April 2, 2013

Louis Jenkins and Prose Poems


Louis Jenkins is an American prose poet. His poems have been widely published and has a guest on the radio program A Prairie Home Companion numerous times. His book, Nice Fish: New and Selected Prose Poems, was winner of the Minnesota Book Award in 1995 and Just Above Water: Prose Poems won the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award in 1997. Jenkins has lived in Duluth, Minnesota, for over 30 years with his wife Ann.


I first encountered him at the 1996 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey. When I heard him read, I did not know he was a prose poet. I heard line breaks in his narrative poems and only realized that they were prose poems when I bought his book and asked him to sign it.

I had issues with prose poems back then. I wasn't sure what to think of them as poetry. I wanted line breaks and stanzas because, in my mind, that's part of how poems are made.

A poem he read that day was "Too Much Snow" from Just Above Water


Unlike the Eskimos we only have one word for snow but we have a lot of modifiers for that word. There is too much snow, which, unlike rain, does not immediately run off. It falls and stays for months. Someone wished for this snow. Someone got a deal, five cents on the dollar, and spent the entire family fortune. It's the simple solution, it covers everything. We are never satisfied with the arrangement of the snow so we spend hours moving the snow from one place to another. Too much snow. I box it up and send it to family and friends. I send a big box to my cousin in California. I send a small box to my mother. She writes "Don't send so much. I'm all alone now. I'll never be able to use so much." To you I send a single snowflake, beautiful, complex and delicate; different from all the others.

Some people say that prose poetry shouldn't be read as poetry or as prose, but as its own form, a fusion of the two. Then why is it "poetry"?

It is because the language has the heightened attention that we associate with poetry, and also more emphasis on figurative language than traditional prose.

I'm not sure we would want to read a 250 page novel written in the way that a prose poem is written. T. S. Eliot was opposed to prose poetry as a form. When he wrote an introduction to Djuna Barnes' highly "poeticized" 1936 novel, Nightwood, he said that the novel should not be called "poetic prose" as it did not have the "rhythm or musical pattern" of verse.

But the form does have prose characteristics such as narrative, sometimes even dialogue and perhaps more of an expectation of an objective truth than with poetry.

I like the opening of an article about the prose poem form that says "Though the name of the form may appear to be a contradiction, the prose poem essentially appears as prose, but reads like poetry."

Another example is "Spring" by Jim Harrison (who writes novels,non-fiction and poetry)

Something new in the air today, perhaps the struggle of the bud
to become a leaf. Nearly two weeks late it invaded the air but
then what is two weeks to life herself? On a cool night there is
a break from the struggle of becoming. I suppose that's why we
sleep. In a childhood story they spoke of the land of enchant-
ment." We crawl to it, we short-lived mammals, not realizing that
we are already there. To the gods the moon is the entire moon
but to us it changes second by second because we are always fish
in the belly of the whale of earth. We are encased and can't stray
from the house of our bodies. I could say that we are released,
but I don't know, in our private night when our souls explode
into a billion fragments then calmly regather in a black pool in
the forest, far from the cage of flesh, the unremitting "I." This was
a dream and in dreams we are forever alone walking the ghost
road beyond our lives. Of late I see waking as another chance at
spring.


As a teacher, I used Jenkins' poem "Football" from the anthology Poetry 180.  (That excellent anthology is also a website that was created by Billy Collins and the Library of Congress when he was Poet Laureate to be used by teachers.)  My middle school students would hear me read the poem first, then see it on the page - the same way I did at that poetry festival. But they had no problems with the form.

I asked them. "Is this a poem?" The majority said yes. "But where are the line breaks and stanzas," I asked.  It didn't seem to matter to them. I even asked them to put in line breaks and stanzas where they thought they might "help the reader." They did it. They did it pretty well. But why did I ask them to do it? My own poetic insceurity, no doubt.

I have come around to my students' acceptance of prose poems as their own form. Where the lines do end up breaking depends on the layout on the page. In a book, they will often end up breaking by character count - say 60 character wide.  In the Harrison poem above, you see that there is a word broken at the margin and that the final word, "spring," has its own line. Coincidence of layout or intentional? (I used the source layout as my guide here.)

For this April prompt and your submissions, the lines will all break in the same place based on the "page" width. Those of you with a bit of poetic OCD or control issues will have to let go of some line break control. You can submit as a block of text since the breaks will be determined by the web page layout. Therefore, I will give you complete control over the subject of your poems. If you get blocked on what to write about, feel free to choose from any of the prompts we have used in previous years on the site. There probably are a few you never attempted.

Finally, my own personal prompt for writing this post and prompt for you was that I will be attending a workshop that Louis Jenkins will be doing on May 11th at The Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ (per-registration required).  There will also be a free and open poetry reading by Jenkins and M. L. Liebler at 1 pm that day. Maybe Jenkins will surprise all of us and assign us to write a sonnet.

More on prose poems
A Look at Prose Poetry
Poems by Louis Jenkins on The Writers Almanac


BOOKS





"Spring" by Jim Harrison, is from Songs of Unreason



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