Saturday, April 25, 2009

Old Forms, Made New

Great “Dardanic” Prose Poems

The Dardanus Crab
(yes, it relates to poems . . . please, read on!)

Is there a particular term for a poem, particularly a prose-poem – that takes for its own some other, well-known, typically non-poetic form or style? Probably there is, but dang if I know (can anybody help?).

Until somebody tells me the proper term (or until a better word comes along), I’m going to make one up. For this post at least, I’ve coined the adjectives “dardanusian” or, more trippingly for the tongue, “dardanic,” to describe poems that are made from a well-established, typically non-poetic, form or style.

These coined words derive from the remarkable wonder known as the Dardanus crab. The Dardanus, a type of hermit crab, uses for its “home” the abandoned shell of another creature, just as all hermit crabs do. The Dardanus, however, also decorates the shell it borrows. The crab may attach bits of algae, other pieces of marine invertebrates, or even an entire sea anemone to the shell it has taken as its own.

The Dardanus thereby specially makes the borrowed form – the shell – its own. That’s a pretty apt analogy, I think, for what a poet does when making something new using an established form that’s typically used for something else. Ergo, the “dardanic” poem.

I’ve an ardent fondness for dardanic prose-poems. Maybe it’s just my sometimes contrarian nature, but I just dig it when a form or style typically used for some non-poetic function is subverted and used as a platform for word-experiment and reverie. The results – as the several examples discussed below I think well show – are usually real interesting and often great fun.

My all-time favorite dardanic prose poem was written by the recently deceased J.G. Ballard. Here’s the cover of the first edition, a chapbook from1968 that’s a true rarity these days, with a title that’s still a shocker:

Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan also appeared in 1968 in The International Times (the great English “hippie” newspaper) and in (this can be a bit confusing) an English ‘zine titled Ronald Reagan The Magazine of Poetry, alongside work by Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, and others. It since has been included in various Ballard collections (most notably The Atrocity Exhibition), although the first try at American publication in 1970 never came off in that the publisher – a big, established house – pulped the entire edition, a collection of Ballard’s writings, solely because of it.

Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan, in the perfectly accurate words of the Wikipedia entry, “is written in the style of a scientific paper and catalogues an apocryphal series of bizarre experiments intended to measure the psychosexual appeal of Ronald Reagan, then the Governor of California.”

That description, while perfectly accurate, hardly conveys the mad brilliance of the poem’s wigged out, hilarious, faux-scientific assertions. Here’s a snippet from one of the seven short sections of the poem. It shows well the poem’s damn-the-torpedoes-and-all-the-taboos-too spirit, as well as its deadpan hyper-rational past-tense scientific journal style:
Incidence of orgasms in fantasies of sexual intercourse with Ronald Reagan. Patients were provided with assembly kit photographs of sexual partners during intercourse. In each case Reagan’s face was super imposed upon the original partner. Vaginal intercourse with “Reagan” proved uniformly disappointing, producing orgasm in 2% of subjects. Axillary, buccal, navel, aural, and orbital modes produced proximal erections. The preferred mode of entry overwhelmingly proved to be the rectal. After a preliminary course in anatomy it was found that the caecum and transverse colon also provided excellent sites for excitation. In an extreme 12% of cases, the simulated anus of post-colostomy surgery generated spontaneous orgasm in 98% of penetrations . . . .
Wow (exclamation mark not necessary). Just, wow. Full credit must be given for the range of “modes” presented, and the Latinate adjectives of those modes. In particular, I fixate on “buccal,” a word that quite neatly embodies its own meaning via its two mouth-filling consonantal-vowelic syllables.

The real beauty in the writing is its coruscating wit, which is particularly sparkling because of the poem’s straight-face Joe Friday-just-the-facts tone, which of course is identical to that found in any number of written descriptions of scientific studies. The frisson here between style and content never lets up, and just sears into the memory. That Reagan more than a decade after the poem was published became President, and an iconic one at that, only adds to the wonder of Ballard’s irreducible dissident work.

I suppose it can be argued whether Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan is a prose-poem. Some describe it as a short story. Others, including the Wikipedia entry, are less specific, calling it “a short work,” while author Neil Gaiman terms it an “un-stor[y].” But really, it’s a prose poem. There’s no conventional narrative, or characters or dialogue of any kind. And, as mentioned above, one of its first appearances in 1968 was in a poetry journal.


Perhaps the first prose-poem to lift its style from some other written form was Arthur Rimbaud’s “Solde” (in English: “Sale”) written it seems to me in the style of classified advertisements, or the listings in whatever was the equivalent of Craig’s List in 1870s France. The items Rimbaud offers for purchase, of course, are pure wild invention, and seem to encompass almost anything imaginable. Here are two short paragraphs from near the poem’s end (Wallace Fowlie translation):
      For sale dwellings and migrations, sports, fantasies and perfect comfort, with the noise, movement, and future they create!
      For sale results of mathematics and unheard of scales of harmony. Discoveries and unsuspected terminologies, immediate possession.
A few years ago, at the apex of the disaster known as the George W. Bush presidency, Seattle’s John Olson published a wonderful prose poem “after” Rimbaud’s “Sale.” Olson’s poem, also called “Sale” and included in his Backscatter (Black Widow Press 2008), lists various items for sale - as does Rimbaud’s poem - in the manner of a series of classified ads. Olson presents many of the items for sale in wild series of superbly etched, beyond-fresh images and word-combinations, such as this paragraph from near the poem’s middle:
      For sale the fable of a nipple reflected in a spoon. A winter ballad and a song of sticks. The fervent applause of a stadium wild with the metaphysics of noise. The clarity of a haiku enshrined in water. A piece of gravity dipped in sunrise. A circle of day painted to resemble a square full of goats and zinnias. An ingot of zeros melted into romantic hardware.
However, one paragraph of Olson’s “Sale” takes an entirely different tack. In five short, sharp sentences, Olson cuts through the crap of the Bush years and offers a biting comment on the hijacking of our core values:
      For sale used country. Former democratic United States. Only 230 years old. Comes with original constitution. Population not included.
Any buyers out there? Didn’t think so.


Alan Halsey and Karen Mac Cormack, in their collaborative collection Fit To Print (Coach House Books / West House Books, 1998) present a number of prose poems that are formatted in fully justified double columns, with a headline on top, such that the poems look like articles typically read in a printed newspaper. Here’s an example, one of the shorter article-poems, and one credited to Mac Cormack (click to enlarge):

I especially love the three two-word sentences that end this one: I’ve been reading those for years and still find them fascinating. In any event, the text of this – as in all other poems in Fit To Print – does not conform to newspaper conventions. There are no one-sentence paragraphs, reverse pyramidal structures, or a focus on the who, what, where, when, and why of anything. As in the J.G. Ballard Reagan poem, the conflict between the well-worn, typically non-poetic form – here, the newspaper-style layout – and the decidedly non-journalistic text set out within it, creates energy. It’s odd, and fun: no matter how many of the wild prose poem experiments in Fit To Print I read, or even if I read an individual example over and over, I still expect each time – given the look of the poem – to find a conventional newspaper story. Such is the power of form, and thus the leverage the poets here take advantage of when they subvert it.

Meg Hamill, in her Death Notices (Factory School 2006), also uses the newspaper column format, and within that the style of the newspaper obituary notice, to make prose poems. Her poems explicate and meditate on Iraq war deaths, mostly concerning deaths that would otherwise not be noticed, and raise questions about pain, interconnectedness, complicity, compassion, and mourning. Here’s one of the obituary-poems (click image to enlarge it in a new window):

I’ve written about the poems in Death Notices before (click here to read, if you please)
, and will only further note here that the use of the established form and style is perfectly suited to the new work Hamill creates.


The most fun dardanic prose poem(s) ever may be those in John Ashbery’s 100 Multiple-Choice Questions (Adventures in Poetry, 2001 [first publication, in a ‘zine, in 1970]). These poems, as the title indicates, take the form of test questions in a format recognized – and perhaps beloved – by anyone who ever went to school. Here’s the chapbook’s cover:

Ashbery’s poems are big fun first because some, particularly those early in the sequence, are just straight-ahead old-fashioned test questions and answers. We readers – knowing Ashbery – can’t resist looking, and looking again and again, for poetic twists that just don’t exist, and in doing so somehow give the mundane questions and answers a kind of creative spark they ought not have. Ashbery’s play-it-straight trick thus works both as a fun reverse-joke and reverie-generator (click on image to enlarge on a new page):

The real fun, not surprisingly, comes when Ashbery veers or maybe more accurately plunges deep into the abstract, paratactic, and nonsensical, as in the following four sets of questions and answers (again, click on image to enlarge on a new page):

Can you imagine inserting the above into some college (oh, let’s really have some fun, and imagine some stodgy MFA program) final exam? Now that would be fun.


Harry Crosby, in his regrettably unavailable and neglected Mad Queen (Black Sun Press 1928) – a book that was singled out by Philip Lamantia for its “magnanimity in the realms of mad love” – created three of the greatest dardanic poems ever. The first poem in the book, “Stud Queen,” takes the form of a racehorse pedigree chart, showing the entirety of four generations that brought about MAD QUEEN, an imagined idealized entity, and whose sire and brood-mare lineage precisely delineates her wondrous, dangerous character (and thus Crosby’s imaginative world). It’s a veritable assemblage-portrait, a marvelous mix of historical personages, objects, poems, mythic figures, abstractions, and invented entities (click on the image to enlarge it on a new page):

I think every poet out there out to invent a love ideal and then create a pedigree chart of their own. A collection of such dardanic poems, each containing thirty nodes, centers, and/or precursors of influence and inspiration for each poet, would be fantastic!

Another dardanic prose-poem in Crosby’s Mad Queen takes as its form a will (the legal document disposing of one’s estate upon death). Specifically, the poem presents the last will and testament of the sun (Crosby, to be cheap about it, had a HUGE thing for the sun). In addition to introductory and conclusory matter that mimics or echoes language typical in a legal will, Crosby’s poem – titled “Sun-Testament” – contains twenty-eight separate codicils in which the sun specifies how the estate should be disbursed. Here are four of the codicils, each of which reflects on, or is emblematic of, Crosby’s creative energy (remember, the sun is the “speaker” in the poem):
      EIGHTH, I give and bequeathe to the planet
Venus all my eruptive prominences whether in
spikes or jets or sheafs or volutes in honor of her
all-too-few transits.
                                       . . .
      FIFTEENTH, I give and bequeathe to Icarus a
sun-shade and a word of introduction to the Moon.
                                       . . .
      EIGHTEENTH,I give and bequeathe to Arthur
Rimbaud my firecrackers and cannoncrackers,
to Vincent Van Gogh my red turmoil and hot-
headedness to Stravinsky my intensity and fire.
                                       . . .
      TWENTY-FIFTH, I give and bequeathe to my
favorite concubine The Mad Queen my fiery
flames and furious commotions, my madnesses
and explosions, my storms and tempests.
The final dardanic poem in Crosby’s book takes the form of a page from a telephone directory. It’s a page of business listings, each business having “Mad Queen” as the first part of its name. The kind of businesses, as well as the phone number prefixes, again reflect the interests, spirit, and concerns of Crosby (again, click on the image to enlarge it on a new page):

I sure wish I could dial up a few of those numbers and have someone answer, just to see what’s cooking!


Now, I’m pretty sure there are other dardanic poems out there, particularly in prose, that either I’ve just plain not remembered or – more likely – just haven’t yet read. I’m not sure who all wanders into this here blog-glade, but if you have, and you’ve made it this far, and you know of other examples – please, please let me know [and please see footnote 1, immediately below].

1. There are also prose poems in the form of footnotes. Among these are Tyrone Williams’ “Cold Calls” (included in his C.C. (Krupskaya, 2002), and the pieces within Jenny Boully’s The Body: An Essay (2002 and Essay Press, 2007). In both works, the prose poem footnotes are found at the bottom of pages that are otherwise blank. The footnote as a borrowed form has rich possibilities poetically. Typically, the footnote serves to explain or add information that might be too digressive for the main text, and/or acts as a signpost, pointing to information or text that might otherwise remain occult. Good poetry sometimes embodies both these functions.



Anonymous said...

This borrowing of forms to which you refer has long been mentioned in the medical annals. It is a form of extreme hybridization and may lead to ecstasies and fever.
Prose poems are manifestations or causes of a disease or group of diseases. Prose poems are those complaints or problems that bring an individual to the doctor or other health care provider, though sometimes a literary agent may be sought.
Understanding the significance of prose poems can be crucial. Headache and nausea can be manifestations of such diverse conditions as flu, depression, or migraine headache. Prose poems, which are often rife with fanciful, asymmetric ornamentation, may also represent more ominous conditions, such as brain tumors, ruptured aneurysms or roman-fleuve. Metonymic pain can be triggered by such varied conditions as contiguity, gallstones, or semi-colon rumaki.
Prose poems may be chronic or acute. They may occur suddenly or be progressive. Prose poems may also be recurrent.
The important thing to remember, is that understanding the underlying cause of prose poems may be crucial to a deepened understanding of linguistic trauma. Education of patients about their prose poems improves the chance of obtaining the right diagnosis and obtaining prompt and correct treatment.

For Further Information, Consult Hercules Dardanapulos of the Sun Yat-sen Institute of Loose Sand and Haphazard Ideas

Joseph Donahue said...

Great post!

Frank Keizer said...

I absolutely loved this post and instantly ordered Ballard's book.

Steven Fama said...

Thanks Anonymous, Joseph, and Frank for the kind words.

Frank, enjoy the Ballard piece; hope it arrives soon!

And Anonymous, I've checked the websites of both the U.S. surgeon general and poet laureate but so far no national emergency has been declared regarding a possible prose poem pandemic. If only it could happen!

brian (baj) salchert said...

You are a hoot, and "Dardanic" is fine.
For reasons I don't even try to identify/ I have an aversion to prose poems; however, there are several by James Tate I liked and I was quite surprised by how well I liked the ones by Russell Edson in the Hoover Postmodern anthology.
"Madman" was a nickname I had for a few years in the 1990s.

Steven Fama said...

Thanks Brian (baj) for stopping by and leaving a note.

I'm wondering if prose poetry might be a bit like licorice: not everybody likes the stuff, but those who do, can really like it.

John Olson, mentioned in the main post here and who is mainly a prose poet, has said that for him one of Baudelaire's statements about prose poetry -- it's ability to accomodate or create "undulations of reverie" -- is pretty key. I think that's an important part of why I like prose poems so much: a bit more freedom than lineated verse for the poet and the language to take off or dip into various imaginative flights or dives.

troylloyd said...

great post.

thanx for introducing me to Harry Crosby, formerly unknown early modernists always interest me & i keep discovering new ones every day.

i like your term "dardanic".

“Sculpture is what you bump into when you back up to see a painting.”
-Barnett Newman

prose is what happens when poetry becomes untethered.

"every exit is an entry somewhere else."
-Tom Stoppard

Steven Fama said...

Thanks much, troylloyd, for stopping in. I read today that a new word has to be used 25,000 times to be recognized by official dictionary-makers. So "dardanic" has a way to go! I do appreciate you giving it the nod.

Harry Crosby's life was short, ultimately violent, and fascinating; his poetic (and other devotions) were fervent.

I highly recommend Black Sun, the 1976 biography of Crosby by Geoffrey Wolff. It's a tremendous book.

Also worth reading, though copies can be expensive, are Crosby's diaries (covering basically the last seven or so years of his life), published as Shadows of the Sun by Black Sparrow Press in 1977.

Unfortunately, reading Crosby's poetry, except for that which can be found on-line (and there is some), can be difficult.

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