Edson was one of the definitive practitioners of the contemporary American prose poem. Charles Simic, in his beautiful Foreword, says that no one has yet offered a convincing definition of prose poetry. Nonetheless, permit me to make an attempt. Is a prose poem just a poem with no line breaks? If so, what can prose sentences and paragraphs do for a poem that lines can’t? What is prose and what is poetry, and what are the supposed differences between them? The poet, critic, and translator Richard Howard, who was my graduate school mentor and friend, has a wonderfully useful and precise maxim for describing the difference between poetry and prose: “verse reverses, prose proceeds.”
This concise and musical phrase summarizes what I believe to be one of the central truths about the nature of these two forms of writing: though made of the same basic stuff—letters, words, punctuation—once they take their shapes, they are actually different substances, like water and oil (though they do mix), or, perhaps, more like water and wood. They are composed of the same elements, but those elements are deployed so differently that the results can seem like distant cousins at best.
But what are they? First,
we need a definition of “prose”: it’s the word on the street; the writing
people talk in; the words on signs; and the stuff, beside images, that the Internet
is made of. In itself, it’s not scary (though lots of it piled up, say, in a
big, fat book, might be). Reading prose, you might not even realize you’re
reading it. (“‘No, And’: Russell Edson’s Poetry of Contradiction,” Craig Morgan
American poet Sarah Manguso on the prose poems of Connecticut poet Russell Edson (1935-2014); despite usually believing and following whatever Manguso might say about anything, I was never convinced by the work of Russell Edson, said to be the father of the American prose poem. I even picked up a copy of his prior selected a few years back, The Tunnel: Selected Poems of Russell Edson (Oberlin College Press, 1994), but couldn’t figure my way. I couldn’t hear music in his poems, feeling them closer to incomplete short stories than to the electric possibilities of the prose poem, especially against poets such as Rosmarie Waldrop, Lisa Jarnot, Lisa Robertson, Robert Kroetsch, Anne Carson and others. How was Edson’s work so praised?
So of course, I was curious to see a copy of Little Mr. Prose Poem: Selected Poems of Russell Edson, ed. Craig Morgan Teicher, with a Foreword by Charles Simic (Rochester NY: BOA Editions, 2023) land in my mailbox recently; perhaps this collection might provide some sense of what it is I’d been missing, or at least, not getting? Perhaps it is as simple as requiring the correct entry point in my reading. In my late twenties, after hearing from a variety of writers around me on the brilliance of the work of Toronto poet David McFadden, the half-dozen titles I encountered weren’t providing me with any answers as to why, until I picked up a copy of his Governor General’s Award-shortlisted The Art of Darkness (McClelland and Stewart, 1984), a book that became my personal Rosetta Stone for the since-late McFadden’s fifty years of publishing. With that one title, all, including his brilliance, became abundantly and absolutely clear.
As Charles Simic offers in his introduction: “Edson said that he wanted to write without debt or obligation to any literary form or idea. What made him fond of prose poetry, he claimed, is its awkwardness and its seeming lack of ambition. The monster children of two incompatible strategies, the lyric and the narrative, they are playful and irreverent.” Little Mr. Prose Poem selects pieces from ten different collections produced during Edson’s life: The Very Thing That Happens (New Directions, 1964), What A Man Can See (The Jargon Society, 1969), The Childhood of an Equestrian (Harper and Row, 1973), The Clam Theater (Wesleyan University Press, 1973), The Intuitive Journey (Harper and Row, 1976), The Reason Why the Closet Man Is Never Sad (Wesleyan University Press, 1977), The Wounded Breakfast (Wesleyan University Press, 1985), The Tormented Mirror (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001), The Rooster’s Wife (BOA Editions, 2005) and See Jack (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009). Given the final collection on this particular list emerged five years prior to the author’s death, one is left to wonder if there were uncollected pieces or even an unfinished manuscript left behind after he died? Did all of his pieces fall within the boundaries of his published books?
There are ways that Edson’s odd narratives, populated with fragments and layerings of scenes and characters, feel akin to musings, constructed as narrative accumulations across the structure of the prose poem. And yet, there are times I wonder how these are “prose poems” instead of being called, perhaps, “postcard fictions” or “flash fictions.” It would appear that an important element of Edson’s form is the way the narrratives turn between sentences: his sentences accumulate, but don’t necessarily form a straight line. There are elements of the surreal, but Edson is no surrealist; instead, he seems a realist who blurs and layers his statements up against the impossible. I might not be able to hear a particular music through Edson’s lines, but there certainly is a patterning; a layering, of image and idea, of narrative overlay, offering moments of introspection as the poems throughout the collection become larger, more complex. As well, Edson’s poems seem to favour the ellipses, offering multiple openings but offering no straightforward conclusions, easy or otherwise. Not a surrealist, but a poet who offers occasional deflections of narrative. Even a deflection is an acknowledgment of the real, as a shape drawn around an absence. A deflection, or an array of characters who might not necessarily be properly paying attention, or speaking the truth of the story, as the poem “Baby Pianos,” from The Tormented Mirror, begins:
A piano had made a huge manure. Its handler hoped the
lady of the house wouldn’t notice.
But the lady of the house said, what is that huge darkness?
The piano just had a baby, said the handler.
But I don’t see any keys, said the lady of the house. They come later, like baby teeth, said the handler.
Meanwhile the piano had dropped another huge manure.
Craig Morgan Teicher writes as part of his afterword that Edson is “obsessed
with miscommunication; it is his bedrock truth. People don’t listen to each
other, are generally intent on fulfilling their own needs, and willfully
ignorant of the needs of those around them. His characters constantly argue and
contradict one another.” Moving through this collection, I can now see Edson’s
influence in a variety of younger American poets, most overtly through Chicago poet Benjamin Niespodziany (who I do think is doing some great things), but
also through Evan Williams, Shane Kowalski, Zachary Schomburg, Leigh Chadwick and the late Noah Eli Gordon, as well as
through Manguso herself, across those early poetry collections. In many ways,
Niespodziany might even be the closest to an inheritor I’ve seen of Edson’s
writing, although with the added element of a more overt surrealism via
Canadian poet Stuart Ross. And perhaps, through Little Mr. Prose Poem, I
am slowly beginning to understand what all the fuss has been about.