Friday, 27 November 2015

Sudden Prose Reprints: Peter Riley's Greek Passages (Shearsman, 2009), fourth selection

Here is the fourth prose poem from Greek Passages I'd like to share:

But you will turn, in the end / and look back across the silence waters, the / roaring gap // deep and wide, perfect justice / on the other side. Listen. Small bells. 

Friday, 20 November 2015

Sudden Prose Reprints: "Winter in the World" by William Letford

Winter in the world

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.

William Letford
Bevel (Carcanet, 2012)

Many thanks to Carcanet Press for permission to reprint this poem. You can buy Bevel on their website here.

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)

Friday, 13 November 2015

Sudden Prose Reprints: Peter Riley's Greek Passages (Shearsman, 2009), third selection

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 grey stalks pulled by the wind, our profit / hauled onto the land / up the long valley and into the hills // Turn and look back, strong hot wind in the face with some water in it, the olive trees thrashing / Our wealth, weighing, working, wearing us / on / to the empty monastery.

Monday, 9 November 2015

"What is a prose poem?," Poetry News, Summer 2008

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?

         Thanks to 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 prose poem?
         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 opens:
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.
Here, the 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 violence.
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).