Positive Capability

Christian Bok, Claudia Rankine, Carolyn Forché, Anne Carson, Cathy Park Hong, and Patricia Lockwood; collage by Joanna Neborsky
Photographs by Christopher Morris, Blue Flower Arts, Harry Mattison, Peter Smith, Beowulf Sheehan, and Grep Hoax
Clockwise from top left: Christian Bok, Claudia Rankine, Carolyn Forché, Anne Carson, Cathy Park Hong, and Patricia Lockwood; collage by Joanna Neborsky

Like the honest politician or the reality TV star, the prose poem is an oxymoron. Charles Simic, a brilliant practitioner of the form, says that it’s “the result of two contradictory impulses, prose and poetry, and therefore cannot exist, but it does. It is the sole instance we have of squaring the circle.” In a new anthology, Jeremy Noel-Tod pulls together two-hundred-odd of these square circles from a span of nearly two centuries. Though they are primarily from English-speaking countries, there are also translations from twenty other languages.

There’s a marvelous depth and reach to the book, testament to the prose poem’s elasticity. Noel-Tod has it run chronologically backward—“so as to foreground,” he claims, “the importance of the present moment in the history of the form”—with three sections: “The Prose Poem Now,” from 2017 to 2000 (109 pages); “The Postmodern Prose Poem,” from 1999 to 1946 (177 pages); and “The Modern Prose Poem,” from 1943 to 1842 (114 pages). The overrepresentation of the first seventeen years of the twenty-first century is meant to reflect the recent popularity of the form, though it also highlights the difficulties for any anthologist of evaluating one’s contemporaries and excluding one’s friends, collaborators, and colleagues, as evidenced by the overlap here between the acknowledgments and the contents. Noel-Tod, an academic in Norwich, England, and a prolific social media presence (who for years pseudonymously satirized the poetry world as “Ron Paste”), attended Oxford, where he was a student of Craig Raine and at Cambridge wrote his doctorate on Eliot. Later, he worked as an editor on Raine’s journal, Areté. As poetry critic of The Sunday Times, he has established himself as something of a gatekeeper in the British poetry scene.

In this anthology, the prose poem begins with the French—Aloysius Bertrand and Baudelaire. American anthologies of the form tend to begin with Poe, who published Eureka: A Prose Poem in 1848, though for Noel-Tod “the form did not come to fruition as a lyric poem…until the 1850s, when Baudelaire began to write and publish, over the course of a decade, the fifty short prose texts that would be gathered in Paris Spleen.” Noel-Tod quotes Paris Spleen’s famous preface: “Which of us has not, in his ambitious days, dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and choppy enough to fit the soul’s lyrical movements, the jolts of consciousness?”

Like all poetry, the prose poem has no rules, although, as with all poetry, certain traits might be distinguished. In life, the…

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