A Writer’s Notebook: prose poem as personal essay

I have my students writing personal essays this week, but I’m a bit too busy right now to write an essay alongside them.

I can, however, toss a prose poem your way.

New Orleans, 1996

When I wandered the shoreline near Jackson Square the saxophonist called me, lured me to him like a rat to a piper, only I was the pied one and the musician a denizen of the river. I could see the notes in the air, that ribbon of clef waving like a flag. I thought the instrument a clarinet, no idea what a treble sax was but no idea a clarinet could sound like that.

After I’d dropped a silent five in his porkpie hat, I found myself on Decatur Street. Not brave enough to look uncool in the Café du Monde, I slipped into Jimmy Buffet’s chain bar, sat alone along a wall to eat shrimp salad and drink Texas beer. A glassless window opened into the dive bar next door, the semicircular frame a glimpse onto the small stage there. A man in a flowery camp shirt and a straw hat, his skin dark as black beans, hung his heavy head over the worn, warm face of his steel guitar and picked the strings with his teeth. When I applauded, no one turned. I got my check. I was always just this side of the wall.

I don’t know why, but for some reason, there is still some question as to what a prose poem is. Plenty of people understand the form, and if you think about it even a little bit, the definition should be self-evident. I think some people get hung up on division and classification — they want prose to be prose and poetry to be poetry — but these are probably the same people who think prose is boring and poetry should always rhyme.

How to actually write a prose poem, on the other hand, is a very good question indeed.

This is not a good example of one. In fact, I’m a notoriously awful poet, and I’m not the greatest essayist either. But for some reason, that’s precisely how I think about some prose poems: as tiny little personal essays that rely on heavy mood or scene or language but not so much on character or story. The content is essentially essay-like, but the style and the brevity is poetic.

This prose poem, however, emerged for the worst possible reason: I wanted to dabble in a personal essay alongside my students but didn’t have much time to dig deep for content, so I was stuck thinking only of short scenes. (The scenes here, by the way, are true scenes, from a road trip I took to New Orleans during college.) They should be meaningful scenes, I told myself, but still, I wasn’t going to spend much time developing a story. So, go for brevity and style, compress whatever meaning I was after into as tight a space as possible. Write an essay that feels like a poem.

Except compressing content into poetic prose takes at least as much time as developing ideas, and if I didn’t have time to develop ideas, I certainly wouldn’t have time for refining the language. Which is why this isn’t great.

But hey. It’s a Notebook entry. It’s supposed to be rough.

Want to learn more about prose poems? There’s a pretty good discussion of the form at Dragoncave. Ironically, it’s not a very concise discussion, but it is pretty cool, and it’ll get the ball rolling.

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