As I assembled this Congeries, I noticed that two sets of prose poems figure in the issue’s offerings. I have, during much of my life in poetry, been suspicious of and confounded by the form, and perhaps I still am. The poems, by Robert Thomas and Dag T. Straumsvåg (as translated by Robert Hedin), are marked by playfulness, mild irreverence, quirkiness, and a brushstroke of sadness; they are, as well, crafted so as to allow their images to impart much of the content, and they are textured enough to warrant multiple readings. In other words, they do what those poems I most admire tend to do.
In his introduction to Great American Prose Poems: from Poe to the Present, editor David Lehman points out that in December of 1978, when two members of the three member Pulitzer Poetry committee voted to present the prize to Mark Strand for The Monument, a collection of prose poems, Louis Simpson, chair of the committee, “adamantly opposed the choice . . . on the grounds that it is predominantly in prose.” Simpson, himself a former Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, argued that the award “is designed expressly to honor verse,” and so Strand ended up not winning that year’s prize. Of the prose poem, Charles Simic (who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1990 with a collection of prose poems, The World Doesn'tEnd) notes that “[t]he prose poem has the unusual distinction of being regarded with suspicion not only by the usual haters of poetry, but also by many poets themselves.” Simpson, when Simic’s award was announced, complained, once again, that The World Doesn’t End was a collection not of poetry but of fiction.
Perhaps Simpson is right to complain. “Verse” is a term, etymologically-speaking, that derives from Anglo-French and Old English roots (both from the Latin versus), and it literally means “turning.” Verse, as well, suggests a line of poetry that is written metrically; the turning occurs at the end of each line as it swerves on to the next. If the Pulitzer Prize is intended for “verse,” as Simpson argues, then he is correct to argue against the eligibility of prose poems, for prose poems are written neither metrically nor by the line. However, such a definition would also render “free verse,” a style not beholden to metrical requirements, ineligible for the prize. Few would opt for this exclusion, I suspect.
But “poetry,” as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.” Using this definition as a guideline, prose poetry certainly can be seen as a legitimate player in the Pulitzer games. As Simic explains, “What makes [prose poems] poems is that they are self-contained, and once you read one you have to go back and start reading it again. That’s what a poem does.”
What the matter amounts to is a semantic and aesthetic mess, and the only reason I bring this up is because I am confused by the prose poem still. I am also offended by everything under the sun that’s being called poetry—from the lithe motions of dancers, skaters and gymnasts, to the vapid song lyrics of the pop stars like Jewel, to performative acts on stage that have much more to do with acting than they do with poetry. However one chooses to define prose poetry, and whatever aesthetic axe one wishes to grind, the form (genre?) has been duly recognized and legitimized by the Pobiz academy. It fits within a liberal (but not absurdly liberal) definition of poetry, and it is here to stay. Prose poems seem quite at home in the horn of plenty that contemporary poetry provides, as I think they do in this particular gathering of poems. Happy Thanksgiving.