The first Russell Edson prose poem I ever read was “Counting Sheep.” A rumpled photocopy was making the rounds of my grad program like some sort of hallucinogenic bean. The poem begins: “A scientist has a test tube full of sheep. He wonders if he should try to shrink a pasture for them. // They are like grains of rice.” The poem was written at the same grade-level as USA Today, but it took the top of my head off per Emily Dickinson’s dictum—it moved me as much as any so-called real, immortal art. And, to my amazement, the lines were free from the self-congratulation that Wallace Stevens warned against when he wrote Be thou the voice, not you. What? You could do that?
Updike has called the voice of the late American fiction-writer William Maxwell “one of the wisest in American literature, as well as one of the kindest.” Although Maxwell’s realistic stories and novels share little with the nightmares and dream-visions of Edson’s prose poems, Maxwell’s kindness, a gentle welcoming to the world of his art, is a quality Russell Edson, the writer, shares. And gentleness is a trait seldom found in antirealistic work—work which, in its worst forms, sets up stumbling blocks in front of sense to create the semblance of difficulty, and makes the reader into a befuddled detective. Edson has said himself that his work strives to be something “having no more pretension than a child’s primer. Which may,” he adds, “be its own pretension.”
Edson was born in Connecticut in 1935 and lives there unpretentiously with his wife, Frances. Since 1960, he has published eleven collections of prose poems, a collection of plays, two novels, and countless chapbooks. Many of these are out of print and hard to find even from the most reliable rare-book vendors. The Tunnel: Selected Poems, published in Oberlin College Press’s Field Poetry Series in 1994, remains the most accessible conduit to poems from Edson’s earlier collections, such as The Clam Theater and The Childhood of an Equestrian, but twenty-odd poems from each collection are not enough to describe the arcs of the individual books. The rights to Edson’s out-of-print collections need to be purchased, and soon, by a single publisher who pledges to put them back into print for a good long while.
Edson’s voice is unmistakable, and yet, in his historic 1999 interview with Peter Johnson, editor of the unfortunately defunct journal The Prose Poem: An International Journal, he says: “[A]nybody could write like Edson if they wanted to. I find myself doing it all the time.” What is it to write like Edson? You need to describe impossible landscapes and situations using simple, precise language and a reasoning tone. You need to be able to describe a man marrying a shoe, a woman serving ape to her husband, and a man who convinces his parents he has become a tree but cannot convince them he was lying. Surrealism, right? Well, not exactly. In the same interview, Edson quips: “Why should we have to be surrealists? Breton didn’t invent our imaginations.”
Edson called his first published books “fables” and seems to have little interest in categorizing or theorizing about his work’s generic classification. As for theorizing, I am reminded of his droll metaphor for the technique of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, those belonging to a movement born in California in the 1970s and known for its interest in examining the structures and codes of language, society, and politics. Edson, not one to share their theorizing impulse, suggests they are “like painters who, instead of painting, spend their days smelling their brushes and easels thinking that a new age is about to dawn.” He scoffs also at the terms sudden fiction and micro-fiction, calling them “even more artificial sounding than the term prose poem.” So what does the man write?
Prose poetry—whatever it is, it’s fashionable. There exist several recent anthologies, journals, and critical studies dedicated to the form, although Edson balked even at that term—“form”—in his 1976 essay “The Prose Poem in America,” published in Parnassus: “I hesitate to use the word form when speaking of prose poems, because for all the interesting poets who have written them, the prose poem has yet to yield up a method.” In his introductory essay to this year’s Great American Prose Poems, David Lehman writes, “As soon as you admit the possibility that verse is an adjunct of poetry and not an indispensable quality, the prose poem ceases to be a contradiction in terms. Verse and prose are the real antonyms….”
Prose (without the poetry) is familiar territory. It is, in the end, much like pornography: we know it when we see it. While conventional prose is not exactly required to “make sense” in the sense of total semantic transparency, we do expect prose to yield sense, to be semantically well behaved. Sentences, paragraphs, and other prose ingredients, not to mention the parts of speech, behave according to a standardized set of rules. These rules ensure our making sense of any piece of prose, assuming our ability to make sense of prose in general.
Although a linear accumulation of meaning is not necessarily required of prose as we read from beginning to end, we expect prose to “read” logically. The techniques of flashback and in medias res assume the reader’s ability to understand prose forms other than those that unfold from beginning to end (or from exposition to conclusion) in that order. But even these techniques, while reorganizing readers’ linear progression from ignorance to knowledge, are founded on an implicit background narrative that makes sequential, logical “sense.” We assume a gradual accumulation of sense when we read prose. We assume explicable sense. At barest minimum, we assume the prose text to have a subject and for that subject to be identifiable. In reading prose, we anticipate the experience of moving from a position of lesser understanding to a position of greater understanding—if not of the subject qua subject, then at least of the way the text introduces and explains that subject.
Prose poems, undecodable by the conventional logic of prose, deliberately fail to meet our expectations of prose. The disjunction between prose and prose poetry arises from prose poems’ saying too much, saying not enough, or saying the wrong thing altogether to succeed as conventional prose. In prose poetry the prose form does not necessarily give rise to a linear accumulation of meaning. While coopting prose’s verbal structures, prose poems imitate prose incompletely or incorrectly. They promise prose but botch the delivery. Instead of a gradual accumulation of meaning, they offer an aggregation of meaning. In other words, different discursive threads may run alongside one another in the text of a prose poem, beginning and ending and connecting in unconventional places, or failing to connect altogether.
Thus Edson’s prose poems fail to become prose by their moments of inappropriately timed verbal restraint or understatement or omission, their moments of inappropriately timed loquacity or overstatement or overwriting, their moments of conventionally illogical or incorrect reasoning, and the ways in which they fail to uphold prose’s tacit promise to accumulate sense. These techniques encompass the ways in which prose poems fail at being prose—and, thus, succeed at being poems. In general, Edson’s poems yield aggregate sense rather than accumulated sense. In other words, they need not begin at a position of mystery or obscurity and gradually yield sense, but might vacillate between sense and obscurity as the poem unfolds. Thus, the physical end of the prose poem need not be the physical locus of most sense, just as the physical beginning need not be the locus of most obscurity. Prose poems are antiprosaic prose.
This classification, however, doesn’t mean total freedom on the part of the author—there still have to be some rules. Edson has criticized those who fall back on Breton’s “automatic writing” as harboring “the delusion that anything goes. Well, it doesn’t.” If it did, Edson would have written more books. Though accessible, his craft is not easy to execute. As he says to Johnson:
A piece of writing must not only have the logic of language, but the logic of composition. Automatic writing doesn’t begin anyplace, and doesn’t end anyplace. It’s like a digestive system without a defined mouth or an asshole…. [My work] is not automatic writing. It’s looking for the shape of thought more than the particulars of the little narrative…. My pieces, when they work, though full of odd happenings, win the argument against disorder through the logic of language and a compositional wholeness. So my ideal prose poem is a small, complete work, utterly logical within its own madness. This is different than surrealism, which usually takes the commonplace and makes it strange, and leaves it there.
A close reading of an Edson prose poem will help show how the poems work. “The Reason Why the Closet-Man Is Never Sad,” the title poem from Edson’s 1977 collection, exhibits many of the properties of antiprosaic prose. While it doesn’t use a standard essay form, it does employ what appears to be a straightforward question-answer format. This poem’s failure to make linear sense stems from the disjunctions between its questions and its answers. Specifically, the piece dodges and responds to questions without supplying the information that would constitute a conventionally sensible answer.
THE REASON WHY THE
CLOSET-MAN IS NEVER SAD
This is the house of the closet-man. There are no rooms, just hallways and closets.
Things happen in rooms. He does not like things to happen.
… Closets, you take things out of closets, you put things into closets, and nothing happens…
Why do you have such a strange house?
I am the closet-man, I am either going or coming, and I am never sad.
But why do you have such a strange house?
I am never sad…
The title of the piece suggests that what follows in the text will supply a reasonable explanation for the closet-man’s lack of sadness. But what does follow is only a tautology of dodges—a series of failures at making sense of both its questions and its answers. It is possible that the body of the poem, stripped of its title, could exist as nonpoetic prose—it could be the transcript of an interview with a madman, for example. But the title together with the piece, if presented as nonpoetic, “regular” prose, simply cannot be reconciled with prose’s accepted rules. And Edson has said at least once that pretending insanity is insulting to the clinically insane.
In addition to setting up a logical disjunction between the title and the body, this piece fails to create even an aggregation of sense in its actual text. In the line describing the closet-man’s house, “There are no rooms, just hallways and closets.” With the speaker’s gratuitous or willfully false attempt to be helpful, this poem says too much. This line explicates the wrong part of the mystery introduced in the first sentence. The more pressing mystery—namely, the identity of the closet-man—is left unsolved. The mystery of the house’s floor plan is only incidental.
On the other hand, the line “he does not like things to happen” fails to say enough. The explanation for the structure of the closet-man’s house is not exactly illogical, but the explanation’s brevity gives the prose piece an air of mystery; in conventional prose, mystery should not envelop the subject of sadness in a house of closets.
This prose poem’s illogical reason is what makes its prose form most glaringly unconventional. “I am the closet-man, I am either going or coming, and I am never sad,” the speaker says. Unless the sentences immediately following offer a clear cause-effect relation between the closet-man’s living in “such a strange house” and being sad, this so-called reasoning does not belong in a piece of conventional prose. As if to underscore the disjunction in the piece’s logical schema, the narrator and the closet-man repeat their nonexplanation, the speaker asking again, “But why do you have such a strange house?” and the closet-man again responding “I am never sad….” This repetition is wholly alien to the linear progression we find in conventional prose essays.
What matters about this poem, and about Edson’s prose poems in general, is that, by appearing in the form of prose, they misportray their contents, which are not conventionally prosaic. As for the apparent illogic, Edson describes his prose poems as “looking for the shape of thought more than the particular of the little narrative…. This means I cannot afford to violate the logic of the prose. My pieces, when they work, though full of odd happenings, win the argument against disorder through the logic of language and a compositional wholeness.” The closet-man’s poem is indeed logical and orderly on the surface—questions are asked and then responded to—but on a conceptual level, the poem sails right off the tarmac and into a world of “odd happenings.” Edson is the only poet who writes from this particular world. He invented it.
A particularly Edsonian technique is his unusually thoughtful use of the articles, a, an, and the. As he says to Peter Johnson:
This Russell Edson, as part of his baggage, values the articles of speech as the most beautiful parts of the language. He counts three, but there may be more. He’s still looking. Though he may favor the indefinite ones, he loves them all, the way they give thingness to the world. He would, if it were possible, write with only these three beautiful words. But without a proper disciplining what can one do with only three words? This is why he’s in constant search for other English articles.
Many of Edson’s titles are “The” something-or-other. It should also be said that many of the rest are “A” or “An” something-or-other. But why, to select a few titles from his most recent full-length collection, The Tormented Mirror (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001), does he include “The Secret Graveyard,” “A Letter From Home,” and “An Old Woman’s Children” (emphases mine)? In “The Academic Sigh,” some students stretch “a professor” on a medieval torture rack. In “The Passion,” “the butcher runs out of meat.” Since there are scarcely any details in the poems—were they plays, the prop lists would consist of three or four items apiece, with few exceptions—each word, down to the articles, is essential and appears quite unadorned, wrought and attended to with rigor. The uniqueness of “the” is offset by the unspecified “a” or “an,” and by Edson’s careful use of three tiny words, the world is rendered more mysterious, with no way for readers to understand why, or even whether, there exists one or more than one of anything.
Edson writes as if he were a child or foreign speaker, inventing new images and ideas from simple, familiar words, but the result, far from being easy nonsense, brings about a new kind of sense. I know what sheep are; I know what a scientist is and what a test tube is, and although I’ve never read the sentence “A scientist has a test tube full of sheep” before, I can accept the image as a possibility in some world. Although my imagination is challenged with every piece, reading Edson is not an intellectual activity. Edson says that prose poems do “have that easy-to-write look”—you don’t even have to rhyme, lineate, count syllables, or write more than fifty words. They’re easy to fake.
Edson, though, is no faker. How to tell: he salutes the possibility of mystery while strictly adhering to precise communication, refusing to lapse into vague or lazy verbiage. In “A Man with a Tree on His Head” (from 1969’s What a Man Can See, which Johnson suggests anticipated the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement), “a man had been married to a woman’s high-heeled shoe for seven years.” No further explanation. “If he heard a street noise he heard a street noise.”
I can accept that. “If he heard a cow moo he heard a cow moo and that settled it, it was not a dog barking. Or was it. Or a dog learning to speak cow. Or a cow pretending to be a dog speaking cow—And something very much to think about.” Yes. Though the thoughts themselves are probably not based in strict scientific fact, the speaker’s thought process is logical. The poem ends: “The shoe asked him to leave the house and he did so and snuck back through a window and watched the shoe going to the bathroom.” Not an idea I’ve heretofore been aware of—that a man can sneak back through a window and watch a shoe, the shoe to whom he is married, going to the bathroom—but I can accept the possibility as logical if I let go the assumption that shoes do not have digestive systems and the assumption of the illegality of intermarriage between men and shoes. The purpose of the poem, as I understand it, is not to alert the reader to the specific possibility of shoes that defecate and men who love them, but to alert the reader that semantic jumps are possible and that nonsense can proceed logically.
The subject matter of the individual poems is at least as compelling as the poems’ semantic project: an exploration of the possibility of logical nonsense. Some first lines, selected at random:
Some coffee had gotten on a man’s ape. The man said, animal did you get on my coffee? [from “Ape and Coffee”]
I had charge of an insane asylum, as I was insane. [from “Fire Is Not a Nice Guest”]
A man stumbled on some rat droppings. [from “The Rat’s Tight Schedule”]
You haven’t finished your ape, said mother to father, who had monkey hair and blood on his whiskers. [from “Ape”]
A piano had made a huge manure. Its handler hoped the lady of the house wouldn’t notice. [from “Baby Pianos”]
My parents always kept an old man in the rafters of the house. It brings good luck that an old man is perched in the dark against the roof. [from “The Head Bumping in the Dark”]
There was a man who wanted to buy an old man in an antiques shop: How much for that old man? [from “The Antiques Shop”]
Lots of defecation, lots of procreation: Anally and genitally fixated, quoth the psychiatrist. Lots of animals, particularly monkeys: Incomplete socialization, quoth his associate. And let’s not forget: lots of old men and lots of death. But these elements aren’t the entire case study. I admit I am fascinated by all of this unconventional shitting and fucking, and by the hideously pathological family relationships that recur in different permutations throughout Edson’s work. On one hand, it’s shocking to find so much potty humor in a collection published by a university press. But far more compelling than the initial potty-shock is the weird invention of its content: an old woman offering her shoe to a man so that he may fertilize it, or a piano taking a giant dump.
One of Edson’s particular masteries is his ability to depict miscommunication in all its wrenching poignancy. An example:
There was a man who found two leaves and came indoors holding them out saying to his parents that he was a tree.
To which they said then go into the yard and do not grow in the living-room as your roots may ruin the carpet.
He said I was fooling I am not a tree and he dropped his leaves.
But his parents said look it is fall.
The man may be delusional. The man may be joyful. The man may be desperate. The parents may be rejoicing in the beauty of their son’s invention. The parents may be trying their best to keep up with the speed of their son’s invention and not quite succeeding. The parents may think their son is trying to manipulate them and turn the tables on him cruelly. Not such a narrow range of possibilities suggested by seventy-odd words.
In his essay “Portrait of the Writer as a Fat Man: Some Subjective Ideas of Notions on the Care and Feeding of Prose Poems” (1975), Edson writes:
How I hate little constipated lines that are afraid to be anything but correct, without an ounce of humor, that gaiety that death teaches!
What we want is a poetry of miracles—minus the “I” of ecstasy!
And we wish above all to be thought of as “beneath contempt” by the pompous, those who have stood their shadows over the more talented.
How I despise the celebrity poet!
But how I want Edson to be a celebrity—the right kind, of course. In my dream he walks through the cities demolishing fussy little journals and their attendant contests and reading series with effortless swipes of his pen. And then drives away in a car made of frightening jokes, lost animals, and poetry.