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Review: The American Prose Poem and The Tormented Mirror

Max Winter

The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre
Michel Delville
University Press of Florida, $24.95 (paper)

The Tormented Mirror
Russell Edson
University of Pittsburgh Press, $12.95 (paper)

8 American prose poetry—a tradition extending from Robert Bly to Lyn Hejinian—has finally come into its own. Although prose poems defy easy classification—they are, as the name indicates, neither entirely verse nor entirely prose—their public recognition has grown with their appearance in a growing number of anthologies and other collections. Delville's The American Prose Poem and Edson's The Tormented Mirror will help to solidify the prose poem's position in popular consideration—or at least to assert its presence forcefully and memorably.

The American Prose Poem argues that the prose poem is a medium for the transgression of genre rules, for experiment and literary change. Traditionally defined as a piece of writing that bears many of the earmarks of verse—rhythm, image, narrative leaps—and yet discards line breaks and the spatial play often expected from poetry, its "shamelessly hybrid modalities" empower its authors to make striking theoretical and even politically subversive leaps. The form was, as Delville observes, long neglected by scholars, perhaps because of readers' puzzlement when confronted by a work that, simply put, didn't look like a poem. In the past three decades, things have changed, as prose poetry has become the object of increasing critical consideration.

Delville begins his comprehensive and complex narrative with James Joyce's early Giacomo Joyce, an ancestor of his "epiphanies." In his historical overview, Delville discusses Stein, whose Tender Buttons and The Making of Americans broke down the boundaries between poetry and prose, along with Sandburg, Patchen, Atwood and her contemporaries. He also discusses Bly and his "Deep Image" prose poems, Language poetry (with special focus on an impacted prose unit called the "new sentence," developed by Ron Silliman), and a host of others including Charles Simic, Clark Coolidge, Lyn Hejinian, James Sherry, Charles Bernstein, Ray di Palma, Maxine Chernoff, and Amy Gerstler. Delville gives particular attention to Russell Edson, and presents him as one of the masters of the prose poem—like Stein, a definer of the genre. He makes brief reference to Europeans such as Baudelaire, Bertrand, Ponge, and Rimbaud, undoubtedly influential but outside Delville's American field of investigation. Delville's book shows that the prose poem has attracted writers of many different stripes and agendas, all drawn by the liberating possibilities inherent in this form.

The book is filled with startling observations. Readers who know Sherwood Anderson primarily as the author of Winesburg, Ohio may be surprised to find him presented here as one of the earliest American prose poets, with his work in Mid-American Chants. Delville considers Carl Sandburg a more important figure in the life of the form: in Delville's estimation, the long, confident, complete sentences in books like Chicago Poems inspired later poets to try prose expression in a way that Whitman's more flowing line (which often ended with a comma) could not. Linked to the book's discussion of Stein is a treatment of little-known Abraham Lincoln Gillespie, named here a predecessor of the Language school—and aptly, given his work's timbre: "There, possibly, we have it: The aforementioned asyet bleedpleadneed, Grammar'd communication. GRAYMAR. Academic Bugaboo, stuffshirt-PaunchPace-Idealiser, Nujol-Insidiate pettisogging is in GET-drippy Complace-brewing HigherConschPretense…"

Delville's readings of individual poems are, for the most part, prescient, crisp, and smart. His substantial research attunes and edifies his sense of the peculiar, self-contained workings of many prose poems. He is especially good at elucidating the methods and approaches of the Language school, clearly describing the way in which their efforts to derail meaning stem from suspicions that common conceptions of meaning in language grow from the norms of the society into which the work is launched—norms exemplified by the common need to grasp a unified meaning in a literary work. The transgressive character of the prose poem emerges here as a natural expression of the Language poets' anti-establishment impulse.

Despite its many virtues, the book is not without fault. Delville's scholarship illuminates his terrain, but sometimes overwhelms his argument. A senior research assistant at the National Fund for Scientific Research in Brussels, Delville approaches his subject in a methodical—sometimes labored—way, giving each poem exacting critical scrutiny. His sentences compound formidable density with scholarly seriousness. This combination threatens at times to stifle rather than stimulate the reader's imagination. In a discussion of Lyn Hejinian's autobiographical work My Life, Delville writes,

In a more specific way, what Hejinian's subversive use of autobiographical or diary writing sets out to achieve is a complex dissemination of private experience and its reinscription into a network of gender relationships and cultural and ideological principles.

His analysis addresses this Hejinian passage:

I am looking for the little hand mirror. The summer evenings saw window shoppers in a reflecting system, man with merchandise agog. It is hard to turn away from moving water.

Delville's analysis, although accurate in its use of the terms of critical discourse, may limit the experience of readers unfamiliar with Hejinian's work; his style, moreover, fights with the refinement and subtlety of his well-chosen selection, as Delville steers us away from examination of Hejinian's craft. For example, he lumps the imagistic explosion between the "hand mirror" and the "window shoppers" together with the irresistibility of "moving water" under the category of "dissemination." We are never led to consider how these images' presentation in prose form might affect readers' reception of them, and so our appreciation of the passage from Hejinian subsides.

Other moments in the book are simply confusing. In particular, Delville's method of quoting works is misleading. He rarely presents poems as self-contained entities, with titles above them, and so readers will often be uncertain whether they are reading whole poems. To understand Delville's argument fully, it is almost essential to have complete works. The parts do not necessarily signify what a more complete quote would represent; given the prose poem's characteristic brevity, this is not an unreasonable expectation.

* * *

The Tormented Mirror, Russell Edson's new book of prose poems, both confirms Delville's assertions about the genre and dances away from them. Here, you'll find a bass fiddle fetishist, a college professor strapped to a torture rack by students, and an exposition of the phrase "monkey's uncle." Edson's poems, as always, are odd, mysterious, and funny. Though with revisitation, they seem less funny and more a series of observations about the way the world functions within Edson's imagination. Most poems, further, end with ellipses, suggesting that the highly improbable situations they present could be explored endlessly. His poems do abide by Delville's conception of prose poetry as a forum in which artists can cross genre boundaries and even mix those genres, and the subversive content of his work may suit the transgressive nature of the prose poem. But generic border-crossing is by no means the central virtue of Edson's work, or even its most rewarding aspect. In all fairness, most of Delville's examinations of Edson's work are acute and cognizant of their attendant complexities. Delville wisely compares Edson's work to Kafka, Max Jacob, and others. Still, Delville oversimplifies. He aptly calls Edson a writer of parables, and yet he never explores Edson's parables enough to explain their significance. He is content to write Edson off as an "absurdist" without considering how the contours of Edson's "absurd" vision has changed over time, moving from spare, isolated absurdities to a more inclusive poetic that aims to understand the world rather than to create specific effects. Admittedly, Edson's work throws up barriers to critical thinking. Unfortunately, in Delville's hands, the stolidly otherworldly universe in which Edson's poems dwell becomes a shortcoming, rather than a medium of poetic invention. As his work shows, however, Edson's staunch refusal to waver stylistically, or write in a style that engages in active dialogue with the styles of his contemporaries, makes a resounding statement. Refusal to engage becomes a form of engagement. Edson's new work shows that he has yielded no ground.

Edson often seems less to be crossing genre lines, as Delville might have it, than exploding genres. Sometimes a poem suggests a genre at its outset and then sheds its guise, becoming something else entirely by its end. "The Breast," for instance, begins with the cadence of a joke: "One night a woman's breast came to a man's room and began to talk about her twin sister." After the man asks the breast to talk about herself instead, she does—subsequently putting the man to sleep. What began as a joke ends as a small essay on solipsism. In other cases, a poem's lofty title might forecast philosophical meditation. The profound obliqueness of the poem that follows then calls attention to itself. "The Reality Argument: Some Brief Notes On How Things Come To Exist, The Question Of Random Selection And/Or Purposeful Manufacture, With A View Toward Finding The 'Theory Of Everything'" turns out to be a proposition that dolls may be just as "real" as humans, complete with emotions and life cycles. Edson finds his bases for profundity in unlikely places. Often he can only express his conception of profundity by traveling beyond what readers would expect to learn about the world by reading a poem—which means that he has analyzed those expectations and wishes to surpass them. Finding herself bested this way, the reader laughs. Rather than crossing fixed genre boundaries, Edson is declaring those boundaries to be superficial and utterly permeable.

Indeed, since early works such as The Reasons Why the Closet-Man Is Never Sad or The Wounded Breakfast, Edson has suggested that the categories commonly used to organize the world are not simply arbitrary, but ludicrous. In "Urinating," in the new book, a speaker tells us: "After urinating I was ready for anything. I said, fella, you name it. // Of course I was speaking to myself. I call myself fella to keep a professional distance. If I used my actual name I might implode into subjectivity." This fear of imploding into subjectivity, or the desire to keep a "professional distance," is crucial to Edson's work. Human beings may act as if everything is normal, but it never has been. In fact, the aggressively normal, quintessentially American rhetoric of these poems, plodding through a universe where men might pretend to be bowling balls or a woman might knit her husband's beard into her shawl, describes to us again and again the way we think. The humor of these works, if they are humorous, becomes the humor of recognition—even if the recognition is tinged with regret at one's own foolishness, as the rational thought of Edson's characters only contributes to the absurdity of his work.

* * *

The poems in The Tormented Mirror, and Edson's poems generally, can also teach us how to imagine or describe worlds other than the one we now inhabit. Sometimes he teaches by having his subjects change forms: a man becomes a pig; a woman becomes her father; a family becomes a cast of characters in a play. With each transformation, the drama of the poem becomes the clash of former life with latter life—and yet these changes are presented as if they were natural, normal, always meant to occur. In some cases, the poem begins in an entirely alien world, and Edson makes this world less alien through the persuasive power of nonchalance. In "A Redundancy of Horses," one horse begins to ride another, causing a conversation between a stable-keeper and his wife about whether such a thing is redundant. "Meanwhile the horse had saddled up a mare, and was riding her away into a dark wood…." In "The Sweet Tooth," real and unreal clash, but then the clash loses its force just as quickly: "A little girl made of sugar and spice and everything nice was eaten by someone with a sweet tooth the size of an elephant's tusk. //Ah, he said, this darn tooth, it's driving me nuts." Faced with absurdity, a speaker responds flatly; similarly, individuals in a larger society constantly move forward in staunch ignorance of the mutability and illogic of life itself. Edson's new work, along with Delville's grand critical history, should expand and deepen contemporary knowledge of the prose poem. <


Max Winter
's reviews have appeared in recent issues of Rain Taxi and Bomb. He is a poetry editor of Fence.


Originally published in the February/March 2002 issue of Boston Review



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