look like poetry because it is written in sentences rather than lines. And it doesn’t usually sound like poetry but leans more on the vocabulary of the everyday. While it is theoretically possible to write a novel-length prose poem, the typical prose poems is only a single paragraph long. I suppose prose poetry can be defined as the amount of intrigue, chaos, and melancholy or joyful word music one can create within that tight space.
Prose poetry minimizes the use of conventional transitions, the words and phrases that ordinarily serve in prose as bread crumbs to keep readers from straying off the path. Instead, prose poetry transforms the path into a labyrinth. It does so by using jarring juxtapositions – Lautréamont’s “chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.”
A prose poem most resembles “poetry” when it partakes of the illogic of dreams, leaps from sentence to sentence, precipice to precipice, without the forewarnings that well-constructed prose usually gives. At the same time, the blocklike paragraph in which the prose poem is arranged creates a feeling of solidity, what engineers call “structural integrity” – “the ability of a structure to withstand its intended loading without failing due to fracture, deformation, or fatigue.” Except the prose poem determinedly sets out to “fracture, deform, or fatigue” the established order of things.
Being neither fully poetry nor fully prose, the prose poem, simply by its mixed, contradictory nature, resists the organization into categories and hierarchies that typifies bureaucracies and corporations of all sorts. The prose poem is anti-institutional, anti-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian. In other words, it is the ideal literary form in which to blow shit up.
A few “name” poets (Bly, Simic, Tate) have recognized the gorgeous explosiveness of prose poetry and availed themselves of it. And yet the prose poem continues to be little esteemed. Poetry purists say it can’t be poetry because it isn’t broken into lines. They dismiss it out of hand.
There are, as far as I know, no prose purists. Prose is the front door mat everyone wipes their shoes on. Which is, of course, part of what makes prose poetry suspect as poetry in many eyes.
I have taken up prose poetry regardless (notice my deliberate use of the transition word “regardless” here). I have taken it up (repetition of a key word or phrase is also an orthodox way to make a transition) because it isn’t overused – overmined, overcultivated, overrun. I have taken up prose poetry because, when confronted by a sad, murderous, moronic age, it’s the weapon that best fits my hand.
About the Author: Howie Good’s newest poetry collection, Heart-Shape Hole, which also includes examples of his handmade collages, is forthcoming from Laughing Ronin Press.
Image Credit: Paul Cézanne “The Artist’s Son Writing” (1887) Public domain image courtesy of Artvee