The Canadian prose poem

Notes toward an essay I haven’t quite written

a fragment of our poetry shelf
a fragment of our poetry shelf

A few years ago, reading through issues of the now-defunct Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics started me thinking about the prose poem in terms of difference between Canada and the United States. As much overlap as our two countries have, the evolution of the nebulously-termed “prose poetry” has been different, and yet, at least on this side of the border, the form hasn’t been (for what I’ve been able to find) much explored in terms of possibility, genealogy and influence. Back in May 2012, as a prelude to composing a possible essay to explore the subject, I sent out an email to a variety of individuals, and even a couple of list-serves, seeking information:

For the sake of my own interest, and to perhaps answer my own questions on the subject, I’m working on an essay on the Canadian prose poem (as opposed to the American prose poem, which appears to have a well-known tradition and trajectory). I’m wondering if anyone out there is aware of essays, reviews, interview and/or other works that might help me track this elusive Canadian beast? How did we get to where we are now?

I’m thinking of contemporary writers working with the prose-poem and/or prose-line such as Meredith Quartermain, Sina Queyras, Sylvia Legris, Lisa Robertson, Daphne Marlatt and Rob Budde. Is this a matter of 1960s-era French-Canadian influence, translations of Nicole Brossard, for example?

Vancouver poet Meredith Quartermain responded with “My interest in the prose poem comes mainly from Charles Baudelaire, Robert Walser, Francis Ponge, and Fernando Pessoa. And lately I’ve been completely intrigued by WG Sebald.” Winnipeg poet Jonathan Ball wrote:

I cannot say I know of much critical work on the subject. But I have been working primarily in the prose poem/line myself. With Clockfire the big influence was Calvino and if my influences are typical at all, they would include experimental novels more than other poems. […] I know also that McLuhan’s experimental prose-texts, like Counterblast, were big influences on my prose line in Ex Machina, and I suspect that they have had wider influence as well. I’m planning an essay on that particular topic, but more narrowly I am willing to bet that McLuhan’s maxims have been prose poem influences.

Admittedly, so many of these trajectories are nebulous, and influence isn’t always obvious. One can track certain works, such as Jack Spicer’s Billy the Kid (1958) as a likely influence on Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left-Handed Poems (1970), which was a major influence on Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley’s wild and expansive Bloody Jack (1984), all of which utilized variations on narrative and the prose poem, among other structures. For the prose poem, I had been hoping to at least get some kind of shape to the idea. What were the influences of contemporary practitioners, and were there any common threads, writers, books or ideas? Elusive or mythical, I haven’t yet been able to determine, although I did attempt to explore some of the questions in an essay I wrote [posted here] responding to Crosscut Universe: Writing on Writing from France (2000), an anthology of poetry and poetics by contemporary French writers translated and edited by Norma Cole.

Prompted by my query, some pointed me to The Lyric Paragraph, others to Phyllis Webb, to Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Lady’s Man (1978) or David W. McFadden’s Gypsy Guitar (1987). There are plenty of examples, both current and historic, I could point to as well, further to the one I included in my original call—Nicole Markotić, Alex Leslie, Glen Downie, Phil Hall, Margaret Christakos, Louis Dudek, Ken Norris, bpNichol, John Thompson, Michael Redhill, Claire Harris, Patrick Lane, Libby Scheier, Christopher Dewdney, Robert Kroetsch, Sharon Harris, George Bowering, Fred Wah, Michael Kenyon, Stephen Cain and Jay MillAr—but I have yet to really make sense of the shape and trajectory of the form (apparently Markotić wrote her thesis on the prose poem, a text I’d love to get my hands upon). It has been curious as to the extent that writing from other languages might have affected our English-language consideration of the prose poem, both in the United States and Canada, yet for whatever reason, the argument of the prose poem appears to have taken a far stronger hold in the United States. I’ve heard talk of such a thing as the “American prose poem,” not once having heard if we even have our own version. Perhaps it is simply that the prevalence of the metaphor-driven lyric narrative has kept such conversations of the prose to a minimum, and the pervasiveness and possible distinctivenessess of the Canadian form simply haven’t yet been tracked. There is so much more work to be done.