has proven instrumental in popularizing and legitimizing the prose poetry genre in America. Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, 19th-century French poets, originated the prose poem when they challenged exist ing literary conventions related to rhyme, rhythm, and line, choosing instead a structure more malleable and natural. Although in 1848 Edgar Allan Poe produced "Eureka—A Prose Poem," it was the length of a novella. American prose poetry truly begins with Russell Edson. As Edson points out, in 1960s America, "the term prose poetry seemed more related to French toast or French fries" (qtd. in Johnson 30). Now a book of prose poetry has won the Pulitzer Prize (Charles simics The World Doesn't End ), and many writers embrace the form, including Robert BLY and Michael Benedikt. Unquestionably Edson has played an important role in broadening the scope of contemporary American poetry.
Edson was born in 1935. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974. To date Edson has published 15 books and three pamphlets, all written exclusively in the prose poetry format.
In an Edson poem, all is possible and nothing certain, except perhaps the pervading feelings of isolation and alienation that torment his characters. Often Edson provides his own surreal illustrations, complementing his content with humor and poignancy. We may find a woman replacing her husband with a stone, a suitor whose knees crumble as he proposes marriage, toilets swallowing people. However, Edson shows that no matter how bizarre the scenario, it scarcely competes with the lunacy of reality. In "A Machine" (1961), a poem that now seems especially prophetic, a son pleads, "Father, if you would only stare at the machine for a few hours, you would learn to love it, to perhaps devote your life to it." In comparison the father's fears that the machine will nest on their roof and produce "baby machines" are benign.
A more overt social commentary, "The Philosophers" (1985), shows a mother countering her son's proclamation, "I think therefore I am," by pronouncing instead, "I hit therefore I am," ultimately knocking her son unconscious. In Edson's world, philosophy is worthless: A weakling is bullied by an old woman, powerless against the antiintellectualism of the modern, and still violent, world.
Edson's vision of dominating machines, dysfunctional families, and a rational absurdity rests on a form that allows all manner of literary techniques—poetic, rhetorical, syntactical. In a 1999 interview with Edson, Peter Johnson noted that writers still "treat the prose poem like a one-night stand." Edson's response? "If one cannot accept failure and scorn, how is he to make his art? It's like wanting to go to heaven without dying" (Johnson 30-31).
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