The Eye and the Page



Essay by Ann E Michael





          “On the map it is precise and rectilinear as a chessboard,

          though driving past you would hardly notice it, this boundary

          line or ragged margin…” [1]


That’s how Campbell McGrath describes the prose poem—in a poem by that name (“The Prose Poem”). Actually, he does not stop there; the poem continues for 40 more lines and considerably fleshes out what a prose poem is/can be. Question: does this piece have to be 43 lines long? If the publisher were to change the page margins significantly, would “The Prose Poem” work just as effectively at 47 lines, or 38 lines? What about if the margins were justified instead of ragged on the right (in which case it would not sport a “ragged margin”)? Does the typography of the page—the visual aspect of the poem—have an impact upon how the reader interprets the work? If so, even if the impact is subtle, prose poems may have a good deal in common with concrete poetry, or even with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poems, on the page if not in theory. Another question, then: given today’s technology (anyone with a word-processor is an amateur typographer), is the poet’s decision about the visual set-up of the prose poem a significant part of poetic composition—or is it just decorative, dilettantish, novel and unnecessary?

Brian Clements, the editor of Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics, suggested in an e-mail that if “the typography on the page is recognizable when the poem is in the air, then what you have is verse.” A verse poem’s arrangement on the page acts as a visual framework indicating how the poem should be read, either aloud or silently. The writer of verse poetry, free verse or formal, has to be especially alert to breath and how it relates to rhythm, and must make decisions about the set-up of words on the page that either reinforces or creates tension between the aural and visual aspects of the poem (its lineation, in most cases). Derek Attridge comes to mind as someone who has explored the topics of up and down beats, breath vs. indicated caesura, and the like as relates to verse and to line-breaking; his concerns are decidedly with the structure of the poem “in the air”: vocalization, whether internal or external. [2]

The prose poet, in this age of desktop publishing and internet animation, may encounter similar concerns on the page, onscreen, and “in the air.” Poetry has been represented through the typographic art for several centuries; but until recently, few poets have spent much time considering how typography affects the form of the poem. After all, the printed page seems “merely” physical, inanimate, without the breath, rhythm and music that vivify the poem in performance (even if the reader performs it silently, while reading). The printed page has traditionally been the realm of the editor or designer, not the poet who is more accustomed, perhaps, to confrontations with the blank page. But now that we can, essentially, typeset our work as we compose, poets are becoming more aware of how margins, line spaces, and tabular settings can be indicators in the work and alter the form in which the poem is presented—can animate it further. I think prose poets, in particular, could discover in typography a tool with which to push this flexible form in interesting directions.

In verse, a good poem is more effective with its line breaks intact. Even lacking line breaks, the form will peek out from the justified margins because the rhythm, the rhyme, the breath is imbedded. A verse-poem’s line operates on rhythm (and, when read aloud, breath) foremost, with phrasal pacing as a sort of minor premise. With prose, semantic pacing, and the sentence as a unit, have the upper hand. Pacing and rhythm are dependent upon syllabic stress, word choice, sentence length, punctuation, and line breaks, which act as visual cues. In prose poems, the writer/editor’s choice of margins on the page may also be used as visual cues. Donald Hall’s poem “The Little Town” for example, is set up with justified margins. The first line of each stanza is indented, as paragraphs in prose are. The poem begins, “I walk for a long time. These mountains are soft, and/these valleys. Suddenly the skin of a mountain moves,/and it becomes a valley…” [3] Would the poem change with different margins? “I walk for a long time. These mountains are soft, and these valleys. Suddenly/the skin of a mountain…” Maybe; it depends on whom you ask, because although typographical visual cues do have an impact on readers, the impact is usually subtler than breath-breaks or clear line breaks. Hall’s poem operates on its sentence-based pacing even when the margins are changed; the indented paragraphing cues us that this is a little narrative, and these cues tell the reader something about the poem itself. But the text in this poem is set fairly narrowly between margins; it’s different from reading the story if it were set in, say, a trade paperback-style of typography. The narrower text makes “The Little Town” into a “little story,” which it is.

Perhaps I am overstating the typesetting aspect—I was trained as a typographer and may simply be noticing issues other poets never think about. Certainly there are writers of prose poems who do not take margins or line breaks into account. Max Jacob, an early composer of prose poems, seems to have let his lines fall where they may; (now, we might classify his work as surrealistic flash fiction). The decisions about how to arrange Rimbaud’s prose-texts upon the page were made by Verlaine and the printer of Illuminations, not by the poet himself; but Verlaine had a poet’s sensibility. Once translated into English, do Rimbaud’s or, to use another French prose-poet as an example, Baudelaire’s margins or line-breaks matter? My guess here is probably not. But some writers do alter the prose poem to include purposeful, end-stopped or enjambed, lines as if considering how the margins in print will affect the poem’s rhythm, pace, fluidity or lack thereof; even, how it will be interpreted when read aloud. Justified margins versus ragged ones, centered lines, tabs within body texts, changes in font styles all offer the prose-poet opportunities to influence the form of the prose poem.

Prose poetry has had to battle for over a century to be considered poetry at all, so why further complicate the form with the variables of typography, offer more possibilities to confuse the genre? With confusion comes creativity and enrichment, that’s why. Readers are willing to interact with texts in new ways. For example, Selah Saterstrom’s recent (2004) novel The Pink Institution, which is written in brief, prose-poem-like chapter sections, demonstrates how typography/visuals can have an effect upon the reader. Part 1 of Saterstrom’s book opens with a justified-margin epigraph from the Confederate Ball Program Guide of 1938. Here, the typography establishes that the quote is from a damaged original:

          [ text smear ] the days of the old

          South that it has become likened to the

          [ text smear ] Passion [ text smear ]… [4]

In the pages that follow, which make up the earliest part of Saterstrom’s narrative, the typography of her original text is equally widely-spaced within the established page margins, lending a fractured, disjointed sense to the story—the distinct feeling that something is missing in this family history, that parts are obliterated and can only be guessed at. One end Saterstrom achieves with this technique is pacing. She slows down the reader. Her work is, however, classified as prose; and pacing and phrases are the hallmarks there. The Pink Institution does illustrate, however, that typography (margins, type size, letter-spacing, etc.) exerts influence on the reader. Any advertiser will concur. That is why I posit that typographical choices exert an impact on the line break, even in the prose poem.

In a musical phrase as written in a score, there are bars that tell us where the measure ends; but the phrase may overrun the measure. If we are singers or wind-instrument players, it is not the bar that tells us where to breathe: it is the phrase. Certain phrases offer natural caesuras. With long, syncopated or complex phrases, the breathing places may not be as obvious. Figuring out where to breathe may be part of the challenge of the score. It is also crucial to an excellent performance. A dull performance can result from beautiful notes that are performed without invention, that lack a vivifying sense of breath. The same is true for the verse poem and for the prose poem. But the cues are different. When a poet decides that a poem is operating most effectively in prose form, the writer still has options about its presentation on the page—options that affect how the reader interacts with the piece.

Consciously or not, most writers of good prose poetry are influenced by the long history of the well-considered line break. Decisions about margins, line lengths and line breaks subtly alter the pacing of a piece and thus its inflections and, ultimately, its meaning.

John Hollander’s “Uncommonplaces” turns the usual prose set-up inside out. Instead of each paragraph beginning with an indented line, the paragraph body is indented (typographers used to call this a “hanging indent,” a term ripe for metaphorical interpretation, though not in this poem). Hollander writes:

          It was not that there were only the old ways of going from one

          chamber to another: we had learned to imitate the noble

          walk of those who had built, and dwelt in, the Great Palaces... [5]

Prose poetry has imitated the noble walk of the essayists and fiction writers, and many prose poets have traveled through poetry’s formal rooms and learned, as Hollander goes on to write, that “being confined to the layout was not the point.” The poet’s choice of hanging indents in this piece is remarkably apt: the poem tells a kind of looking-backwards narrative using an inside-out typography.

Will the average (non-typographically-studied) reader make this connection? Probably not. Did Hollander even consider this when choosing a form for the poem? I have not asked, but I speculate that his reasons were not fundamentally typographical. Does the form, however, influence the interpretation of the poem? Yes. Just because our responses to such visual cues in text may be subconscious doesn’t mean they aren’t important. What we perceive in “Uncommonplaces” is a text that reverses our expectations for prose. Suddenly, we are not sure what to expect: ambiguity and curiosity arise, the result of which is an interaction with the poem from the very first glance. This sort of engaging occurs when the so-called poem looks like prose on the page. It occurs when the prose poem is squeezed into too-tight margins (as Russell Edson describes in “Portrait of the Writer as a Fat Man”)—or spread thin (small type in wide margins), or when the text contains gaps, extra letter- or line-spacing, stepped lines, large paragraph indents, sections in a different type font or size—but still maintains a similarity to something familiar. This familiarity tells the reader that he or she is not looking at concrete or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry but at some form of the prose poem. And that’s really what it is: a form, which is what Edson implies here:

We say the how comes into being by virtue of the what. Surely, if the subject matter is fully imagined, its physicalness fully grasped, then the subject matter will predict its form. Nothing can exist without a shape. But form does not exist without substance. The how is merely, or should be, the shape of the what. [6]

Typography should not, and cannot, trump meaning, breath, rhythm, pacing, or any necessary aspect of poetry; but it can be another tool for the writer, and a useful and playful means toward shaping the what. A look through prose poetry anthologies reveals poets who have been consciously experimenting, successfully, with ways typography can illuminate the poem on the page and engage the modern reader. Just a few examples from Sentence 3: Chris Murray, Elizabeth Frost, Milton Kessler, Peter Riley, Gavin Selerie...

The tossed-off definition of a prose poem as “free verse without line breaks” is simplistic because poets make a conscious decision on when to use prose style; hence, it’s a form. Typography, and how it affects the line break or pacing, may not be the most crucial aspect of prose poetry but is a factor that should not be discounted. At the very least, typographical factors can provide more areas for artistic inquiry to poets, more opportunities for shape and visual cues for the reader. McGrath asks, “…do the formal fields end where the valley begins, or does everything that surrounds us emerge from its embrace?” We’ll need to amble through poetry’s valleys and fields as we have ambled through its rooms in search of what makes poetry such an “uncommonplace.”

[1] McGrath, Campbell. “The Prose Poem.” No Boundaries: Prose Poems by 24 American Poets. Ed. Ray Gonzalez. Dorset, VT: Tupelo Press, 2003.

[2] Attridge, Derek and Thomas Carper. Meter and Meaning: An Introduction to Rhythm in Poetry. New York: Routledge, 2003.

[3] Hall, Donald. The Town of Hill. Boston: David R. Godine, 1975. 23.

[4] Saterstrom, Selah. The Pink Institution. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2004. 5.

[5] Hollander, John. “Uncommonplaces.” Claims for Poetry. Ed. Donald Hall. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1982. 178-179.

[6] Edson, Russell. “Portrait of the Writer as a Fat Man.” Claims for Poetry. Ed. Donald Hall. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1982. 101.



435569-1160691-thumbnail.jpgIn addition to essays, Ann E. Michael writes poetry, libretti, and reviews, (which have appeared online, in print, and on Public Radio). She has been a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts poetry fellowship recipient and currently is Writing Coordinator at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. Her previous work has appeared in Natural Bridge, Minimus, Poem, Painted Bride Quarterly, Grasslands Review, Coe Review, Ninth Letter, The Writer's Chronicle and others—as well as in anthologies and online. Her most recent chapbook is The Minor Fauna, Finishing Line Press 2006. Website