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Old glory : An emerging literary form gets its coming-out party in a new anthology of California prose poets.

True To Form

A uniquely California art form takes its place on the literary map with 'Bear Flag Republic,' a new anthology of prose poems.

By Valerie Ross

Prose poetry is a paradox, neither narrative nor verse, yet marked by the lyrical intensity and brevity of one and the expansive dramatic potential of the other. More than just poetry without line breaks, it is almost impossible to define; yet prose poetry is lovingly defended and fervently praised by the poets who work within its supple boundaries for its subversiveness, its "mercurial" and "brazen" qualities, its democratic "resistance to hierarchy" and liberation of poetry from the "tyranny of the line." Prose poetry is a maverick genre. Poets love it because it sets them free.

Tracing its roots through Baudelaire and other 19th-century symbolists, past Shakespeare and back through millennia to the Chinese form of "fu," prose poetry has most recently flourished in the state of California. One poet in the new anthology Bear Flag Republic: Prose Poems and Poetics From California (Greenhouse Review Press, 422 pages; $24.95 paper) calls it "the state of the art of poetic freedom."

Combining a rich assortment of essays on the merits, variations and history of prose poetry with an impressive array of prose poems motivated by appreciation for California's beauty, Bear Flag Republic is that rare anthology that not only educates readers about an enigmatic literary form but also manages to inspire them with the elasticity of the genre.

Mixing essays with poems in the anthology is a tribute to the hybrid form of prose poetry itself, and the essays in Bear Flag Republic range between academic commentaries, personal reflections and eloquent celebrations. Santa Cruz poet Morton Marcus writes, "My greatest discovery in writing the prose poem was its ability to free the imagination, and this freeing has everything to do with my vision as a poet, since I seek the level below consciousness from which to speak." Similarly, Charles Harper Webb comments that writing prose poetry gives him "unlimited license to be imaginative, surreal, obscene, politically incorrect, satirical, silly, seditious, scathing and even sensitive." Bear Flag Republic editor and Santa Cruz literary eminence Gary Young confesses that "poems written in prose encourage--at least in me--a stricter honesty, and as a result the mysteries they reveal seem more genuine and profound."

For Derek McKown, "the challenge of the prose poem is its openness and intimacy," but the playfulness with which he describes the genre--a "blurry border town where any manner of tawdry behavior is not only tolerated but encouraged"--implies that there are also pleasures there to be reaped. For Maxine Chernoff, prose poetry is a "a dreamy exploration of objects and images," and for Robert Bly, it is the pleasure of when "the mind sometimes gracefully allows itself to play with something equally graceful in nature, and the elegance of the prose poem appears in that play." Even so, Bly cautions, prose poetry is "not a genre for beginners."

One of the strengths of Bear Flag Republic, however, is the fact that at least a third of the 90 poets represented in the collection are precisely "beginners," or emerging voices, interspersed with such established poets as Bly, Marcus, Czeslaw Milosz, Christopher Buckley, Philip Levine and Robert Hass.

Combing through the anthology, which is filled with a range of poems on topics as varied as the topography of California itself, one symbolic landscape emerges with particularly aesthetic pliability: the ocean. For Killarney Clary, the vista of beach and ocean summons an immediate and painterly vividness:

"White sand, tall grass. This strip of ocean is a thin bit of deep blue as if the earth bends suddenly out there, beneath the dark storm moving, pushing shadows on the surface of the sea which presses in close and rushes away ..."

For Alta Ifland, the ocean restores a lost sense of self:

"Remember all the exotic dreams about seas and oceans impossible to reach during a life equally impossible to imagine now, a life that was yours and that now belongs to no one's past. Remember and rejoice in this marvel. Light broken in waves, blue sea mixed with green ocean ..."

And for Laurel Ann Bogen, the ocean provides a mythic literary landscape.

"Virginia Woolf stooped pearl grey and dun against the sea. She gathered stone children to her breasts. She tucked them into pockets like secrets. Face like slate, she straightened and walked into the waves."

According to Fred Moramarco, who contributed both an essay and a poem to the collection, "California is a place of 'magical' transformations and the prose poem, with its rapid flow of images from one sentence to the next, is an ideal genre to convey these remarkable metamorphoses." Bear Flag Republic captures that magic, conveying the distinctive beauty, variety and simplicity of both California and prose poetry with intelligence and elegance.

BEAR FLAG REPUBLIC is launched with a reading on Tuesday, May 13, at 7:30pm at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Contributors who will be on hand include Christopher Buckley, Diane Franks, Alta Ifland, Stephen Kessler, Morton Marcus, Joseph Stroud, Robert Sward and Gary Young. (831.423.0900)

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