No Boundaries: Prose Poems by 24 American Poets
Ed. Ray Gonzalez.
Paperback, 288 pages
Link to Purchase
Reviewed by Ann E. Michael
Over the past 30 years or so, poets, critics and prosodists have dickered over the definition and characteristics of the prose poem—indeed, there’s been considerable ink devoted to whether such a “form” exists at all. Ray Gonzalez does not attempt to sway the skeptics with this anthology; he clearly believes the prose poem is a beautiful, flexible, and legitimate form. In his brief introduction, the editor and poet acknowledges the use of the term “prose poem” as a term that’s been around about a century, cites the wonderful Michael Benedikt anthology of 1976 (I own a copy myself, and it’s worth digging up), and suggests that Simic’s 1990 Pulitzer Prize for a book of prose poems is probably proof enough that prose poems are poems, period. Since I happen to agree with him, this brief review will stick to the poems and writers featured in No Boundaries and what the collection offers the reader rather than devolve into an argument about prose vs. poetry.
No Boundaries was published in 2003, so it is not a brand-new book. It is, however, still available through Tupelo and worthy of attention as a good introduction to the form—it would make a good text for a class—and as inspiration or as a fascinating, thought-provoking read. The 24 poets are featured in alphabetical order, ten poems apiece, a structure that makes sense for those readers who want to examine the poems closely under the special terms of each poet’s voice. And voice is an aspect of these poems that is startlingly obvious as one reads the selections. Nin Andrews could never be mistaken for Morton Marcus, even when her speaker is cultivating orgasms in Petri dishes and his speaker’s father is collecting sneezes on microscope slides and there might be some sort of synthesis in subject or approach between the two. There are echoes of influences among these writers, some more clearly influenced by Max Jacob, others by Simic, others by Bly (Simic and Bly are both represented in this anthology), but I was more struck by the uniqueness of each poet’s strategies, how each wrestles with the prose poem in a different way.
And with varying success, I might add, although personal taste enters into this judgment and even those poets whose work does not resonate with me personally do fit well into the anthology as a whole. Gonzalez, as editor, has successfully conveyed the breadth and caliber of the modern American prose poem in these pages and deserves accolades for his choices and clear editorial sense of purpose. Many of these poems are playful, ironic, funny, even silly and because of this they accomplish something marvelous by pushing past the limits of the deadly-serious that too often pervades received concepts of the poetry canon. Gonzalez’ selection also includes poems that are weird, sad, poignant, dream-like, conversational, speculative. They are, some of them, brilliant. I am particularly taken with Killarney Clary’s “pieces that jammed when forced…” for its rhythmic sentences and disturbing but not fretful tone. The poem is linked by images that are simultaneously brief, specific, and metaphysical:
“The dark crowd shifted and whirred. I put my hand on the stranger’s back because
we walked on ice—no surprise at my touch. Body of falling snow, of cinders, falling.
Body of ashes.”
Another brilliant piece is Campbell McGrath’s classic “The Prose Poem,” which I have long admired and which has always seemed a kind of anti-manifesto, good-natured and imaginative:
“…tell me, if you would, do the formal fields end where the valley begins, or
does everything that surrounds us emerge from its embrace?”
Amy Gerstler’s evocative pieces juxtapose institutions of various kinds (hospitals, schools, religion, laws) with depictions of the physical body in intellectual or emotional spaces. Harryette Mullen’s snazzy pop-culture prose-poem take on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“Dim Lady”) is alliterative, full of music, and hilarious. Gary Young’s tiny prose pieces, and the brief poems that represent Naomi Shihab Nye’s work in No Boundaries, contrast intriguingly with longer poems by Juan Filipe Herrera and George Kalamaras, giving us “the long and short of it” as regards prose poetry’s evident lack of set-length boundaries.
While space keeps me from a careful consideration of each of the fine poets represented in No Boundaries, it’s worth noting that readers who are interested in the development of the prose poem in the USA will find this anthology useful for the purpose of examining influences these writers have had upon one another and upon the “style” or “techniques” of the prose poem. Russell Edson’s and Robert Bly’s employment of the ellipsis, and the use of the em-dash and the stanza space as part of a rhetorical or rhythm-making strategy by many of these writers, are serious considerations of craft. Prose poets use alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, and a wide range of figural speech that are indisputably poetic in nature. The similarities in these techniques from poem to poem do not make the poems themselves seem overly-similar or too-familiar any more than the use of other poetic styles and strategies necessarily result in a non-original, mundane or boring poem of any other form. This fact is one of the revelations of this anthology.
The real reason to read any book of poetry is, of course, for the poems—for what they have to offer to the reader—pleasure and pain, inspiration and dream, comfort, discomfort, sensations and experiences delivered via text on the page. The poets whose work appears in No Boundaries deliver much to satisfy. The luxury of space afforded to each writer—ten pieces in a row—allows the reader to get comfortable with how each poet sounds, among different poems, and in “conversation” with the other writers in the book. Previously undiscovered poets may become new favorites, or starting-points for further reading; I may be wrong, but I think that’s the hallmark of a good anthology: to urge readers to find out more, to read more. The difficulty with a short review of a diverse collection is that it is simpler to look at the effectiveness of the editorial vision than to elaborate on the beauty, originality, imagery and voices displayed resplendently in 240 individual poems by two dozen authors. Ray Gonzalez’ compilation is less an introduction to, and more a sampling that indicates the scope of, prose poetry by US writers in the late 20th century. If you are interested in the form called prose poetry, this anthology is a terrific place to start. And if you are interested in reading startling and intriguing contemporary poems, however critics may pigeonhole them, No Boundaries should be on your reading list as well.