Prose Poems

When we write for the web, we’ve precious little time and space in which to make our ideas felt and understood because most readers will not pay attention for more than 750 words at a sitting.

One traditional literary form that fits the word count of the web is the prose poem, which arose as an act of rebellion by young poets in 19th Century France who refused to accept the common wisdom that all poetry must be written in formal verse. I'm going to borrow the term “prose poem” here, even though there are many other names for this sort of thing: flash fiction, micro-fiction, short short stories, sudden fiction, and so on. They all amount to short pieces of carefully worked poetic text that make the reader fill in more of the details for herself than she would with longer forms.

Baudelaire, who is said to have coined the term “prose poetry,” wrote many examples of the form, including his famous Enivrez-Vous (Be Drunk):

You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it--it's the only way.

So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking ... ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

Rimbaud and Mallarmé composed prose poems during the late 19th Century, and Proust later stretched the form to novelistic — even super-novelistic — length, creating a new kind of poetic interior narrative.

Oscar Wilde and the Decadents experimented with prose poems, but they didn’t become popular in English until after T.S. Eliot — who wrote diatribes against the form — created “stream of consciousness” poems that read like prose, even though they rhymed.

The Modernists picked up from there, and many of them were writing short meditative prose poems by the 1920s. Virginia Woolf had an especially deft hand with form, as can be seen in Monday or Tuesday:

Lazy and indifferent, shaking space easily from his wings, knowing his way, the heron passes over the church beneath the sky. White and distant, absorbed in itself, endlessly the sky covers and uncovers, moves and remains. A lake? Blot the shores of it out! A mountain? Oh, perfect—the sun gold on its slopes. Down that falls. Ferns then, or white feathers, for ever and ever—

Desiring truth, awaiting it, laboriously distilling a few words, for ever desiring—(a cry starts to the left, another to the right. Wheels strike divergently. Omnibuses conglomerate in conflict)—for ever desiring—(the clock asseverates with twelve distinct strokes that it is midday; light sheds gold scales; children swarm)—for ever desiring truth. Red is the dome; coins hang on the trees; smoke trails from the chimneys; bark, shout, cry “Iron for sale”—and truth?

Radiating to a point men’s feet and women’s feet, black or gold-encrusted—(This foggy weather—Sugar? No, thank you—The commonwealth of the future)—the firelight darting and making the room red, save for the black figures and their bright eyes, while outside a van discharges, Miss Thingummy drinks tea at her desk, and plate-glass preserves fur coats—

Flaunted, leaf-light, drifting at corners, blown across the wheels, silver-splashed, home or not home, gathered, scattered, squandered in separate scales, swept up, down, torn, sunk, assembled—and truth?

Now to recollect by the fireside on the white square of marble. From ivory depths words rising shed their blackness, blossom and penetrate. Fallen the book; in the flame, in the smoke, in the momentary sparks—or now voyaging, the marble square pendant, minarets beneath and the Indian seas, while space rushes blue and stars glint—truth? content with closeness?

Lazy and indifferent the heron returns; the sky veils her stars; then bares them.

The same year Woolf published Monday or Tuesday, Joyce completed Ulysses, and shortly thereafter began work on Finnegan’s Wake. Many authors went on to use poetic prose to push the boundaries of literature: Faulker’s novels, Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, and so on.

For me, though, the finest examples of the genre remain short pieces that operate perfectly in isolation, like last year’s Head, Heart from Lydia Davis’s Varieties of Disturbance:

Heart weeps.

Head tries to help heart.

Head tells heart how it is, again:

You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth will go, someday.

Heart feels better, then.

But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart.

Heart is so new to this.

I want them back, says heart.

Head is all heart has.

Help, head. Help heart.

It is work like this that inspires everything I write here. A few more examples will appear in the coming weeks.

This entry is part of my journal, published February 25, 2008, in New York.