after Solmaz Sharif’s essay The Near Transitive
On Facebook, a Filipino writer generations before me—let’s call her Madam M— posted, “If the idea you wish to convey is a little more complicated than [sic] can be contained in a statement, then write an essay,” on she went, “only when your ideas are wrapped up in emotions … when you’re lovestruck or lovelorn, should you write a poem.” Smells like 1960s American New Criticism transplanted to the Philippines by Filipino writer-graduates of the Iowa Writers Workshop. One of these Iowa graduates, Edith L. Tiempo (1), a National Artist for Literature, would write, “with free verse as the poetic verbalizing today, it seems we are otherwise left with no inherent factors distinguishing between what is poetry and prose preening as poetry—and the nightmare apprehension that with no clear distinguishing factors the poetry genre is eventually lost altogether” in her monograph Six Poetry Formats and Transforming Image (University of the Philippines Press, 2007).
I tried to comfort myself that Madam M is a product of her own time—an old-school Marxist (the kind that has never heard of intersectionality), aesthetically archaic, politically progressive. But it never escaped me: Madam M was a creative writing professor, a revolutionary essayist and poet (revolutionary, in her own time, at least) who wrote in English and in at least two other Philippine languages, and whose release from imprisonment during the Marcosian regime was celebrated by writers like Audre Lorde, Nadine Gordimer, Noam Chomsky, and others from across the globe. But locally, she judged book awards and literary prizes, paneled in writers workshops, mentored creative writing students in the undergraduate and graduate levels, among other things. And yet, her pronouncements on craft are very much outdated, possibly her judgements as well. But in my country, she is not the only older writer who keeps proclaiming things which are no longer applicable, as if they were in the first place.
But would it be safe to say that some people have been living in a bunker, not reading the latest writings—both theories and praxis—on craft?
Because you could not tell what was fiction and what was autobiography, what was poetry and what was prose.
from Kazim Ali’s Bright Felon (2009), a prose poem, detective story, and place essay
Although the prose poem originated from French poème en prose as advocated by the Symbolists (Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Valery) in late 1800s France where the Alexandrine was the dominant form, it could be traced to other literary traditions outside the Francophone terrain under various nomenclatures: the Graeco-Roman prosimetrum, the Turko-Persian maqāmah, the German Prosagedicht, the Chinese sanwenshi, the Japanese sanbunshi (2), the Arabic qaṣīdat al-nathr, among others. American poet James Tate called it “a deceptively simple packaging: the paragraph.” Or, as Chinese American poet Chen Chen would tweet, “i love prose poems. they’re just like, i’m a paragraph. but different!!!!!” In an Arab Lit interview, essayist and translator Huda J Fakhreddine would say, “All our translations [from Arabic to English] are prose poems.”
From the French Symbolists to the UK’s Decadent movement (Ernest Dowson, William Sharp, Oscar Wilde) to the 20th century Nahda modernist poets who defied against the measure of Arabic poetry—the meter—the prose poem, in at least three literary traditions, has radical histories. As for the American literary landscape, it is theorized that “the prose poem [aligns] with ‘working-class discourse’ undermining the lyric structures of the upper bourgeoisie … stress[ing] the inclusiveness of the genre.”(3) In a Newcastle Writers Festival podcast, poet and co-editor of Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry (2020) Cassandra Atherton thinks of the genre as a “political little box.”
But would it be safe to conclude such is the case with the others?
How, then, to define the prose poem? After reading so many, I can only offer the simplest common denominator: a prose poem is a poem without line breaks. Beyond that, both its manner and its matter resist generalization … Surveying the 175 years of poetry represented here, what emerges for me is the prose poem’s wayward relationship to its own form – and it is this, I believe, that makes it the defining poetic invention of modernity.
from Jeremy Noel-Tod’s introduction to The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem (2018)
My nine-year-old nephew once asked me while I was writing.
“What’s this?” he pointed to the screen.
“It’s a poem. I’m writing one.” His forehead creased.
“It looks weird,” his eyes fixed on the right side of the ‘paragraph,’ “No rhyme.”
End of scene.
In an interview with ABS-CBN News, Conchitina “Chingbee” Cruz, author of Dark Hours (2005, University of the Philippines Press; 2015, Youth & Beauty Brigade) confessed, “Strangely enough, this book won a [Philippine] National Book Award when it came out. [But] on more than one occasion I have been told by a member of that board, ‘Pinag-awayan namin iyan kasi prose poetry iyan.’ Sabi ng iba, ‘Tula ba iyan?’”
“I think that kind of question is exciting to me because it urges you to rethink what a poem means, which I think keeps poetry alive,” Cruz added.
Sabi ng iba, ‘Tula ba iyan?’
The others asked, ‘Is that a poem?’
Ingon ang uban, ‘Balak gyod na?’
But would it be safe to say that the prose poem is necessarily defiant? Nick Admussen, in Recite and Refuse: Contemporary Chinese Prose Poetry (2016), pointed otherwise. Subversion, for Admussen, is “not necessarily [true] as in the case of non-English, non-French prose poetry.” In mid-1900 mainland China, prose poems became tools for the “reaffirmation of Communist … truths bursting forth … an imaginative recapitulation and gesture of support for a nation’s dominant political ideology.” The same is the case of Russian prose poetry which originated from short parables, an evidence of the Minimalist movement’s preference for the anti-story.
But would it be safe to say that the prose poem, along with other permutations of literary works such as the anti-narrative novels, epistolary poetry, fictocriticism, poems-in-memoirs (or memoirs-in-poems), and the lyric essay, rose to fame once again because of the contemporary times’ preference for works that defy generic categorizations along with the surge of digital platforms, when literary traditions in Greece, the Caribbean, Africa, east Asia, and Syria, to name a few, have long had nomenclatures for poems without line breaks? In A Poetry Handbook (1994), Mary Oliver claims, “The prose poem is too recent a form to have developed a tradition.” A lot to unpack from this pronouncement—one of which is erasure. Anything that does not conform within the Anglophone and Western subjectivities of genre should not be labeled as hybrid, or new, or avant-garde. The West is not the world.
On one of our thought-challenging exercises for Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, I would confess that I never considered myself a poet despite the fact that majority of my published works are poetry, not nonfiction, or works of translation, or author interviews, or reflections on the craft. I felt that ‘poet’ as a term is applicable to a certain kind of lifestyle. “Maybe that identity crisis is going to change after you publish a poetry collection, no?” my therapist replied. That was mid-2020 when everything happened via Zoom and I was in the midst of a string of month-long episodes. When my collection came out in August 2021 still in the middle of ‘one of the world’s longest covid-19 lockdowns’ according to TIME magazine, the self-doubt as a poet was even greater.
The godfather of creative nonfiction Lee Gutkind considers prose poems, more or less, under the creative nonfiction umbrella: “in fact, the border between sudden [sometimes brief or flash] nonfiction and the prose poem remains murky and under dispute” (Keep It Real, 2008) and “creative nonfiction does not strictly adhere to one narrative form; there’s the lyric essay, the segmented essay, and the prose poem, all of which can be nonfiction” (You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, 2012). Creative Nonfiction magazine, the journal-turned-magazine he founded, accepts prose poems as submissions and offers online classes on the prose poem along with the lyric essay.
The 2017 issue of The Essay Review, the University of Iowa - Nonfiction Writing Program’s journal dedicated to “the essay’s limitations and possibilities,” published a sequence poem in mostly lineated verse.
While fully aware of the functions of and corresponding pleasures derived from the line, I am interested in the prose poem, that is, poetry that does away with verse … Other readers have gone so far as to reject the possibility reconciling poetry and prose … A milder form of skepticism is exhibited in my own poetry workshop classes, where the identity as a poem of a draft written in verse, no matter how badly written, is rarely (or never) viewed with suspicion, yet the “poem-ness” of a draft written in prose, no matter how promising and engaging, is bound to be—however gently—questioned.”
from Conchitina Cruz’s autocritical essay “‘Without Contraries is no progression:’ Reading the Prose Poem” published in the Journal of English and Comparative Literature 9: 1 (2006)
I never consciously thought of my own poetics in writing the pieces for my debut poetry collection. It was only after I read books on autotheory that I was able to do so. After all, I never intended it to be a collection. I guess, organic is always the best route. But I do the usual hard work: I read, write, revise, and repeat it. I let friends read and comment on it. I send to publications where I think they fit when I’m confident enough, or even when I’m not. But if there is one, I must say my formula is lyricism using accessible language, and a metaphor or some other device that makes the piece transcend from an ordinary paragraph(s), lifting it to the level of literature if there is such a higher plane. Just like the lyric essay, “tightly packed language … quick scenes, and … concise imagery,” as advised by Dinty W Moore. Or, as Rigoberto González wrote, “[the] vehicle is sensory imagery, and [the] tenor is emotional experience.” No need for narrative arc, no need for a story-driven plot. In publications, so much depends on editorial taste and aesthetic preference are very subjective.
But what worked for me may not work for another writer.
On Google, when one researches on the prose poetry tradition in the Philippines, there isn’t much one could find. Search results would range from the American Commonwealth anthology series Philippine Prose and Poetry, a published suite of prose poems by a few writers, occasional blog entries of aspiring ones, studies on the literary canon, a feature article by an older writer simping—to borrow from TikTok English—a younger one which is borderline creepy.
In the guidelines of some publications and writing fellowships, poetry submissions are measured in number of lines, not in pages. And that’s telling, a subtle ‘You’re not welcome here!’ But I know a lot about exclusion. I lived through it. Maggie Nelson, in a 2013 Gulf Coast roundtable discussion with essayists Eula Biss and Sarah Manguso on genre, lamented “I’ve grown so tired of writers … pillorying that which they don’t naturally tend towards.”
A few scholars proclaim that Saint Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, the West’s first important autobiography, takes the shape of prose poems addressed to God. I’m unsure if these are the same scholars who were unsettled with the subtitle of Edgar Allan Poe’s book-length Eureka: A Prose Poem. I honestly do not know what to make of these.
British human geographer and poet Tim Creswell, despite acknowledging that “the boundaries between criticism, prose, and poetry have been blurred,” still called Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric “segmented prose paragraphs,” while Maggie Nelson’s body of work are “discrete, sometimes numbered text blocks [and] critical-creative engagements” in Maxwell Street: Thinking and Writing Place (2019).
My favorite definition of the prose poem is from Russell Edson: “A poetry freed from the definition of poetry, and a prose free of the necessities of fiction; a personal form disciplined not by other literature but by unhappiness; thus a way to be happy.” But I am not a happy person. See Edson’s essay “Portrait of the Writer as a Fat Man: Some Subjective Ideas or Notions on the Care and Feeding of Prose Poems.” See my results in the Davidson Trauma Scale.
Consider this tale of two letters—first, an acceptance from a Richmond, Virginia-based press’ anthology of place poems:
“Prose like yours is sometimes difficult to determine if it is also poetry, but you did a nice job of bringing to your poem the rhythm and flow of poetry within your prose paragraphs. The language in your poem is exquisite, the emotion and subject matter very intense.”
Without giving author compensation, said press only promised me “publication credit, an opportunity to reach a broad audience, and my thanks.” Still, it was my fault I submitted. But would I be at absolute fault when there are very few print anthologies which are dedicated to place writing, let alone place poems? And this rejection from an international poetry journal based in the Devon, England:
“I am not a fan of what I consider an oxymoron: prose cannot be poetry, only poetic—though often poetry can sound very dull and like a great deal of prose. Sorry.”
At least, she apologized.
What demarcates the prosaic poetry from the poetic prose? From the prose poem? Or are a lot of works, as Tiempo suggested, merely “prose preening as poetry”? Maybe Madam M was half-right: poems are for emotions, essays are for ideas.
But consider this:
“Verse,” a mode, is not equivalent to “poetry,” a genre. To ask the question “What is the difference between prose and poetry?” is to compare anchors with bullets.(4)
….the mutability of prose poetry as an appellation and a genre … as a way of arguing that what coheres around genres is not an ideology, a lineage of influence, or even a set of formal restrictions, but a web of hermeneutic methods, a habit of grouping similar works that allows readers to understand the texts they read.(5)
Sabi ng iba, ‘Tula ba iyan?’
The others asked, ‘Is that a poem?’
Ingon ang uban, ‘Balak gyod na?’
The title is taken from Charles Simic’s “Essay on the Prose Poem” delivered on 2010 at The Poetry Festival in Rotterdam: “For me, [prose poetry] is a kind of writing determined to prove that there’s poetry beyond verse and its rules.” Simic wrote The World Doesn’t End (1990), the first collection of prose poems which won a Pulitzer Prize.
1 In the early 1960s, Edith L Tiempo, together with her husband, the novelist and critic Edilberto K Tiempo, founded the Silliman University National Writers Workshop, a “direct reproduction of [Iowa Writers Workshop] in the Philippines … with Rockefeller [Foundation] money … one of the most important conduits through which New Criticism circulated throughout the Philippines,” according to Paul Nadal in ‘Cold War Remittance Economy: US Creative Writing and the Importation of New Criticism into the Philippines (published in the latest issue of American Quarterly).
2 The haibun, in the words of German scholar of Japanophone literature Agnes Fink-von Hoff’s 2006 book Petitessen, Pretiosen: die Prosaminiatur in Japan um 1910, is more or less, poetic prose, not prose poem; literally “prose to accompany a haiku,” or in some cases, haiku-like prose.
3 from David Lehman’s Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present (Scribner, 2003)
4 from Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, 3rd edition (University Press of New England, 2000)
5 from Nick Admussen’s “The Chinese Prose Poem: Generic Metaphor and the Multiple Origins of sanwenshi,” in The Edinburgh Companion to the Prose Poem, eds. Mary Ann Caws and Michel Delville (Edinburgh University Press, 2021); also see Steven Monte’s Invisible Fences: Prose Poetry as a Genre in French and American Literature (2000, University of Nebraska Press), Nick Admussen’s Recite and Refuse: Contemporary Chinese Prose Poetry (2016, University of Hawaii Press), Jane Monson's British Prose Poetry: The Poems Without Lines (2018, Palgrave Macmillan), Huda J Fakhreddine’s The Arabic Prose Poem: Poetic Theory and Practice (2021, Edinburgh University Press), and Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington’s Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry (2020, Melbourne University Press).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alton Melvar M Dapanas (them/they) is author of Towards a Theory on City Boys: Prose Poems (England: Newcomer Press, 2021), assistant nonfiction editor of London-based Panorama: The Journal of Place & Travel, Iowa-based Atlas & Alice Literary Magazine, and editorial reader for Creative Nonfiction. A former contributor to Selcouth Station Press, their recent works have appeared in or are forthcoming from journals and magazines in Germany, Ireland, Singapore, United States, China, Australia, England, India, Hong Kong, Scotland, Canada, and elsewhere. They’re part of The Sun Isn’t Out Long Enough: Queer Experiences Across Borders (Anamot Press), Now I Know, Daylight: Responses to Untitled No 1 (1981) by Agnes Martin (Pilot Press), Away With Words: Selected Verse - Volume Four (Tooth Grinder Press), and other upcoming anthologies on queer liberation, on speculative poetry, on place-based writing, and on writers living with mental illness. They identify as pansexual, nonbinary, and polyamorous. Born and raised in Metro Cagayan de Oro in the southern Philippines, they’re currently living off-the-grid, and working on a chapbook of lyric essays and autotheory on the queer body. Read Alton’s latest author interview on writing and publishing creative nonfiction from Edinburgh-based Epoch Press here.