The old lady struggles, footsteps careful, leaving shuffle marks in the snow. No shopping bag, so maybe it's church, and maybe not. Perhaps she is out for a walk, because she can, and the night is spare, and she is undiminished and harder than bone.
Here is the article I published about the state of British prose poetry in Poetry Review, with page numbers from the original identified as the work proceeds.
"Poetry in the Prose: Getting to Know the Prose
I arrived in England in 2001, I tended only to find prose poems in more
experimental journals such as Shearsman
and Tenth Muse. Now I regularly see
them in a wide range of literary magazines, and the first contemporary British
prose poetry anthology has been published, This
Line Is Not for Turning (ed. Jane Monson, Cinnamon Press, 2011), to
positive reviews. The palpable increase in interest from fellow poets and
students alike has been an exciting pleasure for me, as someone who began
writing and publishing poetry—including prose poetry—over twenty years
of the fruits of the proliferation of prose poetry should be a greater
pluralism. While Monson’s anthology tends toward the mainstream, it does have
unexpected bedfellows, placing the work of Richard Berengarten and Jeff Hilson
alongside that of Pascale Petit and George Szirtes. Similarly, Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics’
special feature on British prose poetry brought together John Burnside, Rod
Mengham, Geraldine Monk, Peter Reading and Peter Redgrove, among others. In
fact, prose poetry seems to nourish styles that do not easily fall into the
usual distinctions of experimental or mainstream, as with Luke Kennard’s
surrealist narratives and Ágnes Lehóczky’s psychogeography, as in her compelling
poem, “Prelude,” gazing on a cathedral ceiling:
get to the core of the place they have been traveling to for so long to people
an empty city, a city with no
topography, the sky without impasses, cobbled cul-de-sacs, crowded catacombs, horizontal
reminiscences. They travel so they can be exactly where you are now. They travel to settle, you say. To illustrate the
biosphere around us. To illuminate the
darkness tonight. They arrive. To live among us. Slow rows of caravans, bright lanterns, departing on
the ridges of the vault. On the edges of theuniverse.
Unclear. The difference. Between departures and arrivals.
more collections include prose poetry, however, we face an important (69) problem.
Critical discussion of the form lags behind its publication, and consequently
prose poems, in books primarily consisting of lineated poetry, often go
unmentioned. When new volumes composed wholly of prose poetry appear, such as
Linda Black’s Root (Shearsman, 2011)
and Lehóczky’s Rememberer (Egg Box, 2011), they are less likely to be reviewed, and those
reviews that do appear are more likely to neglect discussion of the poet’s
a moment of rare reviewing honesty, Paul Batchelor, at the end of his review of
Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars (Faber,
2010), comments, “Are they poems, or prose poems, or flash fiction? I’m not
sure […].” While some poets and critics insist that we must resist defining
prose poetry for it to retain its subversive, genre-blurring character, I find
some basic distinctions crucial for its appreciation. While a lineated poem’s
development requires some sort of progression as it moves down the page, most
reductively a movement from point A to point B, a prose poem develops without
“going” anywhere—it simply wants to inhabit or circle A. If the prose poem
takes narrative form, that narrative operates to represent or suggest a single
idea or feeling; the story or plot is there at
the service of an idea. Otherwise the piece is a form of narrative prose,
such as a flash fiction or an anecdote, rather than a prose poem.
clarify this distinction between a narrative prose poem and a piece of
narrative prose, consider Anthony Rudolf’s piece, “Perfect Happiness,” from This Line Is Not for Turning. The work
begins with the announcement that the speaker is ten years old and has just arrived
at his grandparents’ house; he goes on to relate his activities over the course
of the day: wander about, look at comics, throw a tennis ball against a wall,
etc. The poem’s momentum derives from this succession of events. The point of
the poem, however, is not the story so much as the way these simple events add
up, either in retrospect and/or as they are experienced, to an overall sense of
“Perfect Happiness,” to that single idea or feeling. That quality distinguishes
the poem from anecdote or flash fiction.
than one regular reviewer of poetry has told me that s/he will sooner decline a
collection of prose poems than cover it; if faced with individual prose poems
amid lineated ones, s/he might address its content, but would feel wary of discussing
technique. Yet lineated and prose poems share much technical ground: use of
metaphor; repetition of sound (alliteration, consonance, assonance, partial
rhymes, etc.); imagery; and voice, just to start. The difference comes down to
the sentence (and it may not be a complete grammatical one at that) rather than
the line as the primary structural unit. (70)
means that instead of looking at a poem’s line and stanza lengths’ contribution
to structure, we consider sentence and paragraph lengths as well as sentence
types. For example, the succession of short, subject-verb sentences in Carolyn
Forché’s brilliant prose poem, “The Colonel,” enhances the dramatic tension
with its staccato effect on the rhythm. In the delightful “Hedge Sparrows,”
Richard Price conveys the bird’s incessant chatter through one long, long
sentence—of 180 words! While these are more pronounced examples, they give a
sense of the relationship between sentence length and structure and the poem’s
meaning, just as we would consider with a lineated poem’s use of the line.
more we nourish poetry’s possibilities, the more poetry as a whole benefits
from the exploration, and that nourishment means thoughtfully developing
critical approaches to each form that emerges: giving each new expression of
language the attention its eloquence has earned. (71)
Here is the third prose poem from Peter Riley's collection that I'd like to share with a wider audience:
Our sustenance dragged across our fear / purposeless gloom in half light / long fields of greystalks pulled by the wind, our profit / hauled onto the land / up the long valley and into thehills // Turn and look back, strong hot wind in the face with some water in it, the olive treesthrashing / Our wealth, weighing, working, wearing us / on / to the empty monastery.
As I've received numerous requests for past articles I've written on the prose poem, I thought I would reprint the two most pertinent pieces here so they're available to everyone. This first article originally appeared in Poetry News's Summer 2008 issue on page 4.
Close-up: What is a prose poem?
David Miller’s overview of the prose poem in English in his article on the form
in the winter 2003/4 issue of Poetry
News, this essay can go directly to a common question: What constitutes a
As with poems in lines, prose poems
concentrate or distil their subject matter (as African-American poet Gwendolyn
Brooks once said, “Poetry is life distilled”), and they employ many of the same
sonic devices that give lineated poetry its music. While rarely employing rhyme
(and obviously unable to use end rhyme), prose poems also create musicality
through the rhythms of prose in their syntactical constructions. These are
particularly evident in Carolyn Forché’s excellent poem, “The Colonel.” It
What you have heard is true. I
was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter
filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet
dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord
over the house.
repetition of short sentences with the same structure effects a staccato rhythm
that helps build tension. Additionally, the alliteration of the plosive P in
the fourth sentence raises that tension another notch by exaggerating that
staccato, at the very moment the poem unexpectedly juxtaposes domesticity and
The poem goes on to narrate the events of the evening: dinner,
followed by the colonel confronting his guests. This movement through time and
brief plot may raise the question of whether “The Colonel” is, instead of a
prose poem, a short-short story. How does one tell the difference? The answer partly
lies in the work’s apparent motive: whether it seeks to relate events for
themselves or to make a greater point through the story told. While sometimes
the difference is hard to discern, the tone and the frame of “The Colonel”
imply that it means to make a statement both of and larger than itself. Note,
also, that its characters are more types than individuals, another trait common
to prose poetry. The characters’ flatness points up their analogical role.
So if the different uses of language, plot, and characterisation
differentiate prose poems from short-short stories, what distinguishes a poem
in prose from a poem in lines? Or, to put it another way, why write a poem in
prose instead of lines? The choice between prose and lines has to do with how
the poem operates. While there are always exceptions, a poem in lines makes
some kind of progression, going from one point to a different point by the
poem’s end, say from A to B. Consider, for example, the movement made in only
twelve lines in Louis MacNiece’s “Snow,” from its first words (“The room was
suddenly rich”) to its wondrous conclusion: “There is more than glass between
the snow and the huge roses.” And as in “Snow,” stanzas often indicate steps in
that progression, as they develop a narrative or argument.
A prose poem, however, wants to stay in one place. It starts with A
and explores it, so that the poem concludes not at another point but with a
greater comprehension of A than that with which it began. “The Colonel” opens
by declaring an act of witness—“What you have heard is true,” and the poem goes
on to share the “truth” with the reader, both in the literal facts, as in the
objects the speaker enumerates, and the figurative truth implied by the poem’s
conclusion, when the colonel spills a grocery bag of human ears on the table:
He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last
of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the
ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor
were pressed to the ground.
The poem can serve as a powerful act of witness, to testify
to the truth of events that might otherwise go unreported or have their
magnitude in terms of human loss unappreciated. That is the “scrap” the ears
catch hold of, the possibility that someone will tell their story. “The
Colonel” then does not so much progress as elaborate this idea, and recording “daily
papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him,” among other details,
evinces the commitment of that act of witness. Thus the prose poem, in the way
it circles an idea rather than making a linear progression, offers a distinctly
different structural approach, broadening what poetry can be and do.
Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel” originally appeared in her
collection, The Country Between Us (Yale
University Press, 1981).
The prose poems in Peter Riley's Greek Passages are untitled.
There was no journey. The moment we opened our eyes we were there: / the colours across the bay / the red on the blue / Trinakrian Sea, its / turning islands, and all thought of betterment in the world / Bringing trouble. That lives here like a stone. / Bringing upright posture, anxiety, and longed-for repose. That live here like the flowers of the mountain.