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
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…