||Squaring the Circle
by Alex Boyd
A certain amount of confusion surrounds prose poetry in English literature. In his introduction to the prose poem anthology, Models of the Universe, David Young suggests that such poems "raid the other world, the world of prose, subverting categories and definitions" and "turning everything inside out for a moment." Prose poems, Young argues, make "vigorous appearances in odd places right up to the present," allowing the poet to put aside the "costume of poetic identity." I had always thought of the prose poem as an awkward, not always accepted "form" that moved out of the house but couldn't quite bring itself to leave the prosodic neighbourhood. But according to Young, it went to boot camp, makes "vigorous" appearances and returns to the family reunion to put the sonnet in a headlock. "The prose poem," he continues
"may look easy, as if the poet had gotten lazy, but it is trickier to bring off successfully than the poem. It may well be that the ratio of unsuccessful to successful is even great for prose poems than for the regular kind. If you mean to write a poem and choose to do that in prose, you wrestle with an angel who knows more holds than you have dreamed of."
Are they really so much trickier to write? The challenges of rhythm, internal rhyme, and assonance remain the same, no? And wouldn't giving up the basic poetic devices of concision-such as line break and stanza-make it easier on a poem, allowing it to take up as much room as it wanted? Young isn't any help here. Apart from attributing a down-to-earth quality to the prose poem, Young keeps his critical commentary to a minimum because "prose poems seem to want to speak for themselves." And here I thought all poems would ideally want to do that. These are nebulous reasons, it seems to me, to attribute vigorous strength to prose poems. And knowing it isn't a fusty traditional form doesn't help us define it either.
It was the Belgian poet Aloysius Bertrand who, in 1842, wrote the first collection of prose poems, the strong and tightly-woven Gaspard de la Nuit. French poets like Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud helped popularize the form. As to why the prose poem hasn't caught on tremendously in English, some critics suggest that France presented a more rigid tradition of forms to rebel against, and that the arrival of free verse in English poetry diluted the impact prose poetry might have had. A Canadian poet might say, well, whatever. What's interesting for Canadians, you see, is that the prose poem roughly coincides with the rise of Canadian poetry in the sixties and seventies. Prose poetry may not have appeared in the early basement floor of the CanPo building, but as we built the ground floor its presence is not only unquestionable (in books by mainstays like Leonard Cohen, A.M. Klein, Robert Kroetsch, bp Nichol, Anne Szumigalski, Susan Glickman, Christopher Dewdney, Robyn Sarah, and Roo Borson), but a strong argument for its profound influence on our fiction also becomes possible.
Some of our most celebrated authors are both poets and novelists, known for their poetic novels. It's no surprise that the Canadians represented in the international Models of the Universe anthology are Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood, with Atwood's poems taken from Murder in the Dark, subtitled "Short Fictions and Prose Poems." Incidentally, all five Atwood selections are taken from the same section of the book. While they're effective pieces, some could use fewer words, leaving me to wonder if Atwood considered them short fiction-which, in terms of defining the elusive prose poem, only adds to the confusion. If it were not for routine ideas of length, could a novel like Ondaatje's The English Patient not be considered poetry?
Maybe it's an instinctive feeling in the poet, or a rhythm that leans a little towards narrative or purposeful anecdote. Whatever it is, there's rarely an obvious reason why a poem needs to be written in prose, or why it should be considered a "prose poem" at all. No better example of this exists than the Annual Short Grain contest that insists you provide the category for your entry, be it Postcard Story, Dramatic Monologue or, as it happens, Prose Poem. "If you do not indicate the category you are entering," they warn, "the contest logger will arbitrarily decide for you." As for the technical hazards, they seem less about wrestling with an "angel who knows more holds than you ever dreamed of," and more about the danger of leaving oneself to drift without the guiding signal or shape of a form. For poets who strive to be meaningful, effective and accessible, writing a prose poem means going out on a long limb. It means serving up sentences of neatly packed words-words expected to provide the punch of poetry-with no real method to cover up the stylistic shortcomings. Poets who don't actually have something to say or don't say it well are left completely unprotected in a prose poem. Thus anything "vigorous" in the best prose poems being written today isn't there because the poets put on camouflage and go out to annoy prose writers like a group of boneheads with paintball guns. It's because they know they're abandoning some traditions, but still need to put something arrowhead-sharp on the page.
So points to Robert Priest and ECW press for releasing a collection that reminds us prose poems are alive and well in Canada. The title poem in the collection How to Swallow a Pig is an excellent one, and it leads the book. The reader starts with its simple, comical title, but soon stumbles over disturbing details: "The first obstacle, if it is not the back of your throat, will likely be your front teeth. Unfortunately these will have to be broken off." The poem does not let the reader off the hook easily, continuing with suffocating details: "Having the wideness of the pig's bulky shoulders in your once-narrow throat is perhaps the most violating thing you will ever experience. But you can do this... Keep your lower jaw loose to prevent the jaw from snapping at the hinge." Many of us have eaten enough pork to add up to at least the weight of a pig, and Priest takes this fact and twists and exaggerates it into a grotesque message.
The bulk of the poems in the collection are loosely didactic in this way, though no less enjoyable. Priest is a smart writer, not just for having important ideas but for taking what could easily be a lecture and making it entertaining. In "The Mad Hand", we're amused that the appendage used to hang "with spiders thinking it might be one of them," or is fond of "making its stump shriek like a whistle." But the mad hand's favourite activity is to slap dictators as they make speeches on television: "So if you ever see a political speech and, after a commercial, the great leader comes back on looking a little stunned, a widening red imprint spreading out on his cheeks, look at that shape..." We find in "The Cup of Words", that the politician drinks first, taking the top layer of words "more prone to illusion" before passing it to the businessman who gets the "graph and math words that float to the top," not to mention the scum, quite possibly. Next the adman drinks from the cup so that the cup "is almost empty when the thirsty people get it. By then it is just the dross of language-enough for them to identify their grey clothes with," or "to say 'fuckin' this' and 'fuckin' that." Finally, the poet has a look at the cup, searching for the word "Revolt!"
The majority of poems take a fairly light tone. We learn about the planet Obbagga's arms race in the wonderfully unpretentious, yet vaguely disturbing "Arms Race of Obbagga."
"In Obbagga they have an arms race of a quite different kind. Obbaggans spend most of the year exercising their arms and fingers on treadmills and in galloping gloves so that on December the 19th, at the ringing of a bell, these arms can be chopped off and allowed in the shudder of their death throes, to gallop insensibly as far as they can. This is the famous Arms Race of Obbagga and it is watched by increasing numbers all around that planet. You can easily recognize the contestants, though. As the old saying on Obbagga goes, "They're the one who aren't clapping."
At the same time, in a book of poems that cleverly but sharply points out our own foibles, the brilliant exceptions stand out. I was caught off guard by the reverence and beauty of a poem like "The Little Singer", which begins with an unidentified "miner in the flames, a sun-denizen" who "hangs from the aerials turning and observing, growing full in the moonlight, holding communion with comets and crows." Before the identity of the little singer comes into focus, people can't stand it any longer and "go to cut him down."
"They bring him down into their homes and put him in one of the cradles. Still he is singing. He sings all night in the cradle and the house is full of his song. Everybody sings his song in their sleep and wakes up sad. Everybody goes to the cradle in the morning and the child is silent. He is asleep, the stardust all over him beginning to fade. The child is becoming one of us. His lips still move in sleep, still singing that melody. You can almost read it on his lips. You will never forget it but he will never sing it the same again. He wakes up and looks at you-his mother, his brother, his father. You all come to kiss him. You welcome him into the family. You cleanse the last strands of web from around his eyes and begin teaching him how to speak. "
Priest also pauses to talk about the act of writing itself: "the lure of easy and casual text" versus "true textual intercourse." And there are some undisguised personal poems here, though they can't be said to be sentimental given how Priest leaves out painful details in favour of translating the idea or emotion into a highly original narrative. It's in "My Huge Voice", where we learn that "My father called me 'Big Mouth' and went to sea. My father came back and beat my voice and my voice got harder and harder."
Flaws in the book are minor, though it could be said to include more poems than necessary. A sequence where the violence of the Three Stooges suddenly enters the real world draws attention to our disturbing ability to laugh at and admire such humor: "Once again he gasped and cried out, but we just went right on with both hands, turning that stovepipe 'round and 'round, till his nose bone crunched and steam shot out." Though there are some variations here, I think that fewer than ten of these poems would have been all the reader needed to get the point. As well, in a few rare moments of obscurity Priest allows the surrealism to get out of control: "I know you see the small tender points of stars up there, but look-your toes are at the edge. Your body is waiting open-mouthed to receive you." But these criticisms feel like nitpicking. This is an excellent collection of prose poems by a wildly creative Canadian poet. And Priest remains a prose poet-choosing his words carefully and concisely-rather than a poet who wanders vaguely into prose territory. Each of the pieces feels only as long as it needs to be.
I believe it's safer to say the prose poem in Canada has made quietly and steadily worthwhile appearances rather than "vigorous" ones that cannonball into the pool and get everyone's attention. I think of Michael Redhill's strong introduction to Lake Nora Arms. Or selected poems in Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. The list of Canadian poets who have tipped a hat to the prose poem is extensive, with many to be found in The Lyric Paragraph, a 1987 anthology edited by Robert Allen. Allen notes that, to the best of his knowledge, it's the only one for Canadian prose poems. And to the best of my knowledge, the anthology still stands alone nearly ten years later. Allen notes some advantages of the prose poem, including the idea that the abandonment of line breaks allows for an "intense, almost hypnotic quality particularly suited to surrealist techniques." While the anthology is notable for including thirty-two Canadian poets from across the country, it's an uneven collection. There are strong poems to be found here by Atwood and Ondaatje, but also poets like Libby Scheier and Kim Maltman. And yet I winced at some of the clichT and saturnine work included. Brian Henderson pierces his wrists in a poem, declaring "I fling blood into the night," while the poems of Michael Bullock are full of "sound and fury" or "instruments of torture" given to birds "which they do not hesitate to use on all who pass that way, the horrible results of which are evident on every side." To be surreal is fine, but to sound like an anxious teenager is less forgivable. And in an anthology with a couple of poems by each poet, Allen includes fourteen by Bullock, enough to bring readers to a grinding halt.
I bring up Robert Priest's book because it reminds us it's time for a new and updated anthology of a form Charles Simic called "the sole instance we have of squaring the circle." And as someone who uses the form capably and creatively, Priest should be included. Some critics may suggest the prose poem didn't catch fire in English literature (Baudelaire predicted that it would be the dominant poetic form of the 20th century). But I'd say it did-it just refuses to sit still or behave quite as we expect. It exists as poetry's only real bridge to fiction but receives no real credit for it. I once worked in a bookstore with a coworker who insisted HG Wells was so well respected he should be removed from science fiction and put in fiction. Similarly, Canadians readers and writers need to rethink some of the clichTs of genre and acknowledge the history and influence of the prose poem. Priest will probably just shrug; the far-sighted always do.
Alex Boyd is the author of Brick and Bone, a chapbook of poems. He runs the IV Lounge readings series in Toronto.