This week I’m welcoming a guest post by Daniel Hales, whose new book of poetry, Tempo Maps (ixnay press, Philadelphia), will be released this Saturday when he reads at the Philly Art Alliance as part of the Philalalia Small Press Festival. Here Daniel shares his ten favorite books of prose poetry from roughly the last fifty years, in chronological order.
1. Selected Poems (1935 – 1974 / 1998, Faber and Faber) Francis Ponge
As the title of his first book announced (Le Parti des choses, translated as either Siding With Things or The Voice of Things), Ponge sides with/gives voice to some of the most mundane, homely things there are: crates, suitcases, stoves, even a pile of dung (“One has come to consider you as something precious”). A pebble is a “stone at the exact age when personality, individuality, in other words, language, emerges.” He also offers fascinating insights on a wide range of living things, including mollusks, snails, lizards, frogs, seashores, moss (“the advance guard of vegetation”). And in case you didn’t already know, a swallow is a “steel pen, dipped in blue-black ink” that writes itself so fast it “leave(s) no mark… “
2. The Tunnel: Selected Poems (1961 – 1985 / 1994, Field) Russell Edson
Russell Edson was the most influential American prose poet of the second half of the twentieth century (he certainly was for me), and yet news of his passing on April 29th of this year did not show up in the “Currently Trending” bar in your Facebook feed. For lovers of the prose poem, though, it felt like the end of an era. The Tunnel contains Edson’s own favorites from his first seven books (which are his best): bizarro fables that tell hilarious and often hideous truths about how human beings (and other primates), especially husbands and wives, parents and children, treat each other. I dare you to read “Ape and Coffee” or “The Neighborhood Dog” out loud and not laugh. I double dare you. If you’re reading this list and happen to be new to prose poetry, I don’t think there’s a better route into it than The Tunnel.
3. Cronopios and Famas (1962 / 1969, Pantheon) Julio Cortazar
“THIS BOOK CONTAINS THE FOLLOWING ASSORTMENT: The Instruction Manual; Unusual Occupations; Unstable Stuff; Cronopios and Famas.” In other words, I was already completely intrigued by the time I reached the table of contents. The Instruction Manual will finally teach you the correct way to sing, cry, be afraid, understand famous paintings, comb the hair, climb a staircase, wind a watch, kill ants in Rome, and dissect a ground owl. Read Unusual Occupations and you’ll never have another dull moment for the rest of your life. In the first poem, a family builds a gallows in the front yard and becomes the envy of the whole neighborhood. In Unstable Stuff, the poem “Headlessness” begins thus: “They cut off this gentleman’s head, but as a strike broke out among the gravediggers and they couldn’t bury him, the gentleman had to go on living headless and manage as well as he could.” And what exactly are Cronopios and Famas? I’m sorry, but I feel like I’ve already given too many spoilers. You’ll have to get the book if you want to find that out.
4. Invisible Cities (1972, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) Italo Calvino
Invisible Cities is one of the books on this list that most bends the form (are they prose poems, mini fictions, excerpts from a journal-travelogue-novel?). But why write prose poems in the first place if you don’t take pleasure in bending forms? A series of reports from Marco Polo to Kublai Khan about the fantastic cities he’s visited in his travels around the Khan’s expanding empire, this is one of my favorite books of all time. In one afternoon of reading you can visit many of the most evocative places in the empire of the imagination. Stop by Isidora, a city of “spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells, where perfect telescopes and violins are made, where a foreigner hesitating between two women always encounters a third.” In Zirma you are guaranteed to see “a lunatic teetering on a skyscraper’s cornice, a girl walking a puma on a leash.” Then there are cities like Fedora where you can admire a succession of crystal globes; in each you see the model of a different Fedora… the forms the city could have taken if, for some reason or another, it had not become what we see today.” Here we catch a glimpse of the true magnificence of Calvino’s project: each city in this book (and in our world) is an infinity of possible cities. Each place is its past, present, future, multiplied by the subjective perceptions of each resident, each traveler, from moment to moment.
5. An Almost Human Gesture (1987, Eighties Press) Louis Jenkins
For over thirty years Louis Jenkins has been crafting fine prose poems, but this, his first full-length book, remains my favorite. It’s a mix of short observations, character sketches, and what, at first glance, appear to be small every-day occurrences, which Jenkins exposes for the mysteries they are. His writing is refreshingly conversational, direct and un-fussy. Jenkins’ poems also have a strong sense of place, which is somewhat unique. Modern/Postmodern prose poems can tend to gravitate toward the abstract, the universal. Jenkins’ small poems stand on their own, but they also seem to build on each other to lend this slim book more cumulative heft. When his poems motion with an “almost human gesture” for you get out of your car and follow them off into the woods of northern Minnesota, you will regret it if you don’t.
6. The World Doesn’t End (1989, Harvest) Charles Simic
Charles Simic’s prose poems read a bit like comic book updates of the 19th/early 20th century French prose poets (The beloved Clown-Saint of the prose poem, Max Jacob, especially comes to mind). If you think that statement is a dis, you don’t like comic books as much as I do. Simic touches on many of the themes and tropes his French heroes did, but with more spare, austere language. Simic’s poems are also more playful and accessible–but that doesn’t mean he won’t occasionally lure you down a blind alley that turns out to be the entrance to a labyrinth. Also highly recommended: Simic’s Dime Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell. Cornell’s magical collage boxes seem like a perfect visual analogy for the prose poem. Simic pays homage to Cornell with a miscellany comprised of prose poems, reflections, diary entries, notes, and micro-essays on/about/around Cornell and his art.
7. Centuries (2003, Four Way) Joel Brouwer
As far as I know, Joel Brouwer invented the “century:” a prose poem consisting of exactly 100 words (don’t you wish you’d thought of that?). I often see those blurbs on books along the lines of “the poet surprises us at every turn” (and usually want to roll my eyes), but Brouwer really does succeed in surprising–at times even startling–me from line to line, twist to twist, century to century. A casual reader might decide Brouwer’s absurdist scenarios were written simply to make us laugh, but as fun and funny as these poems are, there’s real darkness, despair, and danger in them. All the paintings in the museum turn into mirrors. The master sends his best pupils to the cellar to live on crickets. In “Clearing” you’re relieved to arrive at a beautiful clearing in the woods—where you will be an accomplice in a murder. In “Diagnosis” the doctor tells you “your insides are like a jungle at night” where two endangered animals are fighting to the death, and it’s still too early to tell which one will win.
8. The Memory Palace Burned (2004, Turtle Point Press) Damon Krukowski
If you can write prose poems this good, and you were/are also a member of the bands Galaxy 500 and Damon & Naomi, it’s possible you’re one of the coolest people alive. If you don’t believe me, just read “Ghosts,” in which a six ghosts smoke cigarettes, tell jokes, show off their tattoos, and then play the loudest music you ever heard (except for that one ghost playing the silent tambourine). Krukowski’s prose poems are fractured fables, parables, fragments of grand narratives rescued from the embers and ashes of the Memory Palace.
9. Fjords, Vol. 1 (2012, Black Ocean) Zachary Schomburg
Many of the poems in Fjords could qualify as half-centuries (see #7). They go to the kind of dark, scary, hilarious places that Brouwer’s poems frequent, but they often get there a lot faster (even, somehow, when they’re actually longer than a “century”). In fact most Fjords begin in-media-res: you’re already at the scariest part of the nightmare, and then, through a series of lightning-fast associative leaps, it gets even scarier. Or funnier. Or sadder. Or more beautiful. Or more often than not: all of the above. And if you’re also a huge fan of music based on strange little books of poems, make sure you track down the companion cd by Kyle Vegter and the Chicago Q Ensemble: music for luxury liners to play as they prepare to crash into fjords while a family of swans looks on impassively.
10. Models of the Universe: An Anthology of the Prose Poem (1842 – 1995 / 1995, Field) edited by Stuart Friebert
An indispensable catch-all for the vast array of great writers I missed, especially the French giants that first championed the form during the first 100 years or so of the prose poem’s life (Baudelaire, Mallarme, Rimbaud, Fargue, Jacob–and later–Reverdy, Michaux, Follain, Char). Here we see how deeply rooted the prose poem is in surrealism, cubism, and various other realms of weirdness that lie beyond –isms. This anthology also cherry picks excellent prose poems from scores of 20th century writers from around the world that I didn’t include here either because they didn’t publish any volumes of just prose poems, or simply because it’s impossible to cover everything you should with these blasted top ten lists. Considering this anthology is 20 years old (3 books on my list were published since it came out), I’d say it’s high time for a new, expanded edition…
Daniel Hales is the author of Tempo Maps. Tempo Maps, comprised mostly of prose poems, is a tough book to pin down, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have fun trying. Longer than a chapbook, but not quite long enough to be a full-length volume, attempts to map its tempos are further complicated by its 2 covers, 2 possible points of entry, 2 alternate beginnings and ends, 2 equally correct orientations. Tempo Maps also comes with a companion CD comprised of 46 tracks: Hales reading the poems, instrumental interludes, and a long piece called the Miner Street Symphony. You can order it by emailing Daniel at: email@example.com.