Square as a Picasso Pear: An Introduction to the Prose Poem
Edited by Brian Clements and James Dunham


A prose poem should be square as a Picasso pear, or paragraphed
like that same pear halved, then halved and halved again — free as
air, palpable as an air crash and as final, yet somehow not all
there.

— “Definition” by Brooke Horvath, p. 289

An Introduction to the Prose Poem

An Introduction to the Prose Poem
EDITED BY Brian Clements
AND Jamey Dunham
(Firewheel Editions, 2009)

As the above selection suggests, the prose poem has always occupied a peculiar space in literature. Perhaps owing to the rebelliousness of its originators — Aloysius Bertrand is usually identified as its grandfather and Charles Baudelaire is credited for popularizing it — it always seems to have a subversive edge. Without a doubt, it has a unique capacity to challenge boundaries between genres, complicate notions of form, and insist that such distinctions are largely arbitrary. Is it a genre, in its own right, borrowing some of the methods from prose and poetry but otherwise independent of them? Is it a sub-genre, turning structures usually associated with prose towards poetic ends? Might it even be a supra-genre, transcending and thereby encompassing both prose and poetry? These questions only get more complicated with the recent popularization of short shorts, flash fiction, and microfiction, and the willingness of prose writers to compose pieces that at least visually resemble prose poems on the page.

An Introduction to the Prose Poem, edited by Brian Clements and Jamey Dunham, presents a sophisticated survey of the tradition of prose poetry, suggesting that we might be able to address some of these questions with somewhat satisfactory answers. This book does much more than merely pick up where its immediate predecessors, Michael Benedikt’s seminal The Prose Poem: an International Anthology (1976) and Stuart Friebert and David Young’s Models of the Universe (1995), left off. At last, it would seem that we can move beyond cataloging prose poetry by nationality and chronology — an important contribution from these previous editors to our understanding of the tradition of prose poetry — and strive to develop a deeper understanding of the occasions for crafting prose poems.

As the editors point out in their preface, though it would be unreasonable to claim that the prose poem is in any strict sense a “form,” “it would be a mistake to assume that prose poems have no structure” (p. 6). Consequently, they have organized their anthology by “strategies” as a “convenient way to talk about structure.” Strategies identified by the editors run the gambit from obvious choices that certainly extend to most traditions of poetry — anecdote, controlling metaphor, and sequence — to structures that run dangerously close to becoming forms themselves — list, aphorism, and abecedarian — and to strategies that the prose poem seems exceedingly well-suited for — essayistic, fable, and flash.

This organizational scheme is not without its limitations. The editors readily admit that the strategies they identify should not be taken as “static types into which all prose poems can or must fit” (p. 6). Any reader can and should anticipate that many of the poems placed under one section could easily fit into two or three others. John Bradley’s “Parable from Whence It All Began,” for instance, is identified as a “fable” by the editors, but, as the opening and the title clearly suggest, it might just as easily have been classed with the “structural analog” poems, and, as the true obsession of the poem emerges in the second and third sentences, it also could have been placed in the “repetition” section:

“Once, when there was only one word for people, and it was the
same word as for the earth, I was human, with a body for a body,
skin for skin, teeth for teeth, and hair. Hair everywhere. So much
hair that after I left a place where I had slept, hair grew from the
soil.”

— “Parable from Whence It All Began,” p. 139

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