The Peculiar Music of the Prose Poem

I've come to believe that the prose poem may be defined as much by its degree of relative musicality as by its visible form on the page.  Traditionally, poetry in the West has occupied some midway point on the spectrum of utterance between singing and ordinary speech.  One has only to listen to recordings of W. B. Yeats to hear poetry that registers very near the singing pole on that spectrum.  I've told students many times that Yeats and Johnny Cash aren't so far apart in that respect (to test this for yourself, listen to Yeats reciting "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" and Cash singing "I Still Miss Someone" back to back).  Practically speaking, this means that many poems occupy a middle zone on that scale of musicality, from which they could conceivably edge to one side or the other as free verse or prose poem.

But we have no objective scale for judging such matters.  Yeats's style of recitation falls foreign on modern ears.  We're generally accustomed to a post-Williams plain-spokenness that renders the older, more overtly musical delivery stilted and quaint to our hearing.  It's probably safe to say that if Yeats registers at a position of 8 or 9 on a musicality scale of 10, then the average prose poem registers somewhere between 1 and 3.  This isn't to argue that the musical content of every prose poem is the same or that the prose poem is lacking in music.  In This Journey, for example, James Wright mischievously disguised a fully rhyming iambic pentameter sonnet, "May Morning," as a prose poem, perhaps to test the awakeness of readers, and in any case, to quote Lehman, truly "[making] use of all the strategies and tactics of poetry" save the line break.  (For this revelation, I'm indebted to Kevin Stein's essay in The Kenyon Review, "These Drafts and Castoffs:  Mapping James Wright.")

Although the vast majority of prose poems do not employ rhyme or meter of any kind, much rich sound work can still take place within those print rectangles.  The ability to analyze relative musical content can help poets arrive at appropriate form for their poem.  Oftentimes I've seen my own poems in that ambiguous middle zone on the scale slip from lined verse to prose poem or vice versa, and maybe back again.

         (from "The Prose Poem: A Practice")

(Note:  The paragraphs above are excerpted from the introduction to my book Windy Day at Kabekona: New and Selected Prose Poems, recently published by White Pine Press.   My introduction outlines some of the areas of interest and concern that have come up in my 40 years of working with the prose poem medium.  This book has been a long time in the works, and I'm delighted to see it in print, beautifully designed by White Pine, with cover art by the great Gendron Jensen who created wonderful interior and cover art for Robert Bly's pioneering prose poetry collection This Body Is Made of Camphor and Gopherwood.  Though the prose poem is hardly new (its legitimate roots go back at least to the l9th century), some readers -- and poets too -- still feel confused over the elements that make what obviously appears on the page as a paragraph function as a poem.  My comments attempt a partial answer.) 

Here is a prose poem for our current season from Windy Day at Kabekona:


The woman at the Extension office says that the two dozen or so wasps clustered under the roof eave of our porch are starving.  They die off, she tells me, except for the overwintering queen who starts it all up again in the spring.  They've long ago exhausted the small supply of wasp honey that fed them in the comb, and grope feebly together as though blind, searching for sugar, using up their energy reserves because it's September and the sweets of earth die back too.

In full sun they fan out on the joist, not venturing far from each other, seldom flying.  Sometimes one flexes angular wings as if uncertainly testing the air, then retracts them close to its spindle body.  Sometimes one looks down at me, returns my stare, antennae twitching.

At dusk, they crowd together in a tight clump to conserve heat, withdraw into a shadowy depression.  By day they browse the painted wood dulled by weather, dust, accumulation of tattered spider webs, bits of captured debris.  The low sun is bright and cool.  The wasps are remarkably unaggressive -- we have coexisted peaceably at close quarters for half a month.  In warm hours a few still whirl up against the south side of the house like wild-flung honey.

You can order Windy Day at Kabekona  at this address:

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