Since 1978, when Mark Strand was denied a Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his book The Monument on the grounds that the poems were not in verse, prose poetry has fought a battle—which it has largely won—for legitimacy in the eyes and heart of the reading public. It has won in no small part because prose poetry blurs the boundaries between genres. On April 8 at The New School poetry forum, Alan Zeigler read to us from his new anthology, Short: An International Anthology of five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms, the third major anthology of the short prose form. Ziegler has been one of our foremost supporters of the form, both as a writer of prose poetry as well as a professor at Columbia University, where he has long taught his renowned Short Prose Forms class.
As Ziegler commented to moderator David Lehman, there have been two previous “gold standards in this form”: Michael Benedikt’s 1976 The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, and Lehman’s own Great American Prose Poems: from Poe to the Present (2003). Benedikt’s volume “introduced many of us to the form in a way that was not available before.” Both of these volumes have been hugely influential in inspiring new writers of short prose. Ziegler in fact “could not have put this together without sending the introduction and table of contents to David.”
As Lehman remarked, Short puts forth the perspective of an international collection, allowing the inclusion of many early writers in the form such as Baudelaire’s “Get Drunk” in Lehman's translation: “On what? On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, your choice. But get drunk.” Ziegler read this to us as well as another amusing poem translated by Lehman, Henri Michaux’s “My Pastimes” which elucidates the speaker’s love of beating people up.
Another twentieth-century French practitioner was Max Jacob. Ziegler remarked he seemed to have “skipped modernism entirely and went straight to post-modernism,” and read to us John Ashbery’s translation of “The Beggar Woman of Naples.” In fact, many of these older pieces have a contemporary feel, as if written in modern diction and stride. Ziegler noted that one difference with these older pieces is that today there is a place for such work, whereas many of these pieces remained in notebooks until discovered later.
Ziegler himself has been celebrated as a seminal writer in the form. Michael Benedikt published him in The Paris Review in the seventies just after his anthology came out, and then chose him to be one of two poets to represent the future of The Paris Review, though George Plimpton then vetoed the nomination. Lehman inquired if he ever learned the cause, and Ziegler said he did eventually end up at a party at Plimpton’s house, where he worked up the nerve to ask him why. Plimpton said: “You’re a prose poet. A prose poet can’t be the future of The Paris Review.”
However, the future is looking very bright for short prose these days. Short captures the full blossoming of the form in all its manifestations since Benedikt’s groundbreaking volume: the prose poem, the short short story, the lyric essay, and the fragment. Some pieces defy categorization and live double lives. One example would be our own Stacey Harwood’s “Contributor’s Notes,” which like many of the pieces, subverts a nonliterary form. Another example Ziegler read was Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s very short fiction, “The Future of Something Delicate,” which, like Lydia Davis’s work, is almost indistinguishable from fiction. And Mark Strand’s “The Mysterious Arrival of a Letter” lands just on this side of the prose poem but barely, hovering somewhere in between.
Lydia Davis of course is famous for insisting that her pieces, often a line long, are stories. Lehman joked that he tried to get his publisher to call his latest book a novel, but the problem lay in the title: New and Selected Poems. In the end, aside from the marketplace, it may not matter. Ziegler remarked humorously that what genre a piece is called ultimately comes down to a unilateral decision. As his mother often used to say, “because I said so.”
This slipperiness is one of the form’s great strengths: it is a fertile and inclusive ground for experimentation and escape from the strictures of tradition, something entirely its own. Ziegler remarked: “My favorite prose poems are those that can’t be anything else. Any longer or shorter, and it’d be a totally different thing.”
-- Nora Brooks