Saturday, July 10, 2010

Prose Poems and Mumbleberry Pies

This past Wednesday, my wife and I went to the reading and performance at the Hill-Stead Museum’s Sunken Garden Poetry and Music Festival in Farmington, Connecticut. It was a hot evening at the end of a hot day and the musical group CONCORA started things off with a collection of “summer music,” broadly interpreted: toward the end, they did an operatic rendition of Donna Summers’ Hot Stuff. It was fascinatingly different, reminding me of the time I heard Wooly Bully sung in Greek.

After the music, three featured poets read: the New York State Poet Laureate, Jean Valentine, and the first and second-place prize winners in the 2010 Sunken Garden Poetry Prize competition, Ginny Lowe Connors from West Hartford, Connecticut, and Kate Lebo from Seattle. Because it so directly relates to the theme of this blog – and because it is a delightful collection – this post is about Kate Lebo’s chapbook, A Commonplace Book of Pie. This short little book includes 10 prose poems about pie, a few relevant quotes (ranging from Jonathan Swift to Carl Sagan), four pie or piecrust recipes, and a small collection of questions and comments (e.g., “What is your favorite pie? Circle all that apply,” followed by 33 alphabetically ordered answers ranging from “apple” to “vanilla cream,” with some unusual entries in between, like avocado, Hoosier, and rhubarb custard). The author also maintains a food-related blog, Good Egg (, where she offers her thoughts on life, good cooking, and a lot more pie recipes (there’s even one for “mumbleberry pie”).

The fact that her chapbook consists entirely of prose poems invites a brief discussion of the form: what exactly is a prose poem? As the name implies, it is essentially a very “prosey” poetic form, but to give a more satisfactory answer I need to digress briefly on the larger question of what exactly a poem is. Many of us were introduced to poetry in terms of traditional verse forms like the sonnet, which had a fairly precise definition: a sonnet was a 14 line form, with a specified rhythm (e.g., iambic pentameter), and a specified rhyme scheme (e.g., the end of the first line rhymed with the end of the third line, etc.). Then, at some point, many of us encountered the more vaguely defined world of “free verse” poetry: lines no longer had to rhyme, neither the number of lines nor the number of syllables per line were fixed, and indeed, most of the “rules” we came to think of as defining poetry were relaxed to the point that it became much harder to know exactly what a poem was. (This has even happened with sonnets: in William Barnstone’s The Secret Reader – a collection of 501 sonnets – he includes many that adhere to the traditional rules, but also a number that violate some rules while retaining others. A particularly interesting example is “Talking with Ink,” consisting of 14 lines with a classical rhyme scheme, but each line has only two syllables; another unusual example is “Gospel of Desire,” which also has 14 lines and adheres to a classical rhyme scheme, but with a regularly varying number of syllables per line.) A key feature that distinguishes both free verse and formal poetry from prose is that poetry is organized by lines. In their entry on “poetry,” the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton University Press, 1993) notes:

“What most readers understand as ‘poetry’ was, up until 1850, set in lines which were metrical, and even the several forms of vers libre and free verse produced since 1850 have been built largely on one or another concept of the line.”

The key feature of the prose poem is the abandonment of lines, typically resulting in text organized into one or a few paragraphs. In their entry on the prose poem, the Princeton Encyclopedia observes that:

“Its principal characteristics are those that would insure unity even in brevity and poetic quality even without the line breaks of free verse: high patterning, rhythmic and figural repetition, sustained intensity, and compactness.”

The recent collection, No Boundaries, published by Tupelo Press in 2003, provides a nice illustration of the range of the prose poem’s structural and thematic possibilities. Edited by Ray Gonzales, the collection includes ten poems each from 24 contemporary American poets; among these contributors are Robert Bly and Russell Edson, both mentioned in the Princeton Encyclopedia’s entry on the prose poem, and Charles Simic, whose prose poem collection, The World Doesn’t End, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1990. Simic’s collection by itself provides an extremely illuminating and entertaining view of the possibilities inherent in the form, with examples ranging from a single sentence about “the Great God of Theory” to a short vignette about a grandfather’s wordless, jealous feud with Sigmund Freud over a pair of shoes in a store window. Probably my favorite one from the collection begins with the following sentence:

“Margaret was copying a recipe for ‘saints roasted with onions’ from an old cookbook.”

Each of Kate Lebo’s prose poems takes a specific type of pie for its title, and all meet the Princeton Encyclopedia’s “sustained intensity and compactness” criteria cited above: none is longer than two paragraphs, and each one presents a unique view of the selected pie and/or its fans, abounding with quirky tidbits and commentary. One of my favorites is the “Lemon Meringue” poem, which gives a highly dubious history of the pie involving nuns in Portland, Oregon and the boxer Muhammad Ali. Lebo also makes excellent use of traditional poetic aural devices like alliteration, assonance, and consonance, as in this sentence from “Pumpkin Pie:”

“It could be hollowed and hallowed and filled with soup and served in a bistro to people who do not smash pumpkins.”

Another great example, from “Apple Pie,” is the following sequence about apple seeds, “carried afar in the bellies of birds and bears and other four-legged, fruit-eating animals …”

All in all, A Commonplace Book of Pie is a very enjoyable little literary snack. The only problem is that it has left me craving a Hoosier pie. More about that later.

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely and well written blog about the prose poem! Thanks so much for your kind words about A Commonplace Book of Pie. I'm glad they met the requirements I intended them to meet--which was, first and foremost, to make you hungry.

    Like I said at the Sunken Garden reading, I'm taking requests for prose pies. Hoosier pie will be up next!