By Langdon Hammer
March 11, 2014
Since its origins in 19th-century French literature, the prose poem has been a bad child. The one rule it follows breaks the basic rule other poems obey: the prose poem must be written in prose—not in lines, not in verse. Everything else in the prose poem is up for grabs. It’s a type of poem that can take any shape: the essay, manifesto, meditation, diary entry, travelogue, letter, anecdote, parable, prayer, or parody, among other literary types.
Charles Baudelaire didn’t invent the form, but his Le Spleen de Paris (1869) permanently stamped it with his melancholy yet exuberant genius. Life in the metropolis, Baudelaire explained in a preface to the work, inspired his poetic prose, his search for a music fit for the cacophony of the city and the accidental, abrasive, plangent encounters that occur there.
In Baudelaire’s “Loss of Halo,” one angel comes upon another angel in a dive, and he recognizes his colleague even though the second angel has lost his halo in the street. “You should at least report the loss of your halo or post a reward for its recovery,” says the first. But the second is happy to give up the sign of his holiness; now he can behave just as he wishes. Besides, a bad poet may find it and put it on, and wouldn’t that be funny?
The prose poem in Baudelaire is poetry without halo: modern, urban, secular, colloquial, echoing with mockery and a knowing laughter. The form’s lack of lines functions as a disguise, allowing the writer to do what he likes and to write poetry while seeming to write prose.
David Lehman’s translations of these innovative masterpieces capture Baudelaire’s sly, irreverent, experimental stance. They balance formal and at times old-fashioned diction with streetwise idioms, as if to say: yes, Baudelaire’s Spleen poems, composed in French 150 years ago, remain suave, rough-edged, and fresh today.
Lehman, poet, critic, and editor, has long been fascinated with the prose poem. As a Ph.D. student at Columbia in the 1970s, he wrote a thesis on the prose poems of Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, W. H. Auden, and John Ashbery. In 2003, he published an anthology—Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present—that records the history of the prose poem in the United States, where it continues to flourish.
Two of Lehman’s own prose poems accompany his translations. “Carmencita” turns Nietzsche’s views in The Case of Wagner into a homely anecdotal memoir by a supposed friend of the German philosopher. Though on the verge of madness, Lehman’s Nietzsche is comically ordinary, clinking glasses with a banal “Prost!” like any good German. “Mother Died Today” is more tonally complex. It’s hard to know how much to trust Lehman’s speaker. This poem, rather than being a direct statement of personal loss, is made of quoted speech; its texture is impure, halo-free. Yet the date Lehman adds in parenthesis at the end of the poem feels like the “today” in the title. Is this an elegy for the poet’s mother? With that question, honest elegiac feeling rises up, a lyric cry more powerful for having seemed to be merely prose.
Langdon Hammer is the poetry editor for The American Scholar.