Blazing a Trail in Prose Poetry--One Sentence at a Time
The world of prose poetry can get murky when you step off the map and into uncharted territory. Is a particular piece, for example, poetic prose, or is it a prosaic poem—or does it even matter? Should writers like Jeremy Taylor (b. 1613) or Thomas de Quincey (b. 1785) be considered part of the genre? Does the prose poem have a responsibility to communicate anything outside of the category’s decidedly academic and experimental conventions? Previous issues of Sentence, helmed by Brian Clements since 2003, established that journal as an atlas for navigating the ever-shifting landscape of the prose poem. Now, Sentence has a new cartographer, Brian Johnson, and he’s admittedly curious to know what readers will think of Sentence 9.
Sentence 9 appears to be a mix between more traditional prose poems—if you can say such a thing exists—and pieces that take the genre in another direction. Many concise, finely crafted jewels in the issue are notable for their attention to detail, moment-by-moment awareness, and aversion to inflexible forms or ideas. Some notable offerings include “To People Who Read” by Paige Taggart, “Three Poems for the End of the Earth” by Noah Eli Gordon, and “From the Library” by Martha Ronk. Even within the accepted boundaries of the prose poem, the contributors keep it fresh and interesting, as when Marjorie Manwaring incorporates found text Memories, Dreams, Reflections into her poem “Carl Jung Remembers.”
Perhaps the most striking feature is a large section called “Abstraction and the Prose Poem,” edited by guest Richard Deming, who has gathered writers that he says represent a different tradition of prose poetry, one “guided by word, phrase, or thought” as opposed to short, compressed stories. He goes on to define these pieces as those that “subvert… expectations arising from conventions of grammar, rhetorical argument, and perhaps especially narrative.” Indeed, the very first poem in this section, “Weather Report” by Michael Kelleher, operates on phrases strung together one after the other, fragments that create a kind of synesthetic painting in the reader’s mind:
Today I thought of the future, and the future was in the machines. I heard the growl of a leopard and started to run. It was all somehow predestined. First, realism, then the reaction to realism.
Nobody knows it’s the end of an age. Peaches like sinister rain clouds. The frozen landscape speeding by. What was the first cause?
The “Views & Reviews” section, by contrast, contains abstraction of a different kind: high-level thinking about the prose poem, its form and meaning, and intellectual discussion and play. Here, as in Claire Barbetti’s review of Holly Iglesias’s Angles of Approach, we hear about the “prose poem as a self-encapsulated universe,” and about how “prose poem posturing is an institution unto itself,” which Barbetti points out when she mentions that cavalier irony and eccentric gestures are an “exceedingly male” habit within the genre. These reviews are an excellent way to keep Sentence’s readers apprised of what’s happening within the prose poetry community.
There’s plenty for prose poem enthusiasts to love about Sentence 9, because Brian Johnson has continued the magazine’s conversation with readers while managing to add his own voice and aesthetic to the publication. Subscribers will be pleased to see that he’s continued to explore and adapt the prose poem to keep it from getting stale. Poetry aficionados will love it, too, because many of the poems challenge conventional ideas, forms, and traditions. Some even border on iconoclastic, but only within the highly intellectual world of poetry and the prose poem. This reflexive dialogue limits Sentence’s potential audience, since, to borrow Deming’s phrase, “the art always points to its own actions” and only tangentially to the world-at-large—that is, to the context of its existence. There’s not much outside the vortex of prose poetry, so casual readers looking for entertainment need not pick up a copy. And that’s intentional. Sentence’s mission, among other things, is “to explore the gray areas around the prose poem,” and “to publish work that extends our conceptions of what the ‘prose poem’ is or can be.”
It’s a mission that—at least in Sentence 9—they’ve executed brilliantly.