I have never read an essay to satisfactorily describe how a prose poem works, especially in comparison to typical poems or short prose. And I like prose poems and “sudden” fiction pieces. I’ve just never read anything that really seems to be able to explicate what they’re doing and why they should be prose poems and not line-break poems or shock fictions. This essay from my essay stack is no exception.
It's a mystery piece in my pile called “The Prose Poem: The Example of A Potato” by Karl Johnson. I can’t find any information on this essay or this writer online. There’s a former New York Daily News editor online with that name, but I can’t verify a match. I’m wondering if this might have been a student at either University of Missouri-St. Louis or Sarah Lawrence College and the essay found it's way into my essay class stash. I’m really not sure.
The essay begins by accepting that the words prose and poem contradict each other. And the writer acknowledges the fun of line breaks: why give them up? Seeking for benefits of the prose poem over line breaks, he comes up with “subtlety" as line breaks are so prominent and work so well to illuminate their beginnings and endings. They can be heavy handed, possibly melodramatic, not subtle enough in the middles. I can buy that.
He shows as a delicious example, “A Potato” by Robert Bly.
The potato reminds one of an alert desert stone. And it belongs to a race that writes novels of inspired defeat. The potato does not move on its own, and yet there is some motion in its shape, as if a whirlwind paused, then turned into potato flesh when a ghost spit at it. The skin mottles in spots; potato cities are scattered here and there over the planet. In some places papery flakes lift off, light as fog that lifts from early-morning lakes.
Despite all the eyes, little light gets through. Whoever goes inside will find a weighty, meaty thing, damp and cheerful at the same time, obsessive as a bear that keeps crossing the same river. When the jaw bites into the raw flesh, both tongue and teeth pause astonished, as a bicyclist leans forward when the wind falls. The teeth say, “I never could have imagined it.” The tongue says: “I thought from the cover that there would be a lot of plot....”
Johnson is right to say this prose piece is not a short of fiction. But I disagree about why. I would say the piece lacks a narrative, scene or dialogue that brings fiction to life. Johnson lists poetic elements like metaphors, similes, rhyme, assonance, consonance, metrics of iambs, and a feeling of pattern. But fiction can use these tricks-of-trade as well. So this doesn’t really separate the prose poem from the short fiction unless we can all agree on a threshold of figurative language that makes one thing a poet and another thing fiction. But that seems arbitrary and a waste of effort; because as poets experiment toward narrative, fictioneers are pushing experiments back with copious figurative devices.
Is the linebreak missed, Johnson asks? This is often a question I ask myself too. I do eventually make a decision but I’m never at all certain why. Johnson is on target to say, “Sometimes the meaning of a line out of context even contradicts the meaning of the sentence as a whole” but actually this is why poetry with line breaks can be so exciting. Why give up that double meaning that line breaks provide?
Finally, Johnson discusses the poems “broken expectations, taking a literal subject with a reader’s preconceived notions and subverting those “in the last sentence.” Which is a very cool thing, but not something the form of fiction or poems with line breaks cannot do.
But at the end, the essay really starts cooking, illustrating how old the form of prose poem might be. He traces them back to William Carlos Williams in 1918 and back to Baudelaire in 1855, both writers producing books of only prose poems. But he goes further than that to Chinese Writers using the Fu form of rhyming prose and then suggests even the Old Testament qualifies with its patterns and repetitions.