Here are some backstories and roundabout comments on the ways short poems and prose poems work. First, I am going to talk about one of the poems in my new book True Figures: Selected Shorter Poems and Prose Poems, 1998-2021 because it shows what I will say about short poems and the self in short poems and some of the ways that prose poems are working with prosody, and I think it also shows something about the ways poetry effaces—probably too strong a word—the self in improvisation and the experience of being adjacent to people, always, the sociable background to poems that tends to decenter the lyric ego.
Years ago, when I was first writing poems and reading them, I lived in an apartment in a neighborhood of apartment buildings in the Bronx. Every few blocks, the first floors of the buildings were corner stores with red and yellow awnings, bodegas, almost all of them run by Puerto Rican families who worked in the stores, although the neighborhood had an Italian heritage and remaining flavor in almost every other way, from the photography studio storefront that showed bare-chested men holding babies in shadows, great brides, the butcher shop where hoof-less lambs sprung in the windows, and the lard bread at the bakery and sidewalk triangles of stacked tomato cans I still crash into in my sleep. There was a partially religious bookstore where I bought bootleg cassettes of operas and a life of St. Francis, but not the sepia-toned photos of Benito Mussolini. The undertaker would go along the long line of mourners with cigarettes on a silver tray for the mourners around the block, flowers heading back to the flower shop from the funeral parlor for some reason. I was out all night a lot, and keeping odd hours when I did work, as I worked nights. It was fun, and there were also palpable vibes of fear along with continuous and cheering warmth, and also just my first experiences of the sheer scale and multiplier effects of streets and distances and anonymity the deeper you get into an actual city. I was reading a lot of Lorca, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Rilke, all of whom felt heavy and light with love, which preoccupied me to say the least, and feelings of danger. It was one of those times in New York when the crime rate spikes, but it was also weird and friendly. More than once, I saw a pack of dogs with snapped leashes run through the neighborhood, and once as I ate a bagel in my friend’s car at two a.m. in Co-Op City. I would write letters to my friends all night. “How do I explain this?” I didn’t have the words solitude and immensity because I had completely abandoned abstractions.
One of my apartments had an old-fashioned fuse box. When the fuses would blow, we had to stand on chairs and try not to touch the heavy black coils that would have electrocuted us, and then go down to the corner and ask for a fuse, and risk electrocution again. And I was a heavy smoker. And one place was run by an especially nice family, teenagers doing homework by the register, the parents worried about everybody, the customers. It was like coming into the parlor of love. I would get provolone and salami subs there if I was home late from work. Another apartment, I lived with this guy Sean. The nearest bodega, for some reason, had delicious knishes instead of empanadas. I bought the two-dollar freeze-dried packages of a coffee called Coqui. Every time Sean saw me making coffee, he would say, “Hey, Dave, you know that coffee is named for a tree frog. And that’s the sound that tree frog makes.” One apartment was across the street from a bodega where there was an illegal gambling parlor, and I saw a gunshot victim taken in a stretcher out of there, with a hole the size of a volleyball in his chest. Dozens of people come in and out of a corner store every day. You are one among many. I studied to the pop pop pop of the 9’s and came home from waiting tables with three hundred dollars in my shoe. It was constant excitement, good and bad. If this world were just a religious idyll, you would be maybe a little tree frog on the side of the building, a detail, a passing song on a radio.
Years later, when I started teaching prose poems and poems, I was thinking about how lines of poems for Ginsberg and projective verse poets were breaths, and stanzas, which he apparently called feet, were breaths for Williams, and I was trying to figure out what was the difference between a paragraph and a line in Robert Hass prose poems, I came up with this poem about a lot of places, but none of them. I don’t know what jarred it loose, but I liked it because I felt that a lot of the material was behind it, and the last line made sense to me because it seemed to sum things up but only by indicating a lot of possibilities.
The ground beef empanadas are, first of all, saintly in a baroque church niche carving sort of way downstairs at the bodega, golden diapers.
Got it. Potted meat in dusty cans, and there is a cardboard box of fuses so don’t explode, not with a lot of syrupy looking cleaning supplies, sponges, beer, the kinds of coffee you really should make, salami, the tabloids.
I believe I am painted in egg white and a tree frog.
Short poems and prose poems are related on the level of prosody on some level, I am sure. The prose poem makes you very aware of form, the breath of the sentences, the possibilities of the sentence and the paragraph to function as line, and moreover, prose poems are often strikingly short compared to short stories and essays and such. I think of “flash fiction” and “micro-fiction” as essentially forms of prose poetry written by fiction writers, who are often as attracted to the compressed power of poetry as much as poets wish that their poems could make some money like fiction.
To me, the short poem, which is like a single beat, or a series or flow of fine-tuned beats, an actor’s expression, is very basic, compression and the ability to indicate more with less, being fundamentally what poets work with when they write. J.V. Cunningham suggests an entire cross country car-trip with two lines that are just a couple of prep phrases, “by desert, prairie, and this stone wall road/ As much my own, as is the thought of death.” We are always amazed by the haiku saying everything, for instance by Buson being visited by his friend and noticing that both of their bald heads are shaped like the delicious cantaloupes that he is cutting up in hospitality. A poem is made by being moments or gestures of complete poems that look to what follows, in that the formal considerations are generative to a live piece. One poet friend once made my day, telling me that, yes, my poem was longer, but it was like one haiku after another just the same. I could have missed a meal after that, something I never do. That’s how much I love what I take to be praise.
I dislike rigid taxonomies. Shorter poems, which to me are anywhere from one-liners to twenty lines or so of extended epigram, are sociable, and they reflect the experience of alienated individuals whose lives border other lives, and the principle gestures of the short poem—to either sum things up, shut them down, or to allow for the vagaries and open-ended-ness of welcome and multiplicity, respecting privacy and the need for another to continue along, perhaps to an airport and the clouds—are fundamentally social moves. You can no more forget the reader in a short poem than you can forget that you have neighbors on a city block. All of the short ones, the personal lyric poems, have a social world around them at least mentally, Roman epigram, Emily Dickinson, the fragments of Greek, Haiku, sonnets, you name it, Ben Jonson and Robert Herrick, or, for that matter, Robert Creeley, Fanny Howe, and Rae Armantrout. This is part of their improvisatory nature, woven into their contradictory impulses. The poets in these poems tend toward effacement, one of the ways in which the religious character and the entertaining doofus do overlap. And the machinery is on display. With not much else but poem going on, form is as palpable as that new car next door, the one the guy sits in at night when he gets home from the casino and hangs out in the air-conditioning with his music. He missed a payment, and the city or a repo man clamped an orange boot on his tire to keep him from driving away. But then he got things together and could drive it again. The horses heads are turned towards eternity. As for those parts of you that are assignable, you have to get rid of that boot.
The master of the dominant social gestures of the short poem, Yeats is always either closing things down or opening things up, or on some level doing both at the same time because poems embrace complicated and seemingly contradictory feelings. One of his more outrageously mystical-sounding poems, “Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors” shows how concise the seemingly vague poem can be. Compare Yeats’s short and vague poem to the Wordsworth poem with a comparable theme, the one about the leech gatherer, which goes on for quite a long time, and I believe you will see that the vague poem is more realistic than Wordsworth’s cinematic marvel. Who knew these well-meaning adults were doing anything, except showing up freely and without tragedy? You did not know they were teaching you anything, but they were, by just being there, vaguely. Vagueness is the ultimate compression, a useful spice.
What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.
Yeats’s poem is one of the ultimate versions of the open-ended, self-effacing poem. He could be talking about the supernatural, or he could be talking about some bus drivers, or medieval architects for that matter, or some poets nobody knew were at work. Poets have to be careful because the mode can wind up sentimental and gloriously gooey or not, as happens when intrepid James Wright sees a squirrel on a corncrib and moves right to “an eagle in heaven” and hugs a pony.
The epigram that shuts things down tends to address the more specific situation, but its decisive summing up and closing down can be illusory. For instance, Yeats’s late epigram “Parnell,” though a brutal summing up, opens up onto long intervals, the psychology of a particular privileged but tragic historical figure and the enduring quality of injustice wherever there is privilege, mutable though the forms of privilege, including political and artistic fame, may be: “Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man:/ ‘Ireland shall get her freedom and you will still break stone.’” By being radically compressed, the short poem keeps a post in the illimitable. “The Balloon of the Mind” is so wonderful because it literally shuts things down, the situation of the poem a commentary on the nature of the form itself:
Hands, do what you’re bid:
Bring the balloon of the mind
That bellies and drags in the wind
Into its narrow shed.
As I said, the central image evokes a fathead, a dolt, one moved by appetite run amok, maybe even a skyborn clam, as it “bellies and drags in the wind.” And Yeats is saying, “Good night, fathead.” In the shed with you. If poets did not get on their own nerves, there would be no good poetry. Its rigor is ultimately self-effacing. Yet the properly inflated fathead of a balloon is also how Phineas T. Fogg gets around the clouds with invention and luck.
I think a good reason to read contemporary poetry is to go find the very good shorter poems that make their meaning by implication rather than discursively and which are more apt to deliver the shocks and pleasures of the freshly perceived and to create impatience with excessive and extrinsic machinery of dominating projects. Trite short poems are another subject, but the almost mindless ardor they inspire in the dull is instructive in itself. Maybe my ideal poem is any line in Joe Brainard’s I Remember which constantly opens onto mental and social expanses. I’m not even really talking about very short poems here. When Rohrer and Beckman did Nice Hat. Thanks., it was good to be reminded of the basic poem molecule, and Jim Dunn’s new book This Silence is a Junkyard is all three-liners and breast pocket-sized to go with your heart. Short poems. “Long live your terse third-person personages, Linda Gregg and Jack Gilbert,” I felt when I found them, at the same time that I found Ben Jonson and George Herbert, and then I could really appreciate Williams, moment by moment. And then the Robert Hass book The Essential Haiku came out. The tradition of sounding the range of the very short poem goes along, not much remarked upon, but beloved, as Charles Simic, Bill Knott, and Suzanne Buffam’s The Irrationalist are so well loved by poets. These are all practically selfless poems coming from the ironizing self, the self that experiences connection, the self that steps away from its narrating self into the self that sticks to itself in spots of details and voice. The mods and the masters never bore when they keep it on the short side. Richness of meaning and multiplicity of meaning both work with quickness.