Bucky the Squirrel Teaches The Prose Poem
What exactly is a prose poem? GrubStreet Instructor Cathie Desjardins writes about how a random visit from a squirrel interrupting her class one day served as the perfect illustration of what's at the heart of the prose poem. After all, what better way to demonstrate the true nature of prose poems "leaping nimbly from lofty to commonplace, from practical to absurd, from unlikely to very familiar" than a surprise visit from a squirrel in your office? Join instructor Cathie Desjardins in her upcoming workshop "Prose Poems" starting place January 24th.
I might have foreseen that a squirrel would pop up in my prose poem class, the way Sherlock Holmes could expect his nemesis Moriarty to turn up on the cliff edge. My nemesis dug up bulbs, beheaded my tulips, and nipped my tomatoes. Then it showed up at GrubStreet.
Or its newly virtual version. In the spring of 2020, we were introducing ourselves in little TV-shaped boxes on a Zoom screen. A disorienting switch from being in-person, but at least I knew where to begin: everyone's burning question is always, "What IS a prose poem anyway?"
By now, I have several dozen literary definitions to hold up to the light. My favorite is from Baudelaire, imputed father of the prose poem:
…a poetic prose, musical without rhyme or rhythm, supple and jerky enough…
As a student was reading these words aloud from a shared screen, a disembodied voice proclaimed, "THERE'S A SQUIRREL IN HERE!"
I couldn't see who was talking. And where was "in here?" I had the distinct sensation saying the words "supple and jerky" had caused a squirrel to appear in our virtual unspace.
Pandemonium morphed into a break, and I found out the valiant student Julian had managed to oust it from her apartment and slam the window shut. The squirrel clung tenaciously to the window screen, trying to chew its way through. It had heard the call. It had been summoned.
Once things calmed down, I didn't see the obvious right away: the squirrel was there to show us what a prose poem is. Spirit animal? Totem? Mascot named something like Bucky? I don't know. But I do know I'd been wrestling with the best way to convey the essential flexibility of the prose poem. And what better than Bucky to demonstrate leaping nimbly from lofty to commonplace, from practical to absurd, from unlikely to very familiar?
Because unlikely as it was for Bucky to pop up, he was instantly familiar. (As I write, I'm watching squirrels in my backyard now as they eye the bird feeders.) This combination of unlikely and familiar is at the heart of the prose poem. A deft writer can create something we immediately recognize, no matter how fanciful.
Bucky The Squirrel attempts to enter the room.
The poet who drew me to the form told me that, in his recent book, prose poems allowed him to write about things he hadn't been able to get to in decades of writing poems. Without constraints of meter, stanzas, and line breaks, he tackled everything from bicycle wheelies to infidelity. Here I think of Bucky again, roaming freely among his cached nuts the way prose poems help us excavate the buried memory nuggets we've (sorry) squirreled away.
The prose poem paradox is that once we abandon certain illusions of form, we're left not with disorder but a deeper kind of order. In class, we look at the ways skillful writers create unity in prose poems that move freely in high-low style, Claudine Rankine minutely chronicling relentlessly banal racism, Aimee Nekhukamatathil interweaving casual but keen observations with mind-blowing science, Ross Gay and Brian Doyle giving us bursts of joy as commonplace as laundry detergent pods and just as concentrated.
Their very different prose poems, melanges of the daily and the dramatic, the ordinary and the sublime, all seem to me to embody what Yeats called "the music of what happens." To me, this music has a different lyricism than poetry aspires to, definitely scored more towards the supple and jerky.
Do you hear it around you? It recycles splendidly into prose poems.
Interested in learning more about the prose poems? Join instructor Cathie Desjardins in her upcoming workshop "Prose Poems" starting place January 24th. Learn more and register here.