Saturday, August 15, 2009

Nice to Meet You . . .

. . . Now Get The Hell Outta My House!

An Introduction to the Prose Poem
Edited by Brian Clements and Jamey Dunham
(Firewheel Editions, 2009)

So sorry and fair warning: this here’s a rant.

It’s a rant born of love, the love of prose poetry. I’ve several shelves here full of books made up entirely or predominantly of such poems. I generally read from one of those collections every day. Prose poetry sends me.

An Introduction to the Prose Poem – a 300 page book containing almost 150 examples of the genre, and which uses the work of about 140 different poets – ought to enthrall me. I bought it immediately upon laying eyes on it yesterday during my lunch hour, and started reading it on the BART ride home. I read last night too, finishing (and re-reading) in the early hours of this morning.

And as I read, I got mad. Not mad-love mad, or mad with glee, just mad. Really mad. You see, despite having a total of approximately 30 pages of prefatory material, the book’s editors say nothing about why they selected any of the writers or poems. And so, when it became clear that the book extensively omits classic and key works and poets of the genre of which it purports to be an elementary primer, I began to puzzle.



And, in short order, conclude.

There’s no polite way to say this. An Introduction to the Prose Poem wrongs, and deeply, the key poems and poets of the genre it tries to serve.


An anthology or gathering of poetry ain’t worth anything if it doesn’t include some explanation of how and why the selections were made. Ideally, an anthology will also acknowledge its limitations, including who was left out. The great poetry anthology editors do one or both of these things. For example, Donald Allen has a four page preface to The New American Poetry (1960) that at least tries to explain how the selections came about.

Even better are Paris Leary and Robert Kelly, whose A Controversy of Poets (1965) includes dueling post-scripts that shed considerable light on their selections. Kelly also appends a roster of three dozen poets not included in the book. He specifically directs attention to those poets, stating an anthology of comparable merit could be derived from their work.

Revolution Of The Word (1974), Jerome Rothenberg’s anthology of American avant-garde poetry from 1914-1945, similarly offers both a detailed editorial philosophy and a supplementary list of 30 poets that could have been included in the book. There’s even a brief supplement to the supplemental list, concerning the poets of the blues tradition.

Finally – and these are just examples, please remember – Ron Silliman’s In The American Tree (1986) includes in its lengthy preface a very precise accounting of the selection criteria, an explanation of why certain poets were excluded, and a list of dozens of poets and writers from which “a volume of comparable worth could be constructed.”


Okay, let me turn directly to the matter at hand: the editors of An Introduction to the Prose Poem write absolutely nothing about why they chose the poems they included. Nothing in the seven page preface, nothing in the two-dozen pages of section introductions scattered throughout the book.

Absolutely nothing!

How can this be? Authoritarian arrogance? Cowardice? Disrespect for the buyer and reader of their book? Something to hide? All the above?

I dunno why, and don’t care to guess. All I say is that the editors here swung and missed. One-two-three strikes you’re out. “Hello, good-bye, and grab some pine, meat,” as the baseball announcers sometimes say.

Every anthology omits. Without a stated editing philosophy – and without any editorial acknowledgment of what was left out – an anthology’s omissions immediately raise questions. Questions of competence, bias, and motive. If the omissions are extensive or obvious enough, those questions can sink a book, and quick, drowning it with doubts.

An Introduction to the Prose Poem, in this way, sleeps with the fishes.

Here are some of the omissions, discovered just by perusing a couple shelves of books here at home: everything, I do believe, from the 19th Century, including Baudelaire and Rimbaud, William Carlos Williams, Andre Breton, Robert Creeley, Ron Silliman, Bruce Andrews, Jackson Mac Low, Philip Lamantia, Barbara Guest, Octavio Paz, Clark Coolidge, Lyn Hejinian, Kenneth Patchen, Rosmarie Waldrop, Robert Duncan, Aaron Shurin, Lisa Jarnot, Steve McCaffery, Harryette Mullen, Bernadette Mayer, and Juliana Spahr. (Two more shelves of books of prose poems here could be gone through, and would, I am certain, yield many more names.)

We could argue, I suppose, about some of those listed, but for the most part, each of these poets has written flat-out no-doubt-about-it great, tremendous, essential prose poems. And NONE of these are included in this Firewheel Editions gathering.

An Introduction my ass!

Some of the anthology’s omissions have been pointed out by Dale Smith (click here to see; he names Williams, Creeley, Kerouac, Silliman, and Hejinian). But Smith, whose work is included in the book, cops out completely on this failure, writing “who can blame the editors, there’s just so much out there . . . .”

Well, I can blame the editors, and so should you. There’s no editing philosophy asserted, so for all a Dale Smith or anyone knows, the editors weren’t simply overwhelmed choices, but are ignorant of the work left out. I’ll blame ‘em for that. Or maybe the editors know that work, but consider it no good. I’ll blame ‘em for that too. But even if the choices were overwhelming, I’ll blame them for simply throwing up their hands and taking whatever was easy or close at hand. Unless you just want to give the editors a total pass, there’s no excusing not including work by so many great prose poets without a word about what you’ve done.

And what do you say about a so-called Introduction to the prose poem that includes one by John Ashbery, but not an excerpt from his Three Poems (1972), perhaps the seminal book of prose poems from the last fifty years?

I say get outta here!

I don’t care that the book is simply An Introduction, with the indefinite article maybe implying that it’s just one of many possible approaches. That’s true, but no “introduction” to the genre worthy of that label, no matter how elementary, can leave out so many greats, so many essential examples of the genre. Especially with no explanation of why that was done.

I further reject that the works which could be selected was in any way limited by the categories (e.g., “Object Poems,” “Flash Poems,” “Surrealistic Imagery,” “Monologue,” “Prose Poems about Prose Poems”) which serve as the book’s organizing principle. First, there are two dozen freakin’ categories. That’s plenty of pigeon-holes to insert just about any square peg, if you catch my drift. Secondly, the editors could have – should have, if they in any way wish to exalt the imaginative in writing – added another category, called something like “Prose Poems That Just Are,” and used that to include the classics that perhaps are (to their everlasting credit) unclassifiable.

Nor would I agree that the editors strategy of focusing on types of prose poems somehow justifies ignoring so many greats of the genre, or not explaining why the examples chosen were included. The book’s title isn’t An Introduction to Types of the Prose Poem.

I probably should mention that according to the small print in the “Acknowledgments” section in the back of the book, more than one-third of the book’s selections (54 of 141) originally appeared in Sentence: a Journal of Prose Poetics. Perhaps you know that ‘zine. Its editor is – oh wait a minute – the same as one of the editors of An Introduction.

Nothing in particular against the poets, all contemporary, that have appeared in that 'zine – I greatly enjoy some of their work (for example, Susan Briante = yes!) – but what a coinkidink! And the publisher of An Introduction – here we go again – is the same as that which publishes Sentence. Double coinkidink!!

So anyway there’s plenty from Sentence, and also, how about that, nine pages of poems by the editors, but no excerpt from The New Spirit, no Ketjak, no My Life, no Soluble Fish, no Illuminations, no Coolidge, no Waldrop, no Duncan, no . . . oh no oh no oh no.

I also need to mention the curiously limited history of the prose poem that’s a part of the preface. The editors actually assert that a 1976 anthology edited by Michael Benedikt “established a history and tradition for the prose poem,” and imply that such work has taken off ever since.

Hmmmm. By which I mean, as my Nonna (grandmother) used to say (please here imagine her beautiful sharp, rich, loud Sicilian-accented voice): “Wake Up!”

Specifically, no mention is made of the Charles Henri Ford edited “A Little Anthology of The Poem In Prose,” a wide-ranging 70 page gathering of prose poetry, both historical and contemporary, that closed out New Directions 14 (1953). That annual was perhaps the stellar showcase of its era. Nor is one word written about “The New Sentence” and associated prose poetry. Have the editors ever read, or even heard about, Barrett Watten’s This, in particular issue 6 (1975), entirely given over to such poems?

And as I’ve already mentioned, there’s Ashbery’s Three Poems from 1972. And long before that, the modernists, including among others Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914), Williams’ Kora in Hell (1920), and the many prose poems published in the late 1920s by Eugene Jolas and Harry Crosby, ex-pats in Paris.

Later, in the early 1960s, Karl Shapiro published The Bourgeois Poet, a collection of prose poems, and by that time both Kenneth Patchen had published, and Russell Edson was starting to, write what I'll call prose poems of quirky vignettes. Philip Lamantia published prose poems in the 1950s and within his 1970 book, The Blood of the Air. There are certainly other examples. My point, here and via the two paragraphs immediately above: for those who looked about even a little, and to those actually writing poems, there was a history, tradition, and practice long before the mid-1970s anthology deemed crucial by the editors of An Introduction.

Look, there are great prose poems in An Introduction to the Prose Poem. Poetry (usually a single selection) by Francis Ponge, George Kalamaras, Joe Brainard (a very short excerpt from I Remember, plus one other), John Yau, Russell Edson, Rachel Loden, Christian Bok (snippets from two chapters of Eunoia), Gertrude Stein (“Susie Asado”), and John Olson, for example. Each of these writers’ prose poems are an almost constant presence in my (reading) life. Hey, go buy the books of these poets, or get them from a library. Do the same for the books of some of the others in An Introduction, and the books that have the poems, the great, key prose poems, that the editors left out.

But please, don’t buy An Introduction to the Prose Poem. I paid twenty-six bucks for the book, plus tax, and I regret it. The editors’ silence regarding what they did, and the book’s omissions, shouldn’t be rewarded. Not at any price.


Ed Baker said...

do they give a "contributor's copy" to each included? That doesn't seem the way anymore either with anthologies or print magazines

maybe they required a pre-order/payment as criteria to be included.

or maybe the criteria was for prose-poetry writing university courses automatic conclusion..

I have yet, in my 50 years' poet's life,
purchased anything that I was in (except I did purchase 10 copies of
G OO DNIGHT at an huge discount)

some "boss" poets seem to be included..

maybe you should edit your own anthology?

do it on your own no co-editor.. take responsibility for your own 'attitude' eh?

my only criteria would be (as Allen Ginzap once told me when I asked him .. "well, who DO we write for?"):


Ed Baker said...

pee est: here is the most innovative prose-poem/vispoem/concrete poem done in the last 70 years!
how cum it wern't in this anthology?

maybe y'all should pulltheplug on all this inter-net, blog, zine, schooling type crap and just

"get in your bag
do your thing"