The prose poem, Silliman notes, is ‘perfect for hallucinated, fantastic and dreamlike contents, for pieces with multiple locales and times squeezed into few words’ (1989: 81). This, he argues, is because the quotidian nature of prose is often unexpectedly subverted by encounters with the magnificent. This paper uses Silliman’s assertion as a starting point to discuss the way in which the American tradition of surrealist prose poetry employs recurring demotic elements – such as dalliance and anecdotes – to introduce the extraordinary. This, in turn, creates a comic or absurdist dimension in such works, underscoring one of the paradoxes at the heart of the prose poetry form. We argue that the coupling of the quotidian with the surreal in prose poetry creates and exploits a comic tension, focusing the reader on the impossibility of objectivity and adding a piquant playfulness to the serious issues such poems canvass. This paper will discuss prose poems by American prose poets Russell Edson and Charles Simic. It will also briefly analyse three Australian prose poems. These works indicate that surrealist prose poetry in Australia tends to be focused on a fusing of the laconic with the savage in its in its appeal to humour.
Keywords: prose poetry – surrealism – comic – quotidian – prose poetry
1. The ‘American’ prose poem
Awarding Charles Simic the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his book of prose poetry, The World Doesn’t End, helped to legitimise US prose poetry as a significant international poetic form at a time when prose poetry in America – and English-language prose poetry more generally – was undergoing a resurgence. This was an accomplishment that earlier American poets had not entirely achieved, despite the considerable amount of prose poetry they had written, partly due to American modernist poets’ aversion to the term ‘prose poetry’.
For example, Gertrude Stein characterised her prose poems as ‘verbal cubism’ (Burke 2016: 111) rather than as prose poetry, and American poet Russell Edson undermines the idea of prose poetry being a specific literary form by quipping in an interview with Peter Johnson: ‘Heck, one can call most anything a prose poem. That’s what great about them, anything that’s not something else is probably a prose poem’ (1999: 30). Furthermore, despite writing the prose poem ‘Hysteria’, TS Eliot argued spiritedly against the form as a false hybrid in his essay ‘The Borderline of Prose’ (1917), stating, ‘Both verse and prose still conceal unexplored possibilities, but whatever one writes must be definitely and by inner necessity either one or the other’ (159).
Notwithstanding these different views about what prose poetry might be, Americans have been writing more and more of these works and, at the same time, the idea that American prose poetry is in some respects different from other prose poetry has gained considerable currency and been widely debated. For instance, David Lehmann is keen to point to the way the American prose poem keeps ‘a respectful distance’ from prose poetry’s ‘modern French tradition’ (2003: 11) – most notably the French poème en prose. Poet, Russell Edson remarks that:
the prose poem comes to us [Americans] not so much from the idea of the poème en prose, but out of modern poetry itself … I don’t think a line of European virtuosos is necessary to find the availability of the prose poem in America. (Prose Poem, 321).
And, although Michel Delville in his book The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre questions those who have identified quintessentially ‘American’ features in prose poems, in doing so he points to a central strand of the American prose poem – the absurdist or neo-surrealist work:
Now that a number of general trends have established themselves as characteristic of ‘the’ American prose poem, the genre is likely to be further institutionalized into the canon of American poetry under various restrictive labels, such as the Deep Image prose poem, the neo-Surrealist fable, or the language-oriented New Prose Poem. (1998: 243)
Neo-surrealism in American prose poetry is primarily, but by no means exclusively, identified with works by Simic and Edson, along with writers such as Maxine Chernoff, Michael Benedikt, James Wright and James Tate. While American prose poets were not the first to experiment with either of these approaches – for example, what is sometimes considered the first book of prose poetry, Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la nuit has been described as, ‘not-clearly lit … dreamlike … surreal’ (Bruhn 1997: 181) – the contemporary appeal to absurdism and neo-surrealism in prose poems is arguably best exemplified by the Americans.
Steven Monte in his Invisible Fences: Prose poetry as a genre in French and American literature comments on the ‘propaganda value of the idea of an American prose poem’ (2000: 179) and doubts whether the American prose poem may be thought of as independent from its French forerunners. He writes that ‘[i]t may be that American poets and critics, especially those who are defensive, have based their claims on a single type of French poem or a straw-man symbolist poem’. Nevertheless, he also contends that ‘[r]egardless of its taxonomic value, “American” is potentially an important interpretive frame for some works’ (2000: 135).
This ‘interpretive frame’ for late twentieth- and twenty-first century American prose poetry relates to the tonality and attitude of many of these prose poems. Unlike the majority of nineteenth-century French examples – and not discounting the weirdness of some of Arthur Rimbaud’s brilliant and influential prose poetry – numerous contemporary American prose poems not only subvert, but depart almost entirely from the idea of commonsense assumptions about the world. They gather their force through exploring their internal worlds and developing strange, associative logic as they do so. They rely on various kinds of absurdity, urban fantasy, magical realism and neo-surrealistic techniques to create a sense of the uncanny and unreal. These poems defamiliarise the known, and make serious poetic statements via analogies between strange depictions and the contemporary, quotidian world, questioning and troubling assumptions about how we live.
2. The quotidian and the extraordinary in American prose poetry
Andrew Joron has argued that ‘Surrealism is the practice of conjuring Otherness, of realizing the infinite negativity of desire in order to address, and to redress, the poverty of the positive fact’ and states that ‘in surrealism th[e] identification of reality and desire leads, not to reconciliation, but to antagonistic embrace.’ (2007: 100) This ‘embrace’ is strange and sometimes uncanny, and while neither of these terms are synonymous with the surreal, they do speak to some of the effects of the surreal. As Joron remarks, Philip Lamantia has asked in one of his poems: in postmodern society, ‘what is not strange?’ (Lamantia 2013: 235)
The neo-surreal prose poem represents an attempt to revive surrealism’s preoccupation with dreams and the unconscious, but with what may be understood to be postmodern features, such as the influence of pop art, urban fantasy or magical realism and a sometimes fairly flat tonality that de-emphasises affect. Prose poetry is suited to such neo-surrealistic manoeuvres because it is a relatively short form that, while making use of some narrative techniques, tends to work impressionistically, analogically and more-or-less immediately. It is a form that has, as it were, a license to be more lateral than, and even estranged from, what is typically the chronology-driven sequencing of conventional narrative prose, as well as from the formalities of lyric poetry’s line breaks. This license includes the quarrying of the unconscious – to the extent that poet and scholar Michael Benedikt writes that the ‘attention to the unconscious, and to its particular logic, unfettered by the relatively formalistic interruptions of the line break, remains the most immediately apparent property of the prose poem’ (1976: 48).
Although Stephen Fredman is sceptical of Benedikt’s claims for prose poetry’s connections to the unconscious, asserting that ‘[t]he inadequacy of defining the prose poem as merely a vehicle for the unconscious becomes patent whenever Benedikt tries to draw the implications of his position’ (1990: 131), there is no doubt that various prose poets have identified themselves with neo-surrealistic practices. Their prose poems tend to possess the kind of quirkiness or humorousness that arises from the dislocation of everyday expectations and even if some of these works make deliberate and self-conscious use of dislocatory effects, manifestly aimed at generating dreamlike or surrealistic disjunctions, this simply demonstrates the prevalence and significance of neo-surrealistic strategies in the practice of many contemporary prose poets.
Neo-surrealistic prose poems are often not obviously highly ‘poetic’ despite their analogical tendencies – they do not always employ much overtly metaphorical language or other figures of speech. This strand of writing also runs counter to the confessional strand in American lyric poetry, frequently undercutting the reader’s expectation that poetry may provide a yield of meaning connected to the poet’s autobiography. In this way, the American neo-surrealists have taken the prose poem into directions that express some of the form’s narrative potential, and its way of speaking strangely and sometimes opaquely back to the society that produces it. While some lyric or lineated poetry speaks in similar ways, this is increasingly a territory marked out by prose poetry. Indeed, the neo-surrealist appeal to magical realism – or more recently, urban fantasy – displaces contemporary problems in order to comment on them more fully.
In grappling with a definition of prose poetry, American poets often turn to comedy and invoke the quotidian. Interestingly, many appeal to metaphors about food to convey a sense of prose poetry’s general appeal. For example, Charles Simic states in ‘A Long Course in Miracles’:
prose poems are the culinary equivalent of peasant dishes, like paella and gumbo, which bring together a great variety of ingredients and flavours, and which in the end, thanks to the art of the cook, somehow blend. Except, the parallel is not exact. Prose poetry does not follow a recipe. The dishes it concocts are unpredictable and often vary from poem to poem. (15)
The focus on ‘peasant dishes’ suggests that prose poems are an inventive concoction. It also suggests that they are not exclusive or elitist and, in this way, prose poetry may be said to return poetry to the realm of colloquial utterance. Peter Johnson, editor of The Best of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, emphasises this unpredictability when he conjures a moment of slapstick in referring to prose poetry, ‘Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels’ (1992: 6). The image of a banana peel is also used by American prose poet Louis Jenkins in his definition of the prose poem:
Think of the prose poem as a box, perhaps the lunch box dad brought home from work at night. What’s inside? Some waxed paper, a banana peel, half a peanut butter-jelly sandwich. Not so much a hint of how the day has gone perhaps, but the magic for having made a mysterious journey and returned. The dried out pb&j tastier than anything made flesh. (1995: 1)
Moreover, the connection between black humour and prose poetry is further emphasised when Johnson quotes Bruce Jay Friedman’s observation that defining black humour is like trying to define ‘an elbow or a corned-beef sandwich’, after which he adds that ‘much the same can be said about prose poetry’ (2000: 11). The banana, pb&j, corned beef and elbow align the prose poem with ‘“working-class discourse”, undermining the lyric structures of the upper bourgeoisie’ (Lehman 2005: 266). This is emphasised by the way in which, as Lehman has also argued, the prose poem ‘disguises its true nature. The prose poet can appropriate … the newspaper article, the memo, the list, the parable, the speech, the dialogue. It is a form that sets store by its use of the demotic …’ (2003: 13).
Certainly, the quotidian and demotic in prose poetry are significant features of its composition. As we have discussed elsewhere, while Wallace Stevens described in his poetry ‘the malady of the quotidian’ and the ‘dull weight of everyday regiment’ (1997: 81, 449), Siobhan Phillips notices that Stevens also celebrated the ‘possibility of fresh invention’ by calling the quotidian a ‘health’, a rejuvenating ‘over and over of renewed mornings’ (2009:1). This turn from viewing the mundane as tedious, to contemplating the everyday as rich and memorable, represents an important perceptual shift and emphasises the way in which writers of all kinds may explore connections between the mundane and significant existential truths. Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei (2007: 1) argues that the ordinary can only be understood via the phenomenon of the extraordinary, and vice-versa; that ‘modern poetry is in part devoted to defending the margins of unknowability that surround the horizons of the known’ (2007: 123).
Further, José Rodríguez Feo remarks on the ‘mysterious relationship between the quotidian and the marvelous’ (1986: 168), pointing to the way that the quotidian and the marvellous often co-exist. Prose poetry is the perfect form in which to explore these preoccupations as it can be argued that, ‘The poem uses a prose style to play up an extraordinary situation, or on an apparently mundane story that becomes wildly stylised’ (Scottish Poetry Library: n.pag.). In this way, neo-surreal prose poems, especially those which feature magical realism or urban fantasy, most convincingly embrace this notion of the extraordinary happening in an ordinary setting, often with enchorial dialogue. Indeed, the juxtaposition or even internalisation of one within the other, heightens the demotic mode.
3. Simic, Edson and the neo-surreal
Both Simic and Edson are expert at such stylistics and their prose poems work to make the extraordinary ordinary. Indeed, it is in the nonchalant delivery of the astonishing that the extraordinary is made even more remarkable. Lehman has provided an excellent example of this in his short explications of two of Simic’s most well-known prose poems. The first is the analysis of the opening lines of ‘I was stolen by gypsies’:
I was stolen by the gypsies. My parents stole
me right back. Then the gypsies stole me again.
This went on for some time. (1985: 5)
Lehman focuses specifically on speed in these sentences, arguing:
The succession of sentences, not lines, moves at a speed faster than verse. Then comes the formulaic last line to slow down the action. The effect is to make the extraordinary seem somehow routine. And it has everything to do with the rhythms of narrative prose. (2003:12)
With reference to the prose poem entitled ‘Mousetrap’, Lehman draws attention to Simic’s ‘understated prose style’ and the way in which it is ‘at the service of the fantastic and the surreal’ (2003: 12). Simic’s appeal to the demotic in this prose poem makes its extraordinary features so unexpected, heightening the absurdism:
We were so poor I had to take the place of the
bait in the mousetrap. All alone in the cellar, I
could hear them pacing upstairs, tossing and turn-
ing in their beds. ‘These are dark and evil days,’
the mouse told me as he nibbled my ear. Years
passed. My mother wore a cat-fur collar which
she stroked until its sparks lit up the cellar. (1985: 8)
The simple, unadorned sentences are mostly composed of single syllable words, creating a short, sharp progression in the narrative. The opening line, ‘We were so poor’, can also be read as a reference to the pared-back sentences which work to expose the absurdism of the narrator ‘taking the place of bait’ in a mousetrap. Indeed, at the end of this first line the reader can then be said to take ‘the bait’ and continue reading to try and understand the bizarre circumstance. The use of clichés such as ‘tossing and turning’ and ‘dark and evil days’ appeals to the quotidian and is juxtaposed with the bizarre situation that unfolds, like a strange fable.
In the same way that ‘I was stolen by gypsies’ uses the clause ‘this went on for some time’, this prose poem uses ‘Years passed’ for a similar effect. Simic’s strategy of condensing such a significant passage of time into two words is humorous, while it also works to slow the speed of the narrative. This reference to time and the concept that the narrator has been nibbled on as bait for ‘years’ is bracketed by two examples of anthropomorphism – the mouse speaking to the narrator and the mother who is in a ‘cat-fur collar’. The conclusion of the prose poem is electric with the static created by the action of the mother stroking her collar. Michel Delville describes Simic’s voice in this prose poem as ‘alternately poignant and detached, deeply tragic and ruthlessly ironic’ (1998: 170). This appeal to binaries and the use of magical realism exposes the kinds of tensions that are often at work in the prose poetry form while affirming that oppositions can ‘spark’ off one another for a heightened and neo-surreal reading experience.
In another of Simic’s prose poems, the narrator’s mother is a ‘braid of black smoke’ while he is floating over ‘burning cities’. This work turns on vastly surreal images of mother and child in the universe. It is a return to a more dreamlike narrative and, simultaneously, an appeal to the unconscious mind:
My mother was a braid of black smoke.
She bore me swaddled over the burning cities.
The sky was a vast and windy place for a child
We met many others who were just like us.
They were trying to put on their overcoats with
arms made of smoke.
The high heavens were full of shrunken
deaf ears instead of stars. (2013: 111)
It is possible to read Simic’s prose poems as dream narratives that end abruptly, enigmatically. You might almost treat them as prose fiction, except for their extreme brevity and the ambiguous ways they achieve resolution, and their authors’ unmistakably poetic intent. (2013: 12)
When Silliman spoke of encounters with the magnificent (1989: 81) he may not have had Simic’s poems in mind. But there is something strangely and disturbingly magnificent about Simic’s marriage of matter-of-factness with large flights of fancy in his prose poetry; a sense that word and meaning in such works are always haunted by dreamy and baffling improbabilities.
While Simic won the Pulitzer Prize for his book of prose poetry, Russell Edson has been dubbed the ‘Godfather of the Prose Poem in America’ by Booklist’s Ray Olsen (University of Pittsburgh Press, n.pag.) and has referred to himself as ‘Little Mister Prose Poem’ (1999: 32). Edson has notoriously quipped: ‘Why should we have to be surrealists? Breton didn’t invent our imaginations’ (1999: 32). Yet Edson frequently employs surrealistic techniques in his prose poetry, and moves surrealism towards both a neo-surrealist grotesque and the abject. Anna Balakian characterises his prose poetry as ‘carr[ying] the humor of unexpected collisions to a level reminiscent of Benjamin Péret. He specializes in the shock technique of the displacement of words, of the obliteration of time’ (1986: 9).
One of Edson’s prose poems begins:
You haven’t finished your ape, said mother to father,
who had monkey hair and blood on his whiskers.
I’ve had enough monkey, cried father.
You didn’t eat the hands, and I went to all the
trouble to make onion rings for its fingers, said mother.
I’ll just nibble on its forehead, and then I’ve had enough,
said father. (1994:118)
The enchorial language around the dinner table coupled with clichéd phrases heighten the strangeness and abjection when this language is twisted to encapsulate the extraordinary in the ordinary, as in ‘You haven’t finished your ape’, and the conjuring of the bizarre in ‘onion rings for its fingers’. Furthermore, the choice of ‘ape’ for dinner is particularly confronting if we consider a Darwinian reading where the family are cannibals.
In both Edson’s and Simic’s works there is an emphasis on the sentence rather than the line, highlighted by the fact that their prose poems are not fully justified – unlike many contemporary prose poems. In many ways, their works’ appearance is not so dissimilar from the appearance of many lineated free verse poems, except that their sentences are clearly in prose and they maintain a poetic approach to narrative (i.e. their narratives are subsumed within their larger poetic purposes rather than being primarily aimed at conveying a discrete story). In this way, Edson and Simic focus on the line in ways that challenge the notion that prose poetry has no line breaks or enjambment.
4. An Australian neo-surreal
While it is not always helpful to discuss prose poems by nationality – given that prose poetry is an internationally diverse form – the neo-surreal in prose poetry is differently nuanced in different countries. The Australian neo-surreal rarely sounds quite like the Americans. It often incorporates savagery, black humour or seriousness of a kind that is more blunt than in the majority of neo-surreal American works, and such effects are frequently enhanced, rather than softened by being joined with a laconic style. Where Simic and Edson make considerable use of unadorned sentences to heighten the extraordinary, some Australian prose poets use a loose, casual style to discuss heightened moments of anguish.
We’ll give three brief examples. The first is from Gary Catalano, who is known for his surrealist and neo-surrealist prose poems. In ‘Incident from a War’, Catalano transforms a devastating moment into black humour when bombs are transformed into loaves of bread:
When the enemy planes flew over our city they disgorged not bombs but loaves of bread. Can you imagine our surprise? We ventured outside after those planes had disappeared from the sky, and what did we find there but heaps of broken bread at which the pigeons were already feeding? (n. pag.)
The threat of bombs is defused when ‘loaves of bread’ fall instead. Rather than extinguishing life, the enemy has dropped food, providing sustenance. Perhaps Catalano is referencing the Christian idea of breaking bread and, if understood as a form of black humour, this prose poem could be read as a kind of Last Supper. The strangeness of loaves being dropped from the sky may also reference the pumpkins Americans dropped as practice prior to dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Therefore, while the pigeons eat the bread, erasing any evidence of war, the suggestion is that the threat of the bomb is more lasting. The upbeat language, including the question ‘Can you imagine our surprise?’ is a clever device that heightens the horror of the potential for the city’s annihilation.
The second prose poem is from Alex Skovron, whose work, ‘Supplication’ may not be neo-surrealist in a strict sense, but who attempts to discompose the reality we know in a poem that by its end is increasingly like a dream. It begins:
LET THE FILM turn before it touches the Moment. Let the motorcade stop, drift backward down the plaza. Let the jetliner freeze, metres short of the tower, flow back out of the frame like a toy wing at the sling’s limit. Let the black plumes billowing from the edifice be reinhaled to unmask the blue. Let the bullet thread with a thud back in the barrel crouching in the gateway, the victim clinch his scarf and vanish within. (2008: 5)
In this prose poem, some of the greatest horrors in world history, beginning with the assassination of JFK, are wound back (perhaps referencing the disturbing Zapruder film that captures Kennedy’s assassination), so that they are yet to occur. Skovron’s prose poem reverses many significant ‘Moment[s]’– to ask, for example, What if 9/11 hadn’t occurred? What if Hitler had not come to power? In the line ‘Let the ovens clang open’, Skovron’s onomatopoeia even dares to confront the Nazi genocide. Skovron isn’t suggesting that by winding these events back like an unspooling film, they cease to exist. He is reminding the reader that moments like these appear forever poised and may even be about to recur in some form in the future.
A short prose poem by Monica Carroll from the International Poetry Studies Institute’s International Prose Poetry Project uses humour in a series of fragmented moments:
We had a koi fling. Our talk in the code of scales and cold. I read your Lectio Divinia and thought perhaps. You ate a marzipan pig. As bad, I’d frame a fag on my lower lip and sprout piercings. The piano I imagined was as good as the one you. Remember the scrap that gentle voice served; I fall in love at the drop of a hat – why are so many people dropping hats?
Carroll appeals to a much colder and more fragmented anthropomorphism than Edson or Simic. The ‘code of scales and cold’ is a provocation – the reader must work hard to piece together what is going on. While the American neo-surrealists are often fairly straightforward in their use of language, and frequently create an accessible, sometimes wry humour – in setting the frame for the narrator as bait in a mouse trap, for example – Carroll moves rapidly from fish to marzipan pig, to piano, to hat.
In this way, while there are familiar adages and phrases in this prose poem, their disjuncture becomes the neo-surreal ‘antagonistic embrace’. We move from what is presented as a pun on a ‘fishy affair’ to a reference to Lectio Divina – or Divine Reading – where Carroll suggests bitingly that Christianity and ultimately her own prose poem is all just ‘carping’ on an idea; it’s all ‘fishy’. It’s a form of Australian black humour where criticisms are turned in on themselves to question the very nature of artistic creation. There is a savagery and perhaps even brutality in this manner of questioning whether, in writing the prose poem, it even exists.
Carroll distracts the reader with a marzipan pig – a German invention given to family and friends for good luck. Its internalisation is ‘framed’ with the narrator’s ‘fag on her lower lip’ and ‘sprouting piercings’ – in this way, it’s all smoke and mirrors, referencing multiple meanings and contexts. The laconic expression of the last line, which recasts the adage of ‘falling in love at the drop of a hat’, is vaguely reminiscent of Waiting for Godot, but Carroll transforms this comic moment by situating it near ‘the piano’, so that the reader feels the weight of the fall.
The humour in these Australian prose poems is somewhat different to that of the American prose poets. Catalano and Skovron transform the horrors of war into something more comic and seemingly benign in their prose poems, while Carroll presents a jarring and staccato series of absurdisms. Australian prose poetry, like American works in that form, come in many varieties and there are certainly various similarities of technique.
But there seems no doubt that the Americans and the Australians have made their own brands of neo-surrealism. Australian prose poetry prioritises strangeness of a more direct and less weirdly inflected kind than that of the Americans, who often prioritise the effects of dreamlike narratives rendered in plain-speaking, if powerfully nuanced ways. Nevertheless, both countries explore that stuff of dreams and nightmares, and express prose poetry’s capacity to unite the demotic and the apparently unreal in potent and disturbing combinations.
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