Monday, 16 November 2015

"Poetry in the Prose: Getting to Know the Prose Poem," Poetry Review 102.2 (Summer 2012)

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 Poem"

            When 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 ago. 
            One 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:

To 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 the universe. Unclear. The difference. Between departures and arrivals. 

            As 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 particular techniques.
            In 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.
            To 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.
            More 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)
            This 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.
            The 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)

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