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From A Poet's Glossary: Prose Poem

Written by

Edward Hirsch
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Year

2014

Type

Poetic Term or Form
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In April 2014 A Poet’s Glossary by Academy Chancellor Edward Hirsch was published. As Hirsch writes in the preface, “this book—one person’s work, a poet’s glossary—has grown, as if naturally, out of my lifelong interest in poetry, my curiosity about its vocabulary, its forms and genres, its histories and traditions, its classical, romantic, and modern movements, its various outlying groups, its small devices and large mysteries—how it works.” Each week we will feature a term and its definition from Hirsch’s new book. 


prose poem: A composition printed as prose that names itself poetry. The prose poem takes advantage of its hybrid nature—it avails itself of the elements of prose (what Dryden called “the other harmony of prose”) while foregrounding the devices of poetry. The French writer Aloysius Bertrand established the prose poem as a minor genre in Gaspard de la nuit (1842), a book that influenced Baudelaire’s Petits poèmes en prose (1869). Baudelaire used prose poems to rebel against the straitjacket of classical French versification. He dreamed of creating “a poetic prose, musical without rhyme or rhythm, supple and jerky enough to adapt to the lyric movements of the soul, to the undulations of reverie, to the somersaults of conscience.” Baudelaire’s prose poems—along with Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations (1886) and Mallarmé’s Divagations (1897)—created a mixed musical form (part social, part transcendental) that has been widely and internationally practiced in the twentieth century. “There is no such thing as prose,” Mallarmé insisted in 1891. “There is the alphabet, and then there are verses which are more or less closely knit, more or less diffuse. So long as there is a straining toward style, there is versification.”

The prose poem, which often seems like a French import, has had a strong underground American life. It is often treated as kin to the parable. David Lehman’s anthology Great American Prose Poems (2003) begins with Emerson (“Woods, A Prose Sonnet,” 1839) and Poe (“Shadow—A Parable,” 1835), picks up speed with the experimental moderns, such as Gertrude Stein (Tender Buttons, 1914) and William Carlos Williams (Kora in Hell, 1920), and hits a high mark in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s with quasi-surrealist work by W. S. Merwin, John Ashbery, James Wright, Mark Strand, and James Tate, among others. “The prose poem is the result of two contradictory impulses, prose and poetry, and therefore cannot exist,” as Charles Simic puts it: “This is the sole instance we have of squaring the circle.” 

Here is a parable-like prose poem by Russell Edson, which works by crossing the boundaries between human beings and animals. Edson has always sought what he calls “a poetry freed from the definition of poetry, and a prose free of the necessities of fiction.”

A Performance at Hog Theater (1973)

There was once a hog theater where hogs performed as men, had men been hogs.
One hog said, I will be a hog in the field which has found a mouse which is being eaten by the same hog which is in the field and which has found the mouse, which I am performing as my contribution to the performer’s art.
Oh let’s just be hogs, cried an old hog.
And so the hogs streamed out of the theater crying, only hogs, only hogs . . .


Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.