"Great American Prose Poems: From Poe To The Present"by David Lehman editor: Scribners, New York, 2003 346 pages. $16.00
Review by Tom Savage
What exactly is a prose poem, anyway? When I tried to teach this "form" to some students in a senior center, they began referring to the poems they produced as "essays". One of them continues to do so to this day. They never really understood what line breaks are about in postmodern poetry. Thus, the continued to write little prose poems until I stopped teaching there and moved on to first The Poetry Project, then to Gathering of the Tribes where I teach now every Saturday from 12 noon to 3 PM (Fee: $10 per session per student.) To the seniors, these poems weren t really poems because they didn t have rhyme or meter. One of them continued to write poems as if she were Wordsworth in spite of a year and a half of weekly exposure to the greatest American poets of the twentieth century. For many of us contemporary poets, where to break the line is a matter of intuition or "this is where I pause a second when I read the poem aloud, or some such.
In his marvelous introduction to this wonderful book, David Lehman goes to great lengths to try to define what a prose poem actually is. But certainly the distinction between prose poetry and the kind of mini-fictions which were fashionable thirty years ago in college creative writing programs is almost nonexistent. There is nothing wrong with this. Writing isn t a science after all, fortunately. It could be that, rather than being a slightly less honest approach to poetry, as some poets and many students seem to think prose poetry is, it is actually more honest to do away with the pretensions of line endings altogether when, or in cases in which, they serve no real function other than to satisfy more conservative readers that what they are reading is in fact a poem and not that dissimilar to those written by Yeats, Eliot, Donne, or, for that matter, Shakespeare.
Great American Prose poems is the best book of new and/or recently published poetry I read in the year 2003. It forces one to think about the differences, if any, between prose and poetry without coming to any invariable rule one way or the other. The parameters of what is included in this form being so vague, it almost comes down to an accomplished poet saying: "This prose poem is a poem because I say it is a poem." While it might sound egotistic were somebody to actually say this, which, as far as I know, no one has said, at least out loud, this could actually be taken as a liberating expansion of what poetry is and might be, once separated from the value judgments which might accompany an interest in a more precise definition of what this genre of poetry might be.
Among the many wonderful poems in this book are "The Exodus" by Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), "Red Slippers" by Amy Lowell, three poems by H.D.. "Aaron" by Edwin Denby, two by Milosz, four by Kenneth Patchen, three by James Schuyler, Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California" ( not really a prose poem or never presented as such before), 5 by Merwin, etc. Among the older generations, all the usual suspects are represented here (Ashbery, Mark Strand, Simic, O Hara, etc.) plus a number of poets I ve seen less often in anthologies lately (David Ignatow, Russell Edson, Louis Jenkins?). One of the many wonderful things about this book is how inclusive it is. There are enough Language poets in here to dilute the impermanent boundary between their poems and those of writers outside their clique(s). There is the wonderful Yusef Komunyakaa, who remains his own category. Also, truly exceptional in an anthology of poetry published by a major publisher these days is the fact that so many younger poets are included from the wonderful Lin Dinh (1963--) to one Jean Bouilly (1976--). Usually young poets have to wait many decades to be picked up by books such as this. These young, energetic voices represent mostly themselves but also the many new American poetries currently emerging from the large population the muse visits in this country with inspiration. To find 41 writers younger than myself (Tom Savage, 1948--, not included in this book, by the way) in this book was truly refreshing. In many instances, the promises of relative and not so relative youth are rewarded. My only quibble in this group is the "poem" by Anselm Berrigan (1972--). Without a doubt, he is one of the finest poets of his generation. I ve read his latest book (Zero Star Motel or Hotel) with great pleasure. The work anthologized as a prose poem here is contained in that book. But when I taught this poem recently at the Poetry Project (it's called "The Page Torn Out") I taught it as a short poetic play, in the "tradition" of Kenneth Koch's many wonderful short plays, not as a prose poem. To call this one page conversation between "Page" "Notebook" "First Page" "Second Page" "Universe" (one line only) and a "Third Page" a "prose poem" reinforces the criticism of the prose poem as a form by suggesting that a prose poem can be anything the poet or the editor decides it is. In any other context, this would be a very small quibble but given that prose poetry is a "controversial" form at least in English to expand the parameters of the form infinitely to include, literally anything makes the definition "prose poem" either quietly disintegrate or disappear. Suggesting that anything is or could be a prose poem invites second rate writers or worse (not Anselm, who is first rate, of course) to seize upon this form for their pseudo-autobiographical drivel.
Anselm's poetry is wonderful and deserves to be anthologized but including it here not only encourages the egotistical expansion of "prose poetry" to more than it can handle, it also diminishes the currently small space occupied by poets theater in the world of published poetry. Lichtenstein can t really part with more territory. It already feels enough like Andorra ( a once tiny country now administered by France or Spain) without ceasing to exist or, at least, falling temporarily silent. That said, I recommend this book to anyone interested in poetry, short prose, or the exciting, innovative uses of the American English language. Go to it or for it! Those afraid of poetry might find in the wonderful works in this book a reason to reexamine their aesthetic prejudices against poetry. It only bites the mind when the brain needs to be jarred out of its pop culture morass of "short attention span music" (my term for the 3 to 5 minute limited expanse of most popular music) and the mass hypnosis presented by TV, computers, the daily drudgery of most people's work, etc. Add this book to your library.