The prose poem is one of the most abiding whatabouts…
From The Walrus:
A poem strikes us as inevitable: it can be no other way, employ no other words. This is an illusion, of course, but the poem pulls it off because it’s already pressed itself upon our memories. Auden’s every move—the way the sound of “pack” pays off “put”; the way the stock cosmic props are redeemed by the strangeness of “dismantle”—lays down ruts in the mind. We’re duly reassured we’re dealing with the real thing.
It’s the insiders—the poets, the tenured—who like to “problematize” poetry and wield their whatabouts. The “prose poem” is one of the most abiding whatabouts. It remains an outlier, a problem. “A prose poem is a poem without line breaks,” writes Jeremy Noel-Tod in the introduction to his recent anthology, The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem. Blame the French, who revel in unravelling categories. Aloysius Bertrand, in the nineteenth century, was the first to compose a block of text and call it poetry. Other beloved disturbers of shit, like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, later took up the idea. Prose poetry didn’t catch on in North America for another century or so. Even then, it remained controversial. When Mark Strand’s book of prose poems The Monument was up for a Pulitzer, in 1979, one of the judges, Louis Simpson, dissented. The Monument, felt Simpson, just wasn’t poetry. (“If a prize intended for playing the violin were awarded to a trumpet player,” he reportedly said, “everyone would see immediately how absurd and unacceptable this was.”)
Image by Marianne Cornelissen-Kuyt via Wikimedia Commons (cc)