Prose poetry and the elegiac mode
  • Oz Hardwick

‘Loss,’ writes David Kennedy in his thought-provoking study, Elegy, ‘may, in fact, be inextricable from our general experience,’ and he goes on to note ‘contemporary poetry’s overwhelmingly elegiac mood.’ With Kennedy’s discussion in mind, this paper discusses the author’s personal engagement with Richard Brautigan’s poetic prose in order to explore the ways in which prose poetry, through its restless formal hybridity – of which Lyn Hejinian notes that its ‘implication (correct) is that the words and ideas (thoughts, perceptions, etc. – the materials) continue beyond the work – provides the ideal arena to express the elegiac mode in a manner that reaches beyond the lyric or confessional.

Keywords: Prose poetry – elegy – loss – Brautigan – creative practise

As is perhaps appropriate in discussing such a mercurial form as the prose poem, this paper will be something of a hybrid, employing the strategies of an academic paper, but also drawing on personal experience. The reason for this is that however we may describe or theorise loss – and the poetry of loss – loss itself, even when shared, is ultimately an individual experience. Likewise, for all of our objective practical skills, experience of a literary text is also intensely personal. And if I am permitted a final obvious statement: these personal experiences are constantly changing and never the same twice. With this in mind, I shall begin, then, with my first encounter with prose poetry.

I first discovered the prose poem in the library of Plymouth College of Art around the mid-1970s, with that focused serendipity which was so much a part of the pre-digital age. I was looking at photography books for a course I was taking, but became distracted and found myself flicking through Allen and Creeley’s The new writing in the USA (a copy of which I saw again a couple of years ago in The Beat Museum when I finally visited San Francisco). Inside I found ‘The Cleveland Wrecking Yard’ by Richard Brautigan: something which looked like a short story, which I later found to be a chapter of his most famous novel, Trout fishing in America (1967), but which ‘felt’ to me like a poem. As a result, I more or less immediately tracked down everything I could that Brautigan had written up to that point: a couple of volumes of poetry, a collection of short stories, and a few novels. And it seemed to my uneducated teenage self – as it still appears to my undeniably older and possibly wiser (I’ll let others make that call) self – that his prose is much better poetry than his poetry.

It’s never been easy to explain this, but discovering much later that there was a form – or perhaps a genre, or perhaps a way of writing, or maybe a way of reading – called ‘prose poetry’ has helped. I am not alone in considering Brautigan’s prose in this way: most notably, his estranged friend Michael McClure’s retrospective ‘Ninety-one things about Richard Brautigan’ refers to both the prose poetry of his poetry and his prose, comparing, for example, his 1968 novel In watermelon sugar with Lorca’s late poetry, and describing passages in Sombrero fallout (1976) as ‘decadent poetry … written as prose’ (McClure 2007: 166 and 185).

More recently, Steven Moore, in his introduction to a proposed – but shelved – Collected poems, perceptively notes that following his early self-published poetry chapbooks, ‘Brautigan did not so much abandon poetry as apply his poetic strategies to writing fiction’ (Moore 2007: 195). Indeed, although Trout fishing in America states on its title page that it is ‘a novel by Richard Brautigan,’ it is, as I have already noted, unlike anything one would recognise as such; a dynamic tension between the work itself and the author’s arch claims for it which would appear more prominently on the covers of later works. In fact his early mentor Jack Spicer is said to have declared Trout fishing ‘a great poem!’ (Hjortsberg 2019: 183).

An intensely, yet playfully, literary (with a small l) writer, Brautigan’s work is full of references to other writers and texts, often stripping them of any Literary (with a big L) gravitas and placing them in absurd juxtaposition with the everyday: in Homage to the San Francisco YMCA, for instance, the protagonist replaces his plumbing with poetry – including works by McClure – with predictably problematic results (Brautigan 1971: 62-5). This is, however, just the most obvious way in which Brautigan foregrounds literature, language, and the limitations of both. Brautigan’s plots, such as they are, are often insubstantial, inconclusive, or nonsensical: ‘The Cleveland wrecking yard’ captured me all those years ago because – amongst many other features that would take me longer to describe than the piece takes up itself – from its beginnings in a mundane anecdote about a friend’s roof repair, it evolves into a deadpan surrealist description of a trout stream that is stacked up and sold in lengths at the titular yard. Not wishing to spoil it for anyone who has yet to read it, it concludes by observing a single word written on a door. The reader isn’t led through this door: instead we are left, as in so many of Brautigan’s works, in a place that is only made possible through language, and with a sense of potential rather than closure.

In Landscapes of language, his 2013 study of Brautigan’s work, John Tanner suggests that – specifically referring to The abortion: An historical Romance 1966, though it is just as true of any of the author’s works – he ‘may have created symbolic links as they occurred to him, with no intention of following them through in any sustained, coherent fashion’ (67). Such links may be figured in the mercurial metamorphoses of the personified Trout Fishing in America from the eponymous novel, who is introduced as a correspondent from American history, recalling ‘with particular amusement, people with three-cornered hats fishing in the dawn’ (3), and undergoes seemingly random transformations until he is last seen as a lonely wino staring after a departing child ‘as if the space between them were a river growing larger and larger’ (97), before finally becoming an absent symbol of the America threatened with potential nuclear destruction in the chapter titled ‘Witness for Trout Fishing in America Peace’ (98-9) and nib for a pen with which to write his own novel (110).

This apparent creative spontaneity, which throughout Brautigan’s oeuvre manifests itself at a sentence by sentence level as well as across whole books, was only achieved through what McClure recalls as ‘labor and fastidious obsession’ (McClure 2007: 178), but it is this element of surprise, of constant uncertainty, that prose poetry – itself a surprising, uncertain object on the page – does so well, and is what has drawn me to prose poems since long before I knew they had a name: something that uses language to create not only its own world, but its own universe – illuminated by Heaney’s ‘language in orbit’ i – in which that world can exist, and which, rather than guiding the reader through that world, lets them find their own way through it, maybe settle down, and maybe open a library.

Which returns me to the personal memories, back in that Art College library, looking for photographic inspiration and finding instead lengths of trout stream stacked for sale. It drew me into what is initially described as a real, physical world which, though in a different country, I could recognise as my own, but which is then transformed by imagination into something to be bought and sold, relocated at whim, or simply left forgotten in a wrecking yard of the rural idyll. Over forty years have passed, and I can’t recall the exact train of thought that led me from the monochrome photographs of Abby Hirsch’s The photography of rock (1972) to The new writing in the USA, but with hindsight I am acutely aware of the ambient psychological noise as I passed through those key defining teenage years, which alongside the de rigueur adolescent emotional rages, brought my first experiences of bereavement, as both of my maternal grandparents, with whom we lived, passed away within a couple of years of each other. It was my grandfather – a life-long agricultural worker and autodidact – who ignited my passion for both poetry and the natural world; and I think that in discovering ‘The Cleveland wrecking yard’’s combination of melancholy pastoral wistfulness and playful literary self-awareness at just that point in my life, I found, though I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, a literature of consolation through self-identification.

Death is the occasion of elegy, that category of verse which offers, as David Kennedy so neatly puts it, ‘journeys to the limits of understanding and asks how it is possible to live with death’ (Kennedy 2007: 11). As Terrence Malley notes, elegy – along with satire, nostalgia and humour – is a prominent thread in Brautigan’s work (Malley: 181), and critics have long recognised the elegiac mode in his writing. Most readers of Trout fishing, for example, will instantly recognise what Marc Chénetier characterises as ‘a lament for the destruction of the American Dream by a trivial culture’ (Chénetier: 40), which is nowhere more concisely encapsulated than on the novel’s final page where a letter of condolence upon the passing of a ‘Mr. Good’ is instantly undermined by a misspelled postscript about ‘mayonaise’ (112).

Tanner separates out these threads, seeing them as further examples of the ‘paratactical juxtapositions’ (Tanner 2013: 82) which characterise his work: elegy in Brautigan is always present, but it is always just one tone within a spectrum. This is of course appropriate, as loss itself is a site of parataxis. Bereavement, however, traumatic, transforms few of us into the ‘man in blak’ of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, his whole psychology, speech, appearance and (in)action defined by loss, who may lament without irony that ‘y am sorwe, and sorwe ys y’ (Chaucer 1987: l. 397). Even in periods of intense grief, we find moments of distraction, joy, excitement, or consolation, either in opposition to, or in tandem with, our prevailing emotional state. In short, considering our lives as a whole, ‘loss,’ as Kennedy notes, ‘may, in fact, be inextricable from our general experience’ (Kennedy 2007: 2).

As Kennedy goes on to observe, ‘the story of our grief must always be someone else’s before it can be ours’ (Kennedy 2007: 15), and in my discovery of Brautigan during a period in which I was experiencing the loss of bereavement for the first time, I – very much unconsciously – found my own story therein. In retrospect, one of the elements to which I responded so immediately was this aspect of ‘embedded’ elegy, as it were, which placed grief within a broader and infinitely more subtle emotional spectrum than a work confronting loss more directly. The other main source of its immediacy was, I suspect, that on the page it did not ‘look’ like a poem. I came to it with expectations based upon the shape the words made on the page; that is, without the line break which to many, even now, is the sine qua non of poetry. Indeed, Glyn Maxwell lays this down as a foundational tenet to aspiring poets, asserting that:

Line-break is all you’ve got, and if you don’t master line-break – the border between poetry and prose – then you don’t know there is a border. And there is a border. (Maxwell 2012: 12)

What Brautigan’s extended prose poetry does, under the guise of prose fiction, is to lure the reader into inhabiting that border, to occupy a space that is neither poetry nor prose, yet is simultaneously both.

A ‘generalised elegiac mode’ is often cited as a defining feature of contemporary British poetry (Kennedy 2007: 127), and may of course be traced back to the earliest surviving verse in English. One consequence of this is that although elegies continue to be written – Douglas Dunn’s Elegies (1985) and David Kennedy’s The roads (2004) are just two of the collections that spring to mind as offering sustained explorations of the possibilities of the elegy – they occupy a less distinct poetic space than they have in some places and eras, their edges bleeding into the more nebulous sense of loss which suffuses much contemporary poetry. Historically, elegy ‘locates mourning outside the usual routines and habitual interactions of the individual and the wider community’ (Kennedy 2007: 14). However, it could be argued that one of the ‘usual routines’ of mourning is that – as with many significant life events – we turn to poetry: an Amazon search for ‘poems for funerals’ draws up 585 book titles. ii Again with retrospect, I believe this is why form was so important to my response to Brautigan at the particular moment at which I discovered his work: it disrupted the ‘usual routines’ of my reading practice and, thereby, my patterns of responding to texts.

In discussing the prose poem, Mark Wallace reflects upon the centrality of death in early prose poetry, particularly in that of Baudelaire and Rimbaud (Wallace 2010: 74-8); the former of whom incidentally features a number of times throughout Brautigan’s work, and both of whom McClure cites as comparisons for both Brautigan’s work and, indeed, his life (McClure 2007:166). iii The crux of Wallace’s argument is that:

If for human beings the most crucial division may be between life and death, and the original genre division is that between prose and poetry, then matters of life and death must lie very near to what makes the prose poem. (Wallace 2010: 75)

By excerpting what is essentially a summary, I do a disservice to the subtlety of his discussion, but I find Wallace’s situation of the prose poem at the heart of life’s seams and divisions persuasive. It is, as he goes on to say, a ‘mixed genre that marks the problems of genre … a disorientation that orients while reminding us of the need for disorientation’ (Wallace 2010: 77). Concomitant with this is the way in which it may address a subject such as loss without directly addressing it at all, or provide consolation while acknowledging – in form as well as content – that grief knows no consolation. 

This is perfectly exemplified by Alexander Long who, in discussing his wide-ranging, apparently digressive prose poem ‘Meditation on a Suicide,’ talks of the way in which his attempts over five years to write a lined verse poem about a friend’s suicide had failed largely ‘because lines, meter and rhyme somehow simplified the terrible gravity of the event,’ and tellingly reflects that, ‘Not until I encountered the prose poem did I realize what kind of space was available to me’ (Long 2010: 43-4). iv If elegy indeed offers, as Kennedy suggests, ‘journeys to the limits of understanding and asks how it is possible to live with death’ (Kennedy 2007: 11), the prose poem provides an unstable space in which to undertake these journeys which, it assures us, have no end, and will be undertaken in the sometimes uneasy company of death – and, crucially, this is how it should be. In doing so it leaves the reader feeling that, as Long says at the end of ‘Meditation on a Suicide,’ ‘I feel closer to the truth than anyone’ (Long 2010: 46). This apprehended truth is complex, personal, and fleeting in a way that I believe is heightened by the prose poem’s inherently contested nature.

In attaining this point of close proximity to truth – which is tellingly not fully grasped, and remains contingent beyond the text – Long cites numerous literary and other cultural referents: as he says, the first draft of the piece began by ‘typing words that somehow needed to include Kundera, Brubeck and Desmond, a painting by Andrew Wyeth,’ and other diverse influences before concluding with ‘my friend B. who committed suicide five years before that morning I wrote my first prose poem’ (Long 2010: 42). To a certain extent, this conforms to Kennedy’s observation concerning elegy: that ‘The use of pre-existent stories and others’ griefs highlights elegy as a self-conscious literary performance’ (Kennedy 2007: 15). In Long’s formulation, however, the process is reversed and, rather than drawing upon pre-existent texts to create memorial verse, addressing the friend’s suicide is the last thing the prose poem does, organically rising out of its foundational engagement with other texts. 

This returns me to that first encounter with Brautigan’s work. At the core of ‘The Cleveland wrecking yard’ is the conceit of chopping something natural and flowing into arbitrary lengths which can only be sustained within the suspension of natural order provided by the words on the page. The chapter/story/prose poem itself, though, does exactly the opposite: it takes diverse scraps and fragments, and through parataxis and other explicitly literary devices it creates something which, for all its self-aware artificiality, is ‘closer to the truth’ of experience than either lineated verse or prose narrative. This truth/experience is most effectively articulated by the ‘open’ form of the prose poem because, as Lyn Hejinian notes in ‘The rejection of closure,’ with its lack of narrative, thematic or formal closure, ‘The implication (correct) is that the words and ideas (thoughts, perceptions, etc. – the materials) continue beyond the work.’

With this idea of textual accumulation, hybridisation and openness in mind, I would like to close how I started, by visiting another library. Brautigan opens his novel The abortion: An historical Romance 1966 (1971) – which is as typical of the historical romance as Trout fishing in America is of the novel – with a description of ‘a beautiful library, timed perfectly, lush and American,’ going on to tell the reader that ‘The hour is midnight and the library is deep and carried like a dreaming child into the darkness of these pages’ (11). The library, based on the Presidio Library in San Francisco (which features in the novel’s original front cover photograph), is closed but, as we soon discover, is at the same time always open, because the librarian lives there, receiving unpublished manuscripts – including a number by a writer named Richard Brautigan, and one wonders if Steven Moore’s edition of Brautigan’s Collected poems may be shelved with them now – around the clock (28). Even as the librarian/narrator/writer inhabits the library, so it lives within him for as long as he can sustain it and give it existence in ‘the darkness of these pages.’ There’s a whole universe in that self-referential textual darkness, and the novel’s opening paragraph may be read as a self-contained prose poem in its own right.

In 2013 and 2015, my parents passed away in fairly close succession. Naturally, as someone who identifies before anything else a poet, I wrote my way through the experiences of that period, and continue to do so. I wrote some lined verse, some of which was included in my 2017 collection, The house of ghosts and mirrors. The shape that my loss took on the page, though, tended overwhelmingly to the prose poem: not just, I think, because of its historical attraction for juxtaposition, surprise and transitory wonders, but also – perhaps more so – because it is a form that consistently wrong-foots the reader, and often the writer, subverting expectations of what will be contained within a block of text, and always pointing to ambiguities beyond itself. v

At the start of 2016, 50 years on from The abortion’s subtitle and about forty years since, with the first significant losses of my life recently tacked onto me like ‘the shadow of an immense bird’ (Brautigan 1971: 54), I entered a library and found myself before an enigmatic door in the Cleveland wrecking yard, my sister and I sold the house in which our parents had lived for 60 years, in which I was born, in which we had both grown up, and in which our grandfather, our grandmother, and recently our mother had died. That summer, with some money from the sale, my wife and I visited San Francisco – me for the first time – and I finally saw some of the places I’d read about or seen on the dust jackets of Brautigan’s books. Though an insignificant detail, it was good to experience that ‘elastic moment’ as time shifted, split, and collapsed in on itself when I unexpectedly saw that half-remembered cover of Allen and Creeley’s The new writing in the USA on display in the Beat Museum. vi

One particular personal pilgrimage site was the Presidio Library, a long cab ride out at 3150 Sacramento Street, and around 5284 miles from Plymouth College of Art. It was closed. Yet this didn’t really matter, because it was still open on the page, its ‘words and ideas (thoughts, perceptions, etc. – the materials) continu(ing) beyond the work’; and above the light traffic passing, I could hear the reassembled trout stream from the Cleveland Wrecking Yard as it bubbled from before Trout fishing in America to So the wind won’t blow it all away, and right past the bottom of the library steps.

          Anyway, I just kept getting smaller and smaller beside the pond, more and more unnoticed in the darkening summer grass until I disappeared into the … years that have passed since then, leaving me right here, right now.
          Because they never spoke during dinner, I think after they finished eating they probably mentioned a little thing about my disappearance.
          “Where did that kid go, Mother?”
          “I don’t know, Father.”
          Then they rigged up their fishing poles and got some coffee and just relaxed back on the couch, their fishing lines now quietly in the water and their living room illuminated by kerosene-burning electric floor lamps.
          “I don’t see him anywhere.”
          “I guess he’s gone.”
          Maybe he went home.” (Brautigan 1982: 130-1.)


End notes

  • i. The Sunday Independent, 25 September 1994.
  • ii. 31 July 2018
  • iii. Baudelaire acts as Brautigan’s alter ego and protagonist in his first poetry chapbook, The Galilee Hitch-Hiker (1958), the poems from which were reprinted in order in his collection, The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (1968). Although this sequence is in lineated verse, it reads, however, as Steven Moore has observed, ‘more like prose chopped into lines than poetry’ (Moore, p. 192). It is tempting to see in this as the work of a young poet still not quite sufficiently confident to abandon the line-break.
  • iv. The poem itself is reprinted on pp. 44-6.
  • v. Some of these prose poems are gathered in Oz Hardwick, Learning To Have Lost (2018).
  • vi. I am borrowing Paul Munden’s phrase here, where he refers to moments in prose poems in which ‘It is as if the expected parameters of time are thrown to the wind, and the gesture is all the more striking on account of the brief space in which it happens’ (Munden 2017).
Works cited: 

Brautigan, R 1958 The Galilee Hitch-Hiker, San Francisco: White Rabbit

Brautigan, R 1967 Trout fishing in America, San Francisco: Four Seasons

Brautigan, R 1968 The pill versus the Springhill mine disaster, San Francisco: Four Seasons

Brautigan, R 1968 In watermelon sugar, San Francisco: Four Seasons

Brautigan, R 1971 The abortion: An historical Romance 1966, New York: Simon and Schuster

Brautigan, R 1971 Revenge of the lawn, New York: Simon & Schuster

Brautigan R 1976 Sombrero fallout, New York: Simon & Schuster

Brautigan, R 1982 So the wind won’t blow it all away, New York: Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence

Chaucer, G 1987 The book of the Duchess, in LD Benson (ed) The Riverside Chaucer, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 330-46

Chénetier, M 1983 Richard Brautigan, London & New York: Methuen

Creeley, R and Allen, D (ed) 1967 The new writing in the USA, London: Penguin.

Dunn, D 1985 Elegies, London: Faber and Faber

Hardwick, O 2017 The house of ghosts and mirrors, Scarborough: Valley Press

Hardwick, O 2018 Learning to have lost, Canberra: IPSI

Hejinian, L ‘The Rejection of Closure’, (accessed 6 March 2018)

Hirsch, A (ed) 1972 The photography of rock, Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill

Hjortsberg, W 2012 Jubilee hitchhiker: The life and times of Richard Brautigan, Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint

Kennedy, D 2004 The roads, Cambridge: Salt

Kennedy, D 2007 Elegy, London and New York: Routledge

Long, A 2010 ‘Something like a meditation,’ in G L McDowell and D Rzicznek (eds) The Rose Metal field guide to prose poetry: Contemporary poets in discussion and practice, Brookline, MA: Rose Metal, 41-4

Malley, T 1972 Richard Brautigan, New York: Warner

Maxwell, G 2012 On poetry, London: Oberon

McClure, M 2007 ‘Ninety-one things about Richard Brautigan,’ in John F. Barber (ed) Richard Brautigan: Essays on the writings and life, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 162-87

Moore, S 2007 ‘Paper flowers: Richard Brautigan’s poetry,’ in John F. Barber (ed) Richard Brautigan: Essays on the writings and life, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 188-204

Munden, P 2017 ‘Playing with time: Prose poetry and the elastic moment’ TEXT, Special Issue 46 (accessed 23 July 2018)

Tanner, J 2013 Landscapes of language: The achievement and context of Richard Brautigan’s fiction, Penrith: HEB, 2013

Wallace, M 2010 ‘Split: seam and abyss in the prose poem,’ in G L McDowell and D Rzicznek (eds) The Rose Metal field guide to prose poetry: Contemporary poets in discussion and practice, Brookline, MA: Rose Metal, 74-8