Review: By soft return

Jeremy Noel-Tod, The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem: From Baudelaire to Anne Carson, Penguin, £25, ISBN 9780241285794
David Wheatley considers the “slipperiest of genres”, the prose poem

For Yeats, much that was valuable in modern writing began with Walter Pater, so it was no surprise that he chose to open his Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936) with an extract from Pater’s The Renaissance (1873). What is surprising, though, is that Yeats took his extract – the description of the Mona Lisa’s smile – and recast Pater’s already sonorous prose (“like the vampire, she has been dead many times”) into lineated verse. At a time when prose poetry was just gearing up in English (Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson), his repurposing might be described as a verse poem by prose proxy – a verse prose poem.

Never mind how a poem can be written in prose, how can a prose poem be in verse? There are precedents: Rimbaud’s Illuminations contains some: poems in lineated prose (paragraph-breaks shading into line-breaks). Single-sentence floating paragraphs abound in Jeremy Noel-Tod’s Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, from Daniil Kharms to Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Patricia Lockwood, and in his introduction, Noel-Tod speaks of the prose poem flowing “by soft return from margin to margin”, a turn of phrase that will have purists reaching for their Robert Frost (Frost famously thought free verse was like playing tennis “without a net”). An interesting thought experiment would be to visualise a Middlemarch written in verse, with every line-break miraculously coinciding with the right-hand margin: the same text yet utterly different. The slipperiest of genres, even without paradoxes like this, the prose poem is the same as the verse poem yet utterly different.

For a volume with a canonical-sounding title, this is certainly an anthology like no other. While the prose poem eludes definition, attempts could do worse than start with Shuntarō Tanikawa’s ‘Scissors’, and its account of strange compulsion in the face of the unknown (“Because this thing, existing like this, has the power to extract words from me so that I go on being unreeled in this string of words”). This embrace of the world of things leads irresistibly to that most translated of modern prose poets, Francis Ponge, and behind him the great tradition of the French prose poem, beginning with Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la nuit in 1842, represented by three poems here – though this fly-by-night debut would be overshadowed by the larger achievements of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarmé. So profoundly did the prose poem take root in French tradition, in fact, that I can imagine some wag assembling a Gallimard Book of the Verse Poem, startling readers of Rimbaud, Perse, Michaux, Char and Rouzeau with the claim that poetry can also be written in ballades and rondeaux.

The Anglophone world was more sceptical, with even the Francophile T.S. Eliot unsure what to make of the genre (“this form of writing always seems to me a mistake”) and dismissing his ‘Hysteria’ as a note for a poem rather than the thing itself. Continually denied the pedigree of an established canon, the prose poem has had to fend for itself, but an attempt to taxonomise its varieties might go as follows. There is the prose poem as fragment, as in Anne Carson’s ‘Short Talk on the Sensation of Aeroplane Takeoff’ (in toto: “Well you know I wonder, it could be love running towards my life with its arms up yelling let’s buy it what a bargain!”). There is the prose poem as found text, as in Laurie Duggan’s ‘Hearts’ (“Each heart has to carry a clear impression of the ‘Australia Approved’ stamp”) – a melancholy little récit but too ostentatiously conceptual to qualify as fiction – or the pseudo-found text of Charles Madge’s ‘Bourgeois News’. There is the press-ganged very short story, as in Turgenev’s two examples included here. There is the reflective short essay, as in Miroslav Holub’s ‘Meeting Ezra Pound’, or, at a pinch, sections of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. There is the unclassifiable block of text, as in Bernadette Mayer’s fabulous ‘Gay Full Story’ with its Prynneian paratactic scrunches (“Gay full story is authentic verve fabulous jay full stork”) or the louring majesty of Brian Catling’s excerpted The Stumbling Block, Its Index. The work of Charles Simic and Russell Edson has nudged some readers towards identifying the genre with a jokey leftover from surrealism, but the prose poem has just as often been the vehicle for reportage and memoir (Carolyn Forché and Ottó Orbán on wars in El Salvador and Hungary, Ken Smith’s heartbreaking memories of his father in The Wild Rose). And finally there is the prose poem as Rimbaldian incantation, as in Rosemary Tonks’s ‘An Old-Fashioned Traveller on the Trade Routes’, not to mention Rimbaud himself.

That’s more than enough to be getting on with, but another pleasure of this book is tracing the prose poem’s interactions with the fashions of the day, as visible as much through omissions as inclusions. Sometimes the swerve away from the prose poem leaves near-visible skidmarks: in 1975 Seamus Heaney published a pamphlet of prose poems, Stations, represented here by ‘Cloistered’, before regretting their excessive resemblance to Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns (1971) and abandoning the genre almost (if not quite) for good. His distrust of forms that deviated from the short lyric makes him an unlikely standard-bearer for the Irish prose poem, and it would have been nice to see some Trevor Joyce or Susan Howe – not to mention some of James Joyce’s juvenile ‘epiphanies’. I also wonder, if ultra-short stories can be prose poems, why journal entries can’t be too – one obvious example being the work (also edited by Noel-Tod) of R.F. Langley.

The problem of the prose poem, though, goes beyond the arc of individual careers. Writing of the stolidity of official verse culture, Donald Davie once bemoaned “a corporate enterprise which from time to time publishes a balance sheet called The Golden Treasury or The Oxford Book of English Verse”. There are no prose poems in The Oxford Book of English Verse. When I have thought of producing a poetry anthology of my own, I have flattered myself that my adventurousness would translate into a little more of this or that than the custodians of the balance-sheet have traditionally allowed. Noel-Tod, however, has availed of the prose poem to reframe the canon in an ingenious way. Rimbaud, Stein, Carson, Reverdy and poet-in-translation-you-have-only-just-heard-of are at the centre of things, and any amount of canonical names are absent for the inarguable reason that they their spent their whole careers ignoring the genre.

Another liberatory aspect of the prose poem is its ability to let rip in the face of proprieties in general, and not just the canonical kind. In ‘Children are the orgasm of the world’, Hera Lindsay Bird worries over this dubious claim, as spotted on a woman’s bag on the bus. Are children the orgasm of the world in the same way that “orgasms are the orgasms of sex” or “shit is the orgasm of lasagne”? But then, by the same logic, could the prose poem be the orgasm of the verse poem? Freedom at last from the anxiety of that post-sex Hugo Williams poem, worrying where the line breaks will go in the poem he’ll write about the experience! Even just turning the pages of this book abounds in the small pleasures of a Barthesian erotics of reading. Poets’ names are given at the end rather than the beginning of their texts, an accident (or decision?) of layout that facilitates the adventure of reading blind, and in many cases the surprise over the page of a name that is new to you anyway.

“Art is a small adjustment”, wrote Ian Hamilton Finlay, represented here by a memory of a cinema screening in Orkney “powered by the engine of an inshore fishing boat”. As strange conjunctions go, a fishing boat in a cinema isn’t so far off that other ur-prose poet Lautréamont’s famous encounter with an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table, but from the prose poem’s “small adjustments” much that is unexpected and enchanting flows. I hail with delight a remarkable and exemplary book.

David Wheatley’s most recent collection is The President of Planet Earth (Carcanet, 2017). This review was first published in The Poetry Review, 109:1, Spring 2019. © The Poetry Review and the author.