Poetry in Practice - Are prose poems poems?

By Hannah Salt

Hannah Salt asks some basic questions.

Prose poems appear more and more frequently in magazines, anthologies and collections, and it is worth asking in what sense prose poems are poems. This isn’t a merely reactionary question. Unless we can be clear about the possibilities of prose poetry, they may not easily be achieved.

Some prose has always been recognised as poetic. Within a hundred years of its publication, much of the King James version of the Bible was regarded as poetic and has remained so since. John Donne’s sermons, admired in their day for the uncompromising quality of their argument, are now admired for their poetic qualities – “No man is an island, entire unto himself… Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” The writings of Sir Thomas Browne were immediately valued for their qualities of sonority and cadence as much as (and soon more than) for the thought expressed. No-one doubted that what they were reading was prose, chiefly because it because it wasn’t in a poetic form.

The prose poem was devised in 19th-century France where more than a century of adherence to classical models had been disturbed by the personal poetic style of Rousseau and, more fundamentally, by the novels of Chateaubriand – chiefly Atala (1801) and Rene (1802). Set in the wilderness of America, these were written in an innovative, vividly descriptive style which was hugely influential. One of those influenced was Aloysius Bertrand who wrote a series of short atmospheric pieces mainly seeking to evoke mediaeval Dijon. He wrote these in short paragraphs of similar lengths, each self-contained like the verses of traditional poetry, but in prose. Although Bertrand was creating a new form, he immediately grasped an essential point: prose poems need to be short; if they run to any length, they risk becoming a short story or an essay.

Bertrand’s collected pieces – he didn’t call them prose poems – were published posthumously in 1842. The name (“poemes en prose”) was created by Baudelaire who came across Bertrand’s book in the 1840s and found it a revelation. Baudelaire had long wanted to write novels, but in fact wrote only one extended short story – La Fanfarlo, published 1847. The small scale of prose poems appealed to him and he published series of them throughout the rest of his life. Most are vignettes of aspects of life observed in Paris; some are prose versions of poems. These show clearly how inferior the prose version is to the poem. Compare the beginnings of two descriptions of twilight, the first in prose (La Crépuscule du Soir in a literal translation):

The day ends. A great sense of peace enters the poor spirits weary from the day’s labour, and their thoughts now take on the tender and indefinite colours of twilight.

the second in verse (Receuillement in Lowell’s version):

Calm down, my Sorrow, we must move with care.
You called for evening; it descends; it’s here.
The town is coffined in its atmosphere,
bringing relief to some, to others care.

The distinctions are vital. The first is observant but emotionally unengaged; it is a piece of atmospheric scene-setting such as any competent novelist might produce. The second is personal and urgent, its urgency enacted by its varied rhythms. It becomes clear why, if he had been a prose poet only, Baudelaire would not now be read. However well observed his short social scenes, his prose poems have no greater quality than can be expected of a writer temperamentally unable to write longer prose works. In many ways, the true successors of Baudelaire were the Viennese feuilleton writers of the period 1880 to 1936. Some, like Peter Altenberg, knew Baudelaire’s work, and the fashion grew for short, sardonic, descriptive pieces on current life and manners which were published in the daily press. In The Glass Bead Game, Hesse describes the period as “das feuilletonistischer Zeitalter”, the age of the feuilleton, noting that the origin, and the word itself, is French. No-one would claim, however, that these pieces were prose poems, sharply written though they often were.

Some of Baudelaire’s prose poems are personal and dramatic, and these qualities find their apotheosis in the later works of Rimbaud: The Deserts of Love, A Season in Hell and the prose sections of The Illuminations, written partly in London during his third stay with Verlaine. The violence of Rimbaud’s experimentation with the prose poem has had few successors. They were written as both exorcism and ground-clearing for future work by a man aged 19 and 20 who in fact wrote his last known imaginative work (in verse) just before his 21st birthday.

The third strand of prose poetry is best represented by the French poet, Francis Ponge, whose first and best known work, Le parti pris des choses (The prejudice of things), describes common objects in meticulous detail, without emotion and without symbolic implications. For Ponge, things are themselves, phenomena which can be described as in an essay. He has described his work as “description-definition-literary works of art” which seeks to avoid the drabness of the dictionary and the inadequacy of poetry. For an English reader, Ponge’s project seems redolent of a continuing loss of confidence in poetry in France.

As a genre, the prose poem seems to have progressed in three directions, each with its problems for the writer. The first is the short narrative or descriptive piece in which the writer has to choose between naturalism or a realism heightened by some element of fantasy – what one might call subject-orientated writing. The second is personal expression of feeling – what one might call self-orientated. And the third, following Ponge, is an emphasis on describing things – what one might call object-orientated.

Beyond the intrinsic problems of each sub-genre, there are two general problems that all writers of prose poems face. The first is the problem of memorability. Verse (which was, after all, created in order to be remembered) has the advantage of individual lines or small groups of lines which, through imagery, rhythm and possibly rhyme, may cause the reader to linger, ponder and return. Prose, with its greater fluidity creating a pressure to read on, works at paragraph rather than line length, and no-one can remember a paragraph.

The second problem is length. As Aloysius Bertrand instantly saw, a prose poem continued for more than a page risks becoming something else. It is possible to write a series of short prose poems and publish them together as a sequence, but on what structural principle: the equivalent of diary entries? an internal monologue uttered over specified intervals? the objects in my room? It seems that the problems raised by prose poetry have only recently begun to be considered in depth and that, compared with verse, there are difficulties not easy to resolve.

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