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Julia Johnson


The old man, the key, an empty bottle, the table, the glass of milk, the blue room, the old woman, the pie, the shoemaker, the butcher, the dream, the glove. The things of prose poems, I count these among them. I first encountered prose poems while a high school student. Reading them was, for me, like peeping into a shoe-box diorama or peering into a square window where a world different from ours (but in which there are familiar objects) might exist, as though in between blinks, as when one stares steadily at a photograph. I decided then that I might love prose poems more than poems with lines and more than short stories with too many pages. I loved them because they were quick and always surprising, maybe even with an unexpected turn at the end. I loved reading the often one-paragraph marvels of language one after the other. I kept with me at all times, in my book bag, a copy of a text we used in writing class: The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, edited and with an introduction by Michael Benedikt. The 608-page paperback 1976 edition, complete with psychedelic blue cover, was out of print, so my teacher, Tom Whalen, had hoarded copies in the closet at the school to hand out to his students. I took the book with me. The pages, yellowed even then, would now fall out of the book’s split spine if not kept together by packing tape and a rubber band. I must admit I read every prose poem in the book more than once and continued to read more of the work by the prose poets included—Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Henri Michaux, André Breton, Julio Cortázar, Sakutaro Hagiwara, Russell Edson, W.S. Merwin, among many others. I had also decided Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons was pure genius, showing me ways of seeing objects and spaces and language I’d never known possible. I loved anything written in the form because the form encapsulated everything I loved about reading literature; prose poems told stories in the most succinct way, but more than that, they were surprising and strange, unexpected, and with each new sentence took me deeper into a place where things needn’t be explained—I was and remain a champion of, a lover of the unexplained, the inexplicable. And if the box it came in was a tidy and compact prose poem, all the better. 


At the prose poem’s end, it seemed over and satisfyingly complete, finished in a way that many short stories and poems are not, wrapped up tightly as if tied with a string. They often resembled fables, fairy tales or folktales. The rigidity of formal elements such as line breaks and meter and stanzaic structure, well, that had gone out of the window. I thought, Hey, I am too sophisticated for that stiff kind of writing; I wanted to experiment, I wanted to take risks and be free, I was ready to write some prose poems of my own. I thought, This form sets itself apart from the other kind of poetry. Little did I know I’d later be enrolled in Charles Wright’s Poetic Forms class at the University of Virginia. We’d spend a week on prose poetry after several weeks of study in accentual-syllabic and syllabic verse. I learned then that the prose poem is a form that requires the same attention as does the lyric in the study of its prosody. In fact, prose poems have it all. They have imagery, pronounced rhythm, sonorous effects, all in density of expression and execution. The prose poem can even contain inner rhyme and meter. The prose poem’s length is generally a half a page to three or four pages, which just so happens to be the average length of a lyric poem. If it’s longer than that, tension is weakened and it becomes more poetic prose than prose poetry or even more in the game of short-shorts. A complex and vexed form for sure.


Sometime last spring when I was invited to edit a special issue of the Blip Magazine Archive on the prose poem, even more questions arose regarding everything I knew and expected from the form. Finally, I decided I’d just see what came in. Well, the prose poem as a form has almost reinvented itself. It no longer seems like a separate genre, though of course I know many would disagree. But rather, I see prose poems as poems that rely more on a kind of prose energy than a lyric energy, no matter what the lines are doing, whether carried over, justified, or broken in some arbitrary or a natural kind of way. In the poems here assembled you’ll see what I mean. I’ve put together an issue featuring many notable poets (certainly I’ve left too many out) and also some of the prose poets who appeared as if out of the woodwork. I’ve included a range, not only of style and of voice but also a selection that showcases how very different the form can be in the hands of varied practitioners. The very best lyric poems, formal verse, short stories, and novels all seem to make rules for themselves—and then break them. I’d like to think that the prose poems included in this volume break some rules in remarkable ways and that, most of all, they are endlessly enjoyable to you, readers.


Many thanks to Angela Ball, Frederick Barthelme, Steve Barthelme, Rie Fortenberry, Jordan Sanderson, Lynn Watson, and everyone else who helped put this issue together. My affection for the prose poem has from the first been grounded in discontent, a high quality emotion in the view of Charles Baudelaire. I’ll borrow, by way of adieu, from the first line of “Anywhere Out of the World”: “This life is a hospital where each and every patient is obsessed by the desire to change beds.” Where does the poem go from there? Dust off your copy of Paris Spleen to find out.


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