Who Is Flying This Plane? The Prose Poem and the Life of the Line
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Who Is Flying This Plane? The Prose Poem and the Life of the Line Hadara Bar-Nadav The prose poem is undeniably a contested form, one that led Karen Volkman, in her essay “Mutable Boundaries: On Prose Poetry,” to refer to prose poetry’s status as “shady and suspect to the mainstream poetry world.” One need only look to the curious omission of prose poetry from such books on form as Mark Strand and Eavan Boland’s The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms (2000) for confirmation of Volkman’s statement. On the other hand, prose poetry has been too narrowly conceived and consequently misrepresented by some of its proponents. In The Prose Poem: An International Anthology (1976), Michael Benedikt defines the prose poem as “poetry, self-consciously written in prose, and characterized by the intense use of virtually all the devices of poetry. The sole exception is the line break” (47). Mary Ann Caws, in an entry for The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, similarly decrees the prose poem a “controversially hybrid” genre “without the line breaks of free verse” (977). Rather than consider the prose poem a poetic form or genre without line-breaks, I would argue that the prose poem indeed contains line-breaks that are given over to chance operations and the margins established by a particular writer, journal, or publisher, or those set by or on a computer, typewriter, or printing press. This revaluation of the prose poem as containing line-breaks that are imposed by the margin may surprise some. But when a prose poem breaks at the right margin, do we not stop for a brief moment, holding that last word on our tongues or in our ears, a slight lingering before we return to the left margin and take up the next line? In a prose poem, the line-break is the right margin. Certainly, a poem changes when lines are broken differently, and the shape of a poem shifts with the margins of a given publication, effectively reshaping and revising the poem. Some might consider the prose poem a never-ending line, one that, if the page Bar-Nadav | 45 or computer screen allowed, would go on forever. However, I want to distinguish the prose poem from the long line—the insistence of breath in Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg or the embodied intellectual projects of Cole Swensen’s Ours (2008) or Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red (1998). Some book publishers and literary journals accommodate the long line by producing oversized books or changing their print orientation from horizontal to vertical. Such a gesture generally would not be made to accommodate prose poetry. Unlike poets writing in the long line who write through the right margin, prose poets use the margin; they write both through and against the margin, even as it is arbitrarily assigned. As one who writes prose poetry, I have come to enjoy that risk-taking right margin, the one that contains magical line-breaking properties and makes the poem come back to me anew. And I also enjoy the caginess of the prose poem, that inherent tension in the mission of its line to continue on forever (despite the margin) and to be turned (because of the margin). Oneofthefinestexamplesoftheprosepoem’scapacitytosimultaneouslywork through and against its margins is Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004). Dominated by the prose-poem form, Rankine’s book-length work was uniquely formatted by Graywolf in an off-sized book, approximately 5.5 inches wide and 10 inches long, with one-inch margins on the right and left. The book looks more like a pamphlet than a typical book of poetry, leaving just 3.25 inches for the text. Rankine’s prose poem is compressed by these narrowly defined margins that make language press in on itself. Her squeezed lines suggest how narrow the vision of America (and poetry) may be, even as the poem simultaneously presses outward with its large vision of America, poetry, racism, illness, and loss. For years I secretly thought about the life of the line in prose poetry, but a recent experience inspired my writing this essay. Being MLA trained, I default to one-inch margins, and the given confines of these margins actually helped me compose the prose poem “I Would Have Starved a Gnat.” The very margins that had helped me compose the poem were blown open when the poem appeared in Crazyhorse...