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Poetry in Practice – Louis Jenkins and the Prose Poem
by none

It is the distilling power of Louis Jenkins’ imagination that gives his small scenes a biblical quality…. It is the country where scripture meets K-mart. (Howard Nelson, The Hollins Critic)

Prose poetry, it can be argued, dates back to the ancient Hebrew scholars: it surfaces in mediaeval France with the first nouvelles and was certainly used in the King James Bible. But its modern manifestation is thought to begin with the publication of Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la Nuit in 1842 (later set to music by Maurice Ravel), followed 20-or-so years later by Charles Baudelaire’s vivid, sometimes grotesque interior landscapes, Petits Poèmes en Prose (or Le Spleen de Paris) published posthumously in 1869.

Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde, Amy Lowell, Neruda and Borges also explored the form and it enjoyed a resurgence among 60s and 70s North American writers who recognised its potential for interior monologue, stream of consciousness and philosophical reflection, in an era that often shrugged at conventional form and practice.

Louis Jenkins has concentrated on the prose poem for over three decades. Born in Oklahoma, he now lives in Minnesota. His most recent book of prose poems is Sea Smoke (Holy Cow! Press 2004) with a ‘Selected 1970 – 2005’ due soon. Robert Bly has said, “Most people writing prose poems now agree that Louis Jenkins is the contemporary master” and that “Artistically, Louis Jenkins is one of the most subtle poets of his generation.”

Did you (do you) write ‘ordinary’ poems as well as prose-poems? Or did you move from conventional form to this? Or were you always instinctively a prose-poet? Yes, to all three questions. The first writings I did were in many ways similar to the prose poems I write now, only I thought of them as very short stories.

What are you giving to the reader that’s different from the more conventional forms of poetry? Well, it’s prose; it’s handy, user friendly. I hope to offer something of interest to the reader, but that is not intrinsic to the form (or lack of form) itself.

Does the form you’ve chosen dictate the content or is it the other way round? The main thing about prose is its flexibility; it allows me to use the language I would use in everyday conversation. Or not. There is a wide range of things one might do with a prose poem. I have my ways of working with the prose poem, whereas another poet might have entirely different ideas.

Is the prose-poem common now in the US or are you a lone voice? Robert Bly, Russell Edson, James Tate, and W S Merwin, and others, published books of prose poems back in the 60s and 70s. Around that time also, I discovered Baudelaire’s prose poems, which were written in the 1860s, I think. I started writing prose poems after reading those poets’ work; around 1972 or 73. During that time there was a fair amount of interest in the prose poem; then in the 80s the fad, if that’s what it was, died out. After that we got, among other things, neo-formalism, or neo-Victorianism, as it has been called. There wasn’t much interest in the prose poem but I kept writing them. Now there seems to be a lot of poets writing prose poems and there are literary magazines devoted entirely to the prose poem. A new generation, I guess.

Does your focus on this particular poetic practice spring from any specific oral tradition for you? Does storytelling form part of your background? My poems come from stories I have been told and from stories I’ve made up. There was no formal tradition of storytelling in my family history, but there were always stories; how uncle Ralph broke his leg in a motorcycle accident, how aunt Esther went crazy… All poetry, I think, comes down to storytelling. This is what happened. This is what it’s like to be a live human being. You tell that story the best way you can.

Do you see your practice as an act of resistance to the imposition of rules that are implied in more formal ‘poetries’? It seems to me that most free verse has a kind of formal quality, even though it may be written in the most prosaic language, relate the most prosaic experience, and lack any insight. It’s like some hayseed got up in a tuxedo. This is due primarily to line-breaks. They give the thing the look of a poem even though there may be no real poetry happening. I thought why not just write it out in prose and see if this ‘experience’ has any poetry about it? I know some poets will argue about ‘the music’ etc, etc… That doesn’t interest me. I think that whatever it is that makes a poem work, that sort of mysterious moment of recognition (Robert Frost called the poem “a momentary stay against confusion”), can happen in a prose poem as easily as in any other kind of poem.

What’s the longest prose-poem you’ve ever written? Have they ever been in danger of becoming essays, or short stories? About one page. I think that brevity is important; the writing loses some of its punch if it goes on too long. Finally, whether the writing I do is thought of as poetry, or story, or essay, or whatever, isn’t important as long as someone wants to read it.

Big Brown Pills

I believe in the big brown pills, they lower cholesterol and
improve digestion. They help prevent cancer and build
brain cells. Plus they just make you feel better overall. I
believe in coffee and beet greens and fish oil, of course,
and red wine, in moderation, and cinnamon. Green tea is
good and black tea, ginseng. I eat my broccoli. Nuts are
very good and dark chocolate, has to be dark, not milk
chocolate. Tomatoes. But I think the big brown pills really

help. I used to believe in the little yellow pills but now I
believe in the big brown pills. I believe that they are much
more effective. I still take the little yellow ones, but I really
believe in the big brown ones.

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