November 4th, 2010 / 11:46 am
Craft Notes

Today in Class

The Definition of a Prose Poem

For the definition of a prose poem, as defined by my poetry class, see above. The class paired up with one prose poem per pair and, based on just that one poem, wrote a prose poetry manifesto (we read poems by Edson, Simic, Hass, Tate, Forché, Mullen, Bowman, Emanuel–most, but not all, from Great American Prose Poems). Funny to write a manifesto since we’d just read Russell Edson’s feelings on theorizing. Of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry movement, Edson has said they are, “like painters who, instead of painting, spend their days smelling their brushes and easels thinking that a new age is about to dawn.” Of course, that kind of talk is always tinged with a little hypocrisy; there’s always a theory of writing. Maybe the difference is writing out of theory versus writing into theory. Age-old argument, really. Edson has this to say of his proses in his essay, “Portrait of the Writer as a Fat Man”:

A piece of writing must not only have the logic of language, but the logic of composition. Automatic writing doesn’t begin anyplace, and doesn’t end anyplace. It’s like a digestive system without a defined mouth or an asshole…. [My work] is not automatic writing. It’s looking for the shape of thought more than the particulars of the little narrative…. My pieces, when they work, though full of odd happenings, win the argument against disorder through the logic of language and a compositional wholeness. So my ideal prose poem is a small, complete work, utterly logical within its own madness. This is different than surrealism, which usually takes the commonplace and makes it strange, and leaves it there.

I’d say Edson has a theory, though I think he’s almost been forced to explicate it because he so naturally gravitated toward a way of writing (don’t call it a form! It is a form!) that flummoxes so many people.

Sarah Manguso’s 2004 essay in The Believer, “Why the Reader of Good Prose Poems is Never Sad,” is a great piece on prose poetry in general and Edson, who really is the father (grandfather?) “American prose poet,” in particular. Models of the Universe is a great anthology for a larger history of the prose poem, going back to Aloysius Bertrand’s 1842 book, Gaspar de la Nuit. And for interesting discussions and prose poem samples by contemporary prose poets, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry is good.

So we did prose poetry. Student poems were interesting and wacky, wordy and experimental. As you can see by the chalkboard, our definition of the prose poem does not employ brevity, though we did find lots of interconnected “ways of writing” the prose poem. “The poem sounds like it was shat out” is probably my favorite.

Up next: micro-reviews of contemporary poetry collections/magazines from my students.

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  1. Jon Cone

      I have somewhere in my possession a letter Russell Edson sent me years ago, early 1990s I believe. I had a lit mag I was editing back then — it was called WORLD LETTER. I wrote Edson a letter asking if he would send me poems. He wrote back saying he didn’t like to send out blindly, that he had places he liked to send to and maybe if I could send him a copy of my mag he might consider sending a selection in the future. The letter was composed on a manual typewriter, on a page of off-white — beige, I guess — soft paper. On the envelope his handwriting was small but very neat. I liked getting that letter. It made me happy. Why?

  2. alexisorgera

      I can see why. He doesn’t say much publicly, and he took the time to answer you honestly. Gotta respect that. I have a student who’s writing her undergrad thesis on Edson. She’d love to see that letter!

  3. kim

      A toy-maker made a toy wife and a toy child.
      He made a toy house and some toy years.

      He made a getting-old toy, and he made a dying

      The toy-maker made a toy heaven and a toy god.

      But, best of all, he liked making toy shit.

  4. James Yeh

      Excited to read the Manguso essay — thanks for the link. What a great title. I would be interested to talk more about prose poetry, and the teaching of it with you sometime soon, Alexis, if you’d be into it.

      While I love the idea (and phrasing) of a prose poem being “shat out,” I feel like that’s just about the opposite of what a prose poem is, though I guess it depends on very much on the writer and the style the writer is employing in that prose poem. For example, I could see how someone might think something written in a style that was very stream-of-conscious as “shat out,” especially if it’s non-narrative. Do you remember which prose poem “shat out” refers to?

  5. alexisorgera

      Hi James,

      I’d be happy to talk about prose poetry/teaching of it anytime you’d like. I’m no expert, but I like both writing and teaching the prose poem. This time, I assigned prose poems right after more strict form poems (sonnets, villanelles, etc.), and it was a shock to the system for the whole class, which is what I’m always going for.

      Yeah, I don’t know that I agree about the “shat out” so much as the poem giving you the feeling of having been shat out in a rant. I think that one referred to Tate’s “List of Famous Hats.” I also don’t agree with Edson’s notion that automatic writing (ala surrealism) is just a bunch of nothing. I mean, it can be, but I think you also tap into a psychic sense that has its own form. I guess that sounds weird and fluffy, but I buy it.

  6. Molly Gaudry

      Models of the Universe is great.

  7. Amber

      I just bought that on your advice–can’t wait to dig in. Waiting for my big ol Amazon shipment now.

      Alexis, good post–I’ll have to read that Manguso essay.

  8. Sean

      I’m sort of in love with that blackboard photo. I think that class approaches teaching as seriously as they approach writing, and teaching needs more of that (chemistry profs as interested in students as they are test tubes, centrifuges, etc). Period. It would solve one of academia’s big problems–people hired on merit of their research or scholarship, then asked to teach.

      You can find a good person to do both: teach well, write well.

      I think I am over-commenting. But FUCK IT. I shall continue, because I have this tiny thing called free will.

  9. jesusangelgarcia

      so glad to see you giving props to edson, alexis. I was *just* (like, seconds ago on kyle’s post above) saying he doesn’t get enough respect for basically fathering the contemporary prose-poetry movement. am I wrong?

  10. Jon Cone

      Alexis, I found the letters — there were two, not one — and my recollection above surprised me by its inaccuracies. The letters are on a soft beige paper, but that is nearly the extent of what I got right. The first letter begins: “This is being composed on a Korean computer, and will be printed by a Japanese printer.” (Dated September 9, 1990). The second letter contains these marvelous sentences: “I almost feel that rather than using our names when publishing, we should use registered numbers like license plates on cars. In this way we could think of ourselves as vehicles of the imagination rather than the authors of it.” (Dated October 4, 1990). If you like I could photocopy these letters and send them to you for you to pass along to your student writing her thesis. Just let me know.

  11. alexisorgera

      Those letters sound great. I love the notion of being vehicles of the imaginations vs. authors of it. I’m sure my student would be thrilled to see these letters (as would I). Would it be too much trouble to send an email (with “for Alexis” as the subject line) to with docs scanned in? They’ll forward to me. Or just send an email w/ your contact info, and I’ll be in touch.

  12. alexisorgera

      Yeah, I wish there were more teachers who took their students seriously…

  13. alexisorgera

      I think you’re right on. Edson doesn’t just dabble in the prose poem; he definitely redefined it, and he doesn’t write any other kind of poem. He’s one of those figures who just does what he does and people catch on sooner or later…

  14. alexisorgera

      thanks! the manguso essay is good, fun.

  15. Abe

      If you can, read Michael Benedikt’s intro to his seminal anthology THE PROSE POEM: AN INTERNATIONAL ANTHOLOGY.

  16. Miss Flesh

      Gertrude Stein is the grandfather of american prose poetry–Edson’s syntactical taffy come straight out of her compton.