The best prose poems take some of the characteristics of prose, and some of the characteristics of poetry, and do something beyond the reach of eitherby Charlotte Runcie / January 30, 2019 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
There is no single perfect way to write about the here and now, but writers should always be trying to find it. It’s the major question facing poets, authors and journalists: how can we capture things as they really are?
One answer is by using the right form. The poetry critic and academic Jeremy Noel-Tod has edited a new Penguin anthology of a relatively young form of writing—the prose poem. Noel-Tod argues persuasively that the prose poem is “the defining poetic invention of modernity.” “In an age of mass literacy,” he says, “our daily lives are enmeshed in networks of sentences and paragraphs as extensive as any urban grid. The prose poem drives the reading mind beyond the city limits.”
There has been an uptick in the number of prose poems being published in the last 20 years, which leads Noel-Tod to describe them in his introduction as “suddenly everywhere.” Your mileage may vary on the “everywhere,” depending on how many poetry magazines you read, but this book demonstrates that prose poems have been explored seriously by poets of every stripe over the last century and a half, beginning with the French writer Aloysius Bertrand in 1842 and going all the way up to the Kurdish-Syrian poet Golan Haji in 2017. (Given the form’s relative newness, the anthology starts with the most modern poems and then works backwards.) The modes that a prose poem seems to do best, at least the ones included here, are transgressive in spirit: surrealism, dissent, ambivalence, eroticism and horror.
The question of what a prose poem actually is, given that the term sounds like a contradiction, is one that Noel-Tod attempts to answer in his introduction. It is hard to explain. He flutters around the issue before sinking his teeth into a lean definition: it is “a poem without line breaks.” To elaborate crudely, a prose poem is a piece of text that looks like prose but feels like a poem. It uses clauses, sentences and paragraphs as building blocks where verse poetry might instead use lines, metre or rhyme.
More vibrant definitions of prose and poetry are cited by Noel-Tod. “If prose is a house, poetry is a man on fire running quite fast through it,” according to Anne Carson. Jorge Luis Borges wrote: “a passage read as though addressed to reason is prose; read as though addressed to the imagination, it might be poetry.” That leaves it up to the reader to decide what is prose, what is poetry, or what is both.
Noel-Tod may define a prose poem as a poem without line breaks, but clearly prose poems do have line breaks, otherwise the book they’re printed in would be wider than your house. Decisions over where the line breaks fall have just been left to a typesetter rather than chosen by the poet. Robert Frost wrote in “The Figure a Poem Makes” that “like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” Poets are always worried about their own relevance, about the point of poetry and its limitations, and prose poems self-consciously confront the limits of poetry.
The editor pre-empts simplistic critical interpretations of prose poems as “boundary-breaking” by quoting David Lehman’s introduction to his 2003 Great American Prose Poems anthology, where he claimed it was inevitable that critics would struggle to define the form properly and so would merely note “approvingly… that the prose poem blurs boundaries.” I don’t think that these prose poems necessarily blur boundaries, but they do obviously make a point of searching for where the definable limits of poetry might be before stepping deliberately over them.
Perhaps prose poetry doesn’t need to blur any boundaries, because the rest of the world is already doing that. The political maxim is “campaign in poetry, govern in prose,” but as the US president holds hot-blooded rallies and Downing Street promises a Brexit that’s “Red, White and Blue,” campaigning and governing now look indistinguishable in poor light. And when news is fake, jobs are zero hours, gender is fluid and the internet makes us all citizens of the world, traditional parameters of all kinds are crumbling. A writing style that thinks about boundaries is useful for working out what the hell is going on.
“Good prose is like a windowpane,” said Orwell. Poems are like windows too: a means of letting in light, and a way of seeing. But what’s the defining feature of a window? Is it the glass and the frame that holds it in place? Or is it the view?
“What we can see in the sunlight is always less interesting than what goes on behind the panes of a window,” wrote Charles Baudelaire in “Windows” (1869), translated from the French by Arthur Symons. Baudelaire’s prose poem, among the earliest chronologically in the anthology, considers elegantly how a frame can make a scene profound.
Baudelaire’s piece imagines the life of a woman “who never goes out. Out of her face, out of her dress, out of her attitude, out of nothing almost, I have made up the woman’s story, and sometimes I say it over to myself with tears.” This is a poem about truth and fiction, and the testing of invisible boundaries. Though you can’t see a windowpane when you look through it, it’s still there. Even though, in prose poems, you can’t always see the boundaries of form, Baudelaire is thinking about where they are.
Baudelaire suggests that a chosen view, and the person looking at it, are what matter. But there is always more unseen beyond the glass. How much does writing let us see, and touch?
The best prose poems take some of the characteristics of prose, and some of the characteristics of poetry, and combine them to do something beyond the reach of either. They can blend the surreal with the matter-of-fact, mix experimental language choices with plain speaking, and create their own new special effects. They are good at being shocking. Sex and horror both work very well here—often much more grippingly than in verse poetry—because if dirt is matter out of place then poetry that splurges beyond conventional confines can be real filth.
Seamus Heaney’s “Fiddleheads” (2006), about edible ferns, says the erotic “belonged in poetry.” Heaney writes the ferns as “frilled, infolded, tenderised, in a little steaming basket, just for you.” Though he’s talking about food in prose, the frisson of poetry here is the overspilling intimacy that gives everything an erotic charge, turning it into writing that practically places a hand on your thigh. Ferns also make an intimate and surprising appearance in Thylias Moss’s “An Anointing” (1991): “Me and Molly have wiped each other’s asses with ferns… Me and Molly lick the dew off the morning grasses but taste no honey till we lick each other’s tongues.”
And then there’s horror. Emily Berry’s “Some Fears” (2013) is a long list of phobias, including “fear of non-specific impact leading to the vertical ejection of the spine from the body.” It concludes: “fear of fear; fear of help. Fear of asking for, receiving, refusing, giving, or being denied help.” Building blocks of clauses mount into terror, like screaming in a dream and no one listening.
More viscerally horrifying are the spare sentences of Patricia Lockwood’s devastating, unforgettable “The Rape Joke” (2014), which builds repeated phrases: “The rape joke is that you were facedown. The rape joke is you were wearing a pretty green necklace that your sister had made for you.”
Horror and surrealism often come together. Simon Armitage is in an experimental mood with “The Experience” (2010), which begins, “I hadn’t meant to go grave robbing with Richard Dawkins but he can be very persuasive.” It ends with imagining the pair of them being seen by something they assume is a vicar, but who turns out to be “a silent man-size fox in a dark frockcoat and long black gloves, standing up on his hind legs, watching.”
It’s one of several poems that read like flash fiction—short works that imply a larger story—so much so that some writers of short stories might feel within their rights to tell poets to get off their lawn. (Noel-Tod acknowledges there are “family resemblances” between the forms.) Attempts to label the difference ignite endless questions. If something feels like poetry but looks like prose, what is it that makes it poetic? That’s a question every prose poem is trying to answer.
All writing is inherently restrained. Printed text is restricted by a permanence that our thoughts don’t have. Form is also function and sonnets, sestinas and villanelles demonstrate that restraint, when used well, allows greater freedom of thought and more concise and powerful expression. The ungenerous reader might think prose poems are a dereliction of duty: a refusal to engage with the intricacies of rhyme and meter because they’re just too difficult.
This anthology proves the opposite. The real trick, the quadruple somersault flying trapeze that these poets are attempting, is to write something that is not poetry, not prose, and somehow more expressive than both, making a case for its own discrete identity and power.
By far the greatest power in the book comes in the poems of dissent. An excerpt from Claudia Rankine’s Forward Prize-winning book Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) is a memorandum of racial injustice observed with chilling precision. The book itself is masterful, and even the snippet of it here is full of weight as Rankine chronicles the grinding fear and exhaustion of constant racism: “You’ve grown into it. Some call it aging—an internalised liquid smoke blurring ordinary ache.”
Wole Soyinka’s “Chimes of Silence” (1972) was composed mentally while the poet was a political prisoner in Nigeria, in solitary confinement and denied pens or paper. “At first there is a peep hole on the living,” he writes, and we are immediately inside the cell with the poet, in a state of alive-but-not-living, as the horror of isolation unfolds with hallucinatory sound and colour: “Pips from albino bats pock the babble of evensong—moslem and christian, pagan and unclassifiable. My crypt they turn into a cauldron, an inverted bell of faiths whose sonorities are gathered, stirred, skimmed, sieved in the warp and weft of sooty mildew on walls, of green velvet fungus woven by the rain’s cunning fingers.”
It’s an extraordinary evocation of incarceration. A form that is defined by questioning its own identity works best in poems where the poets, too, have been forced to make a case for their own value.
Prose poetry is a deft form of expressing political struggle as it really is: a tension of argument and movement. This intoxicating anthology shows off the form’s possibility, which makes writing, and the world, open up.