I thought I’d hop into a recent discussion begun here which proposed to consider the prose poem as a medium, a la Marshall McLuhan, rather than as a poetic form and was based on a quote to that effect made by Michael Hamburger. The rationale given in support of Hamburger’s charge was that by definition a medium is an extension of a human trait that by its expression changes or diminishes the original from which it sprang, and that “springing” has more to do with creating a means toward an end—freeing French verse-- rather than being an end in itself, the prose poem.
Look what’s “lost” if we trade Rembrandt’s formal expression for Picasso’s, if Rembrandt were to have used Picasso’s looser brush stroke, or vice versa. Hamburger had compared poems by Baudelaire, both prose and verse, and found his prose poems lacking by comparison. But isn’t appreciating one tradition over another, or perhaps in this case one poet’s facility, finally more about personal taste than objective critical judgment of overall formal value? For instance, an earlier Picasso self-portrait:
Stephen Dobyns traces the evolution of the prose poem from its French beginnings in his essay, “Notes on Free Verse,” from Best Words, Best Order. I found especially illuminating his comparison of traditional metrical English verse which is based on a pattern of anticipation-verification-reward (think of the aural expectations created by dependable meter and rhyme) to non-metrical poetry in western verse now “freed” from such constraints. Such poetry employs instead a system of expectation-surprise, one far more dependent on a poet’s individual voice and breath (and far too oversimplified here, I'm afraid).
I agree an intriguing comparison is made by looking at poems in both forms from a single, accomplished author. What does his/her choice of lineation suggest in the poems side by side? Why do they choose what when? Why does Charles Simic or Amy Gerstler? Why does David Lehman? I offer a pair by James Wright, not the first name that comes to mind in the genre, but a poet who moved easily between verse and prose poem form. These two share similar imagery, I believe are from the same collection, and I think equally though differently moving.
by James Wright
Petition to the Terns
by James Wright
I have lived long enough to see
Many wings fall
And many others broken and driven
To stagger away on a slant
Of wind. It blows
Where it pleases to blow,
Or it poises,
At rest. Today, sails
In the water,
In front of my eyes,
The huge dull scarlet men-of-war loll, uncaring and slobbish,
All the shore shallows
That men may hope to become
Is already unfriendly,
The terns of Rhode Island
Dart up out of the cattails, pounce on the sunlight,
They must be getting their own back,
Against the wind. But the wind is no angrier
Than any wing it blows down,
And I wish the terns would give it
And me a break.