So far, I have been avoiding any theoretical discussion of the form itself, choosing rather to highlight the most prominent characteristics of individual authors and suggesting a few general traits shared by various kinds of prose poem.
That discussion would necessarily begin by asking “How to distinguish between prose and prose poetry?” One could answer by conceding that a prose poem puts into effect certain poetic strategies, rhythm being a readily identifiable one, in its unfolding by means of certain elements of prose, like the sentence. Thus a prose poem would never be simply a vehicle for transmitting sense.
The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, in his essay ‘End of the Poem,’ speaks about the existential crisis a poem encounters in its last verse, where the disjunction between the metrical and syntactical series, on which it thrived, threatens to come to an end in “the exact coincidence of sound and sense.”
Agamben construes both enjambment and rhyme as essential conditions for poetry, since both devices, often occurring simultaneously, play on the non-coincidence of sound and sense. In the case that syntax equals metre and sense equals sound, the poem ceases to be. Agamben proposes rhyme as a remedy to this lapse into prose: “It is as if the verse at the end of the poem, which was not to be irreparably ruined in sense, linked itself closely to its rhyme-fellow and, laced in this way, chose to dwell with it in silence.”
Does the prose poem share the poem’s anxiety as it approaches its end? Its independence of enjambment and rhyme partly liberates it from the neurosis poetry undergoes. But the prose poem, like the poem, is an overlapping of sound and sense that must necessarily remain incomplete. As Agamben puts it: “poetry lives only in the tension and difference (and hence also in the virtual interference) between sound and sense, between the semiotic sphere and the semantic sphere.”
And the onus of keeping the overlap incomplete falls most heavily where completion occurs, namely at the ending. Thus, looking closely at the endings of a few prose poems may reveal mechanisms of creating and sustaining the tension required for poetry.
Kafka’s prose poems thrive on the turbulence created by the flow of the two opposing currents of syntax and rationality. The syntactical stringency with which the sentences proceed gradually achieves such antiphony with the irrational content that their very jarring becomes musical.
In the prose poem titled ‘The Wish to be a Red Indian,’ for instance, the setting up of an expectation of regularity, through rhetorical repetition—“until one shed one’s spurs, for there needed no spurs, threw away the reins, for there needed no reins,” —Kafka quietly states that the head and neck of the horse, too, have vanished.
It would have been a very different sentence had it ended with any other phrase, like for instance: “and saw that the horse’s neck and head were already gone when the land before one was smoothly shorn heath.” The quiet, and therefore destabilizing, emphasis on the horse’s head and neck comes naturally due to the position of the phrase within the sentence. It overrides the emphasis given in the content to the heath: “and hardly saw that the land before one was smoothly shorn heath…”
Another instance of Kafka’s syntactical hallucination is seen in this short piece, where he gets away with an equally paradoxical and impossible statement.
“The windless calm on some days, the noise made by those arriving, the way our people come running out of the houses to welcome, flags are put out here and there, people hurry down to the cellar to fetch wine, from a window a rose falls on to the cobbles, nobody has any patience, the boats, instantly gripped by a hundred arms, scrape the beach, the foreign men gaze around them and climb up into the broad daylight of the square.”
A busy, almost erratic, rhythm is maintained amongst the scenes or tableaux by the use of commas in quick succession, until we reach the end. Here, “the boats, instantly gripped by a hundred arms, scrape on the beach, the foreign men gaze around them and climb up into the broad daylight of the square.”
Kafka postpones the surreal shock, which is barely perceptible, till the last word: square. Didn’t the boats just scrape on the beach? This technique reaches its apotheosis in the Trocadéro piece. The parallelism between temperature and a judicial process would have struck us as disturbing and groundless had we come across, say, the last clause of the poem. Although when we read the entire piece, a phrase as strange as “litigation is going on at exactly the same pace, this way and that, lengthwise and across,” becomes almost inevitable and appears to follow from the logical, though irrational, necessity of the piece.