A Little Book on Form Robert Hass

3 posts

That Ugly Duckling We Call “Prose Poetry”

To some people, the term “prose poetry” is like fingernails on a blackboard. Painful to hear. If it’s poetry, how is it prose? And if it’s prose, how is it poetry?

Beats me. I had a sum total of zero “prose poems” in my first book. Then I read Zbigniew Herbert, Poland’s wonderful poet. He sold me on the style with poems like “The History of the Minotaur” and “Old Prometheus.” Whatever you choose to call them, four of these “prose poems” wound up in my recent Lost Sherpa of Happiness collection, and I kinda like them.

In A Little Book on Form, Robert Hass has a few funny lines about this form. You should know, in advance, that he himself wrote prose poems. He provides a little history in his little book on this little form, too. If you thought this ugly duckling came of age in the rocking 60s, think again. It’s old. Older than me, even! We’re talking century comma 19th!

  • “In 1802 Coleridge contributed a few of his journal entries to a miscellany edited by his friend Robert Southey. He gave one of them a title:

December Morning

The giant shadows sleeping amid the wan yellow light of the December morning, looked like wrecks and scattered ruins of the long, long night.

“It did not start a stampede toward a new poetic form, so prose did not get annexed to the formal possibilities of poetry until August 26,1862, when a Paris daily newspaper La presse published a few of Baudelaire’s Petits poemes en prose (Le spleen de Paris). The entire collection of fifty prose pieces was published in 1869 two years after Baudelaire’s death….”

  • “The term ‘prose poem’: it had the force at one time of contradiction, of breaking down categories. And there may still be great value in a term impossible to define. All you have to do is read the scholars to see that it is impossible to define. Prose using all the techniques of poetry except meter, lineation, and rhyme? But there are no techniques special to poetry except meter, lineation, and rhyme. Short prose written by poets? Then their letters are prose poems. Short prose that avoids the usual discursive uses of prose? A proscription, not a definition. Writing that the authors call ‘prose poems’? Short pieces of prose organized in books like poems?”
  • Conversation About the Definition of a Prose Poem on Woodpecker Trail at Coralville Lake at the End of March, the Wind Rising:

B: The thing is it doesn’t have a definition.

B: Sure it does. A poem without lines.

B: Well, that includes prose.

B: Right.”

Of all the chapters in Hass’s book, I found this one of the more enlightening–and amusing–ones. For the purposes of today’s entry, know this: If you hate prose poems, blame Baudelaire. And if you love them? Blame Baudelaire.


Robert Hass and I Chat a Little Prose and a Little Poetry


In this our third and final entry on the exciting world of prose poetry, I present quoted bits from Bob (his new book, A Little Book on Form), interlaced by my responses. A friendly chat, if you will (or even if you won’t). As you will see, Robert Hass knows a lot more than me on the topic, but I’m here to learn.

RH: “There are at least two kinds of this kind of thing: proses that are one paragraph long and proses that are more than one paragraph long.

“The paragraph as a formal device differs from the stanza in that the proposition of the paragraph is unity.

“The proposition of a composition of one paragraph is completeness.

“A paragraph that goes on for much longer than a page breaks the basic contract of the paragraph.

“These are all expressive possibilities.”

KC: Amen to that contract bit. I can’t tell you how many classics I’ve read where, when you turn the page, you see a paragraph that swallows BOTH pages, left and right. It’s like taking a deep breath and diving in to swim the underwater length of an Olympic-sized pool.

RH: “What the texts for writers say is true: The four kinds of prose are narration, description, exposition, and argument.

“This expectation is also an expressive possibility.

“From the beginning, this kind of prose was torn between undermining its medium and appropriating it.”

KC: Huh?

RH: “So a paragraph, which is a proposition of unity, full of non sequiturs is a contradiction in terms. This is, has been an expressive possibility.

“The prose poem came into existence not only during the age of prose and the age of realism, but at the moment when prose and realism were just beginning to enjoy the prestige of art.”

KC: I enjoy that, too. I’m a prestige guy from way-back.

RH: “This kind of prose was sired by ambivalence and envy. The ‘prose poet’ is either worshipping at or pissing on the altar of narration, description, exposition, and argument. Or both.

“To write this kind of prose you probably have to love or hate the characteristic rhythms of prose.

“The rhythms of poetry have quicker access to the unconscious than the rhythms of prose. It may be that this is one of the reasons many people prefer prose to verse. It does not make an indecent claim on the reader’s person at the outset.”

KC: I personally hate it when people make indecent claims on my person. Unless it’s my wife.

RH: “One of the obvious possibilities of this kind of prose was to fill it full of the devices that people identify as lyrical as a kind of alchemy to transform prose and the world of prose into poetry. This was the way of Rimbaud.

“Another possibility was to thwart the expectations of prose. Cubist prose, like Tender Buttons [Gertrude Stein], did it at the level of grammar. Surrealist prose did it at the level of representation and at the level of sequence.

“In all three cases, varying in intensity, the idea was to use the medium in ways that would subvert the usual expectations of the medium.”

KC: I’m loving this. And I think I’m even getting it. Especially how poetry has quicker access to the unconscious than prose. There’s clearly a difference when you read the two. Even when you read a poem side by side with its ugly duckling cousin, a “prose poem” (whose name is even ugly). Uh, would you mind passing the peanuts?



Help keep the word-of-mouth buzz rolling for Lost Sherpa of Happiness by visiting Amazon for a copy. (And as Amazon likes to say, “Only Three Remaining! Order Now!”)

Prose Poem: Hero in Minotaur’s Clothing?


One poet Robert Hass mentioned as a periodic practitioner of the “prose poem” was Zbigniew Herbert, who offers “an example of the way it appropriates fable.” For today’s discussion purposes, below is a copy of Herbert’s prose poem “The History of the Minotaur” as translated into English by Alissa Valles.

As you read, ask yourself this: Does it look like poetry or prose to you? Is it “poetry” only because it is, like the ugly duckling (read: quacking swan) walking with ducks, that is, a poem only because it is in a book surrounded by other poems?

And this: Is it rife with poetic devices? Does the humor work to its poetic advantage? The snappy ending, maybe?

Me? I have no horse in this race and couldn’t tell you if I did. The good news is, I’m not sure the established poet and professor and winner of the Pulitzer Prize–Mr. Hass–could, either. If ever a man needed his poetic license to get out of a difficult spot, this is it!

The History of the Minotaur

by Zbigniew Herbert

The true history of the prince Minotaur is told in the yet undeciphered script Linear A. He was–despite later rumors–the authentic son of King Minos and Pasiphaë. The little boy was born healthy, but with an abnormally large head–which fortune-tellers read as a sign of his future wisdom. In fact with the years the Minotaur grew into a robust, slightly melancholy idiot. The king decided to give him up to be educated as a priest. But the priests explained that they couldn’t accept the feeble-minded prince, for that might diminish the authority of religion, already undermined by the invention of the wheel.

Minos then brought in the engineer Daedalus, who was fashionable in Greece at the time as the creator of a popular branch of pedagogical architecture. And so the labyrinth arose. Within its system of pathways from elementary to more and more complicated, its variations in levels and rungs of abstraction, it was supposed to train the Minotaur prince in the principles of correct thinking.

So the unhappy prince wandered along the pathways of induction and deduction, prodded by his preceptors, gazing blankly at ideological frescos. He didn’t get them at all.
Having exhausted all his resources, King Minos resolved to get rid of this disgrace to the royal line. He brought in (again from Greece, which was known for its able men) the ace assassin Theseus. And Theseus killed the Minotaur. On this point myth and history agree.

Through the labyrinth–now a useless primer–Theseus makes his way back carrying the big, bloody head of the Minotaur with its goggling eyes, in which for the first time wisdom had begun to sprout–of a kind ordinarily attributed to experience.


There you go! One of the prose poems touted by Mr. Hass himself. Is it my favorite in my much-esteemed Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert 1956-1998? Not hardly, but that matters not and is not pertinent to our exploration of the form.

In our next post, more Robert Hass debating with himself over the stormy marriage of prose and poetry. It’s like reality TV. Only in a book. Tune in tomorrow!