April 24, 2003

Lehman Presents Mutant Poems

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Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present is exactly what it claims to be: a collection of prose poems ranging from forerunners of the genre like Edgar Allan Poe and Ralph Waldo Emerson, to modern poets like Jenny Boully and Sarah Manguso. The collection attempts to, in a way, anthologize the development of the prose poem through a chronological presentation of its various embodiments.

Prose poems have always been tricky subjects. Even after over a hundred years in formal existence, no one seems quite sure what to do with them. Should they be accepted as another meandering incarnation of poetry? Are they an extension of prose into previously under-explored areas? It seems like wherever one finds the term “prose poetry” one also is presented with something like an explanation, or affirmation of the genre’s fruitful existence in the literary world. Still, if prose poetry were really so well accepted and pervasive, why the need for an explanation of existence?

In his introduction to Great American Prose Poems, poet and veteran editor of poetry anthologies David Lehman attempts to answer some of these questions. The introduction provides an insightful and tremendously helpful prelude to the anthology. In it, he includes the historical development of the prose poem as well as discussion of the debate over prose poetry’s credibility. What Lehman seems to successfully point out is that the supposed inconsistency or paradox in the idea of a prose poem is one that seems to stem from a kind of stubborn adherence to certain definitions of terms, rather than from any real conflicts. As he states, “As soon as you admit the possibility that verse is an adjunct of poetry and not an indispensable quality, the prose poem ceases to be a contradiction in terms. Verse and prose are the real antonyms