I was talking to an astute poet and poetry reader and found myself saying that I had no idea how to critique or suggest improvements or point out weaknesses in a prose poem.
It's not that I don't like PP's. I like them a lot. But I'm hard pressed to say what unites them other than (1) brevity and (2) no line breaks. Even between a couple of the two earliest prose poem writers, what they are doing seems pretty different in what we call their prose poems: Baudelaire and Rimbaud. B's twenty poems in prose and R's illuminations are strikingly different.
And I'm not trying to be some kind of taxonomic calvinist here. I say: yes, prose poems are poetry. Why the hell not? Big tent, etc.
But if you ask me how can I make this prose poem better? I would have no idea what to say. All my usual diagnostic tools are of no use. If it was a poem with line breaks I could say that a line seems slack, a rhythm off, a set up doesn't come off, word choice, diction, meter, rhyme, constraint, etc. But it's not. I guess I could read it for whether it fulfills the requirements of fiction, or prose: a single effect, set up, pay off, whatever. But this is admitting defeat.
From the name, prose poems should share characteristics of both, and also have some elements missing from each category. I think they were originally called poems in prose, which confuses me, and the only thing I can think of is Yeats writing out prose drafts of the poems he was planning to write. Though I doubt those would qualify and are more like storyboards -- the final product is considerably different.
Maybe it's because I don't and haven't read (or written) drafts of fiction with the intent of workshopping them. Maybe those of you have done both can enlighten me: what do you look for in a prose poem when you're reading it critically? It becomes even more confusing when you consider something like flash fiction or short short fiction which has the nearly the same length requirements and occupies the same habitat as prose poems.
And of course shall we not say there are some things that are clearly poetry and some things that are clearly not?
Yes, though I think of these things as centered in the field of poetry or prose and not the periphery. My image has always been that the boundaries of poetry are very fuzzy indeed, spectral in the sense of continual gradations. Presses such as Rose Metal Press work these boundaries with a lot of success (Claudia Smith's absolutely brilliant The Sky is a Well). And maybe prose poems are as diverse in their relationship to poetry as other kinds of poetry are, nu? But. Who are we to judge?
A common trope in writing about poetry is to say something to the effect of "The Cheesequake Renaissance School's first generation was Ginsbery, Ashburg, Aharo, and Mandelbrot. However their poetries were diverse and putting them in the same school was geographically convenient, but does not mean that their poems looked, read, or sounded the same," or "most of the poets who we think of as Idiolalia Poets would deny that they write Idiolalic poems."
In other verbs, we, on the one hand, parse various movements, schools or groups of poetry, and then, on the other hand, are quick to make apologies for including any particular poet in one of them, or, on the third hand, poets pegged in this or that group protest [vociferously] that they are NOT part of that group.
Which is odd. Now some poetry genres put more emphasis on the community and shared assumptions while other designations make a big deal out how each poet is an individual, pursuing and writing her own truths. And this is largely an ideological divide. But I've noticed that the same begging off happens in both kind of groups. An alternative [defensive] symptom of this is something like "How could you lump together poets as diverse as Collinsky, Gluckins, Pinn, Dunic, and Gieuaoa?" This when some else is doing the pigeonholing.
But both the cutting out from the herd in naming affinitative groups (The Parabolic Poets, The Pre-Derrieres) and the infinitely divisible exceptionalism of each particular poet are wrong.
And to correct this we need only point to the most successful taxonomic system of all time: Linnean classification.
Why would we apply this sort of system to poetry?
First, it allows for both similarity and difference. We do not argue that because finches look and behave differently than titmouses that they are not both passerines, or that such groupings are for convenience only. This way poets can both belong to and be separate from an associated group in the way that individual species differ from other members of a phylum.
In biological classification, groups diverge through evolution and promulgate by branching (a hierarchical tree).
I believe tradition can serve a similar purpose for poetry. Even a break from a particular tradition or practice is tied to that tradition or practice.
A key concept in Linnean classification is that species change, arise and die out over time in the context of particular environments, but that none of this is progressive as such. There is no pinnacle of evolution, only continual change.
And there is room for disagreement and improvement of how the classification works. So the system is not rigid.
So a cladistic analysis of poetry and poetic affinities is needed.
To be continued . . .
Also coming up on Vrzhu Bullets of Love in the coming weeks:
A second installment of Twofer Reviews - reviews of two poetry books by an author because we never got around to either before.
News from the Vrzhu Research Bureau.
An astounding new feature: Recipe vs Poem
And a face off between two classic rival anthologies!