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 anecdote might have two subsets—the comic tale and the serious testimony—and prose poetry is much the same. (It is, I think, at its best when it manages to mix these tropes together.) In his introduction, Noel-Tod declares that the comic anecdote has been the prose poem’s
most popular manifestation in America and Britain since the 1960s, under the influence of up-the-garden-path absurdists such as Russel [sic] Edson, James Tate, and Maxine Chernoff. Prose poems in this vein often feel like jokes that overshoot their punchlines into something more serious.
The American absurdists appear (perhaps somewhat dutifully, since James Tate gets only six lines), and most of the poets one might expect in such an anthology—Gertrude Stein, Paul Éluard, Pierre Reverdy—get their due. There are also appearances from those who wrote only a few prose poems, but whose status as big beasts of poetry guarantees entry: Heaney, Eliot, Auden, Miłosz, Herbert, Bishop, Bly, Rich, O’Hara, Holub. There are also some surprises: Katherine Mansfield, Turgenev, Wilde. For an anthology striving to be definitive, there’s a contingent of missing Americans: of the Wrights there’s C.D. and James but no Charles or Franz; no Merwin, Komunyakaa, Armantrout, Koch, Patchen, Bidart, H.D., Lydia Davis, Billy Collins, Michael Palmer.
There is, though, plenty to be getting on with: poems in the form of a prose sestina (Mark Strand’s intricate “Chekhov”), a translation from an invented source (Don Paterson’s “Little Corona”), “language poetry” (Bernadette Mayer’s “Gay Full Story”), rants (a faintly amusing poem about “that talking claw” Iain Duncan Smith, a lackluster British Tory politician, which does perhaps make the book seem already dated), poems-as-essays (Anne Carson), epistolary poems (an extract from Jack Spicer’s “Letters to James Alexander”), a list poem (Emily Berry’s taxonomy “Some Fears”). The fears Berry collects cycle fearlessly through a multitude of realms and associated dictions:
Fear of breezes…fear of proximity to self-belief…fear of non-specific impact leading to the vertical ejection of the spine from the body; fear of leaf mulch…fear of fear; fear of help. Fear of asking for, receiving, refusing, giving, or being denied help.
There is also the genus of prose poems that take an ordinary object and defamiliarize it: Zbigniew Herbert’s “Pebble,” Francis Ponge’s “The Pleasures of the Door” (“The happiness of seizing one of these tall barriers to a room by the porcelain knob of its belly”).
How might one define the prose poem? Is the only viable definition that the lines are set by the printer and not by the poet? In his rangy introduction, Noel-Tod attempts to go further, arguing that “the prose poem’s genius for expansiveness is not only due to its freedom from formal constraint.” He argues that the “expansiveness of feeling that characterizes the prose poem is often created by a moment of metaphor giving it a sudden lift, like the flare of the burner in a hot-air balloon.” This seems like the right track to me: many prose poems—or at least the successful ones—seem to work their way up to an image that crystallizes some strangeness. One thinks of the unforgettable simile in Carolyn Forché’s famous poem “The Colonel,” included here:
The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this.
The grotesque comparison of the ears to “dried peach halves” is visually acute but also reinforces the sense that life is cheap and disposable here, where human ears are as casually abundant as fruit, and treated as such.
In his push toward a definition for prose poetry, Noel-Tod asks:
If poetry is not synonymous with verse—as canonical anthologies such as The Oxford Book of English Verse assume—how do we define a poem at all? This question, at least, has been answered by many authorities. “All good poetry,” wrote William Wordsworth in the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads (1802), “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Verse serves as a mould to a moment of emotion, shaping it to a rhythmic pattern. Without line breaks, the prose poem is free—like this paragraph—to extend across and down the page as far as the printer’s margins will allow. And it is in this freedom that we can locate the distinctive feeling to which the prose poem gives form: expansiveness.
This is cogent perhaps but feels a little partial. Surely an anthology called The Oxford Book of English Verse does not, prima facie, assume poetry is synonymous with verse: otherwise wouldn’t it be called The Oxford Book of English Poetry, and contain only verse? In any event, that book was originally published in 1900, so it’s hardly indicative of contemporary opinions. Recent canonical anthologies such as The Norton Anthology of Poetry include prose poems as a standard variety of poetry. Also, Noel-Tod’s choice to describe the melos, the music of a poem, as a “rhythmic pattern” seems a thumb on the scale. It’s as if modernism never happened: one thinks of Pound on rhythm more than a century ago: “To compose in the sequence of a musical phrase, not in the sequence of a metronome.”
I also pause over the word “expansiveness,” which deliberately conflates a physical property with an intellectual one. The prose poems in this anthology often embody the opposite, a kind of restrictiveness as a modus operandi. The surreal or humorous prose poem in particular often leads the reader into a paradox, a trap. We open wide and finish caught in a corner of weird logic. (Chernoff’s “Vanity, Wisconsin” ends with a visitor “taking pictures of his pictures.”) The good prose poem must know, à la Cocteau, how far to go to go too far, and many of the poems here underline that notion, beginning in humor and ending in some eldritch place, far from the familiar. Simon Armitage’s “The Experience” opens with “I hadn’t meant to go grave robbing with Richard Dawkins but he can be very persuasive,” and ends in the eerie image of a fox staring at them, “a silent man-size fox in a dark frockcoat and long black gloves, standing up on his hind legs, watching.” Some of the poems here treat tone as a kind of M.C. Escher staircase, where you aren’t sure what floor you’re on. Here’s Cathy Wagner’s “Chicken,” in full:
A poem goes to the other side. It’s different there, but that’s not why I wrote it. There’s all there is, in the chicken joke. Where are you going with this.
If there is a problem with expansiveness as a definition for prose poetry, it’s the suggestion that saying more is equal to more meaning—yet even prose poetry often lives by implicitness and curtailment and suggestion. Noel-Tod goes on:
Unchecked by metre or rhyme, prose poetry flows by soft return from margin to margin, filling the empty field of the page, like the vision of Aloysius Bertrand’s “Mason” who, on his scaffolding above the cathedral roof, sees further into the surrounding landscape with every sentence, from “gargoyles spewing water” to “a village set afire by troops, flaming like a comet in the deep-blue sky.”
I am not sure that meter or rhyme “checks” poetry exactly. And any poet knows the field of the page is not “empty”: the white space is responsive silence that the language is speaking into. Noel-Tod equates prose poetry’s “expansiveness” with seeing “further,” which, accidentally or not, appears to structure a hierarchy of achievement in poetic form.
Noel-Tod’s notion of “expansiveness” may owe something to Rod Mengham’s essay “A Genealogy of the Prose Poem,” which Noel-Tod references. In it, Mengham writes of how the prose of various writers “expands the measures of containment,” and turns dialect into “the expanded field of community.” Mengham’s own poetic contribution here demonstrates the problems with “expansiveness” as a working principle: “Knife” is a description of a stone-age flint tool. To those used to lyric poetry, the three-page poem feels interminable. Mengham, a Cambridge academic, writes in his essay that the prose poem “favours the microscopic scrutiny of tiny details.” Perhaps, but he repeatedly uses three paratactic phrases to expand his thought, and the conceptual steps between the adjectives seem so small that the reader may wish he’d chosen just one: “After three thousand years of dumb neglect, the instrument was attuned, responsive, prompt to its ancient cue.”
Here is his description of a stone-age artisan making the implement, which uses the phrase “setting his sights,” an idiom arising from the very different modern domain of a sharp-shooter: “Best of all is when the artist, setting his sights on perfect function, sees it rise above the horizon at the same point as beauty of form.” The image of an ancient tool-maker watching the moon rise—and recognizing in its shape a blade—stands behind the words. The language forces a slowing down: it feels like a strange combination of the consciously inert, the deliberately managerial—the curatorial—and the enraptured. In this bored way of speaking, there is an excited way of thinking, and over three pages this becomes a symptom of something intended and serious: a wish to address the object in the scientific round and in the somewhat dogged spirit of inquiry that propagated, perhaps, its own manufacture. The poem ends; the instrument “brought the cross-sections of life within grasp. Behind it, the physician’s trial and error, the surgeon’s initiative; the whole breathing, faltering body of science.”
Still, the reader may wish for the curt felicity of Bishop’s description of the knife in “Crusoe in England,” which Crusoe had, on the island, relied on for almost everything, and which, in London now, sits inertly on the shelf, “reek[ing] with meaning.” Saying more does not equal expansion per se: the expansiveness of ambiguities of sense can also lie, as in Wagner’s chicken poem, in what is withheld. I’m reminded of Fred D’Aguiar’s definition of poetry, “that art of the marvellous,” as a “simultaneous compression of language and an endless expansion of meaning.”
Noel-Tod’s assertion that Wordsworth’s definition of good poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” gives just half of the famous quotation. The entire sentence: “I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” This not only qualifies the first half but entirely rewrites it. Poetry that is just the spontaneous overflow of emotions is going to be bad. Think of Harold Pinter’s poem about the Iraq War (“your nose/Sniffs only the pong of the dead”). One needs the recollection, as Wordsworth said, in tranquility; one needs to be forced to have second, third, fourth thoughts, and one of the reasons verse survives as verse is that any type of form, any mode of restriction, ensures a concentration, a distillation, of the thought moving into language. Poetry is not a happening of emotion: it’s a happening of language.
Perhaps a way into understanding the prose poem is asking what a line break actually does, and what is lost when it’s not used. In nonmetrical contemporary poetry, lineation, aside from contributing to rhythm, can be used for investigating, accentuating, confounding. The pitch pattern changes depending on where the line breaks, and that emphasis on the last word of the line changes the meaning of the line. The oft-used example of meaningful lineation is Williams’s old woman eating plums:
They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her
Each iteration of the same words means something different depending on the lineation. Denise Levertov has written insightfully on the line break in “On the Function of the Line,” her essay in Poetics: Essays on the Art of Poetry (1984), explaining how it foregrounds the slight but real
hesitations between word and word that are characteristic of the mind’s dance among perceptions but which are not noted by grammatical punctuation. Regular punctuation is a part of regular sentence structure, that is, of the expression of completed thoughts; and this expression is typical of prose, even though prose is not at all times bound by its logic. But in poems one has the opportunity not only, as in expressive prose, to depart from the syntactic norm, but to make manifest, by an intrinsic structural means, the interplay or counterpoint of process and completion—in other words, to present the dynamics of perception along with its arrival at full expression…. Line-breaks—together with intelligent use of indentation and other devices of scoring—represent a peculiarly poetic, a-logical, parallel (not competitive) punctuation.
Lineated poetry contains a kind of narrative of its construction, which a reader reading it relives.
Prose’s articulation of completed thoughts is why prose poetry tends toward the anecdotal: it doesn’t give the sense of a mind casting about for the next word, for the next stepping stone, but is the more fully ritualized prose transmission of a completed thought, a recounting, not a reliving. Lineated poetry involves hesitation, reenactment. Prose poetry is about telling. One of the effects of losing the line break is losing the provisionality that poetry achieves, the sense of a mind at work. Making one’s way through the pauses and surprises of a lineated poem demands that one exist suspended for a moment in doubt, in ambiguities of sense.
Noel-Tod has large aspirations for his book: he declares that
the precise, documentary prose of a poet such as Claudia Rankine…evinces an ambition to rewrite literary tradition that recalls the radical claim made two centuries ago by Wordsworth, when, in Lyrical Ballads, he presented “incidents and situations drawn from common life” in “language really used by men.” This anthology aims to capture something of the same moment of change and renewal in contemporary writing, as the prose poem dissolves and reforms along the same horizon that enraptured Baudelaire’s “stranger” on the first page of his Little Poems in Prose: “the clouds that pass…over there…the marvellous clouds!”
Though it’s not entirely clear what Baudelaire’s “same horizon” has to do with Noel-Tod’s radical renewal, the “moment of change” appears to involve poets who are drawn “to prose for the poetry of plain statement; what Vivek Naryanan calls, in his ‘Ode to Prose,’ ‘the only heart we can trust if only because it beat so firmly’” (though the quoted poem is not included here). Noel-Tod’s renewal, then, seems to exclude poets who continue to use fragmentary prose as a prism “to refract the ‘crystalline jumble’ of modernity,” like Ashbery or Rimbaud.
In any event, rather than support his thesis—that a radical disruption is occurring, in which the prose poem edges further toward prose—the anthology tends to show instead the continuity of the form. Noel-Tod notes that the rise of the prose poem “can be partly attributed to the rise of the defining invention of our own era—the internet—as a forum for literary experiment and exchange, and the evolution of new daily forms of prose such as the email, the blog, and the tweet.” He doesn’t elaborate further, but the claim raises questions. Is the Internet—specifically social media—influencing the poetry that is currently being written? And if so, how? Also, why should the rise of the Internet cause a surge of interest in the prose poem rather than, say, the sonnet or free verse? From the start, prose poetry was a reaction—Baudelaire rebelling against the straitjacket of French alexandrines—but since the rise of modernism and free verse, there are no rules of versification, so what is prose poetry rebelling against?
Or is the prose poem’s growing popularity that Noel-Tod notes simply owing to the fact that lineated verse is trickier to read and write and understand? Does the Internet, as it has in so many areas (see: cat videos), select poetry that is the most easily digestible content in order to attract the available—and limited—attention in a ruthless attention economy? One person might like bass fishing, another might be interested in Beethoven, but both will click on a video of a man falling down a manhole. One might think abortion is murder, one might believe that ghosts exist, but both will (hopefully) agree that racism or rape is terrible. In this way, poems can be reduced to emotional memes: impossible to disagree with, but not, perhaps, in themselves tonally challenging or complicated linguistic events.
The poetry that thrives will be “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” in Noel-Tod’s truncated definition, rather than that emotion recollected in tranquility. Which is not to say that poems that get picked up and passed around the Internet are bad poems. Very often they are not. But most poetry that becomes popular online tends to be less concerned with language and more concerned with moral content, with morality itself, with telling the speaker’s story, with presentation of the self and/or the self’s trauma. Use of language in an attention economy becomes a secondary concern. These are, of course, false opposites: there are no absolute divisions, only tendencies, but it’s hard to avoid the sense that online there is much applauding of the sentiment and less examination of the means. Anyone can make an agreeable statement, and the instant feedback loops between the many and the few that social media affords are inimical to poetry, which is not primarily a public art but one that to a large extent consists in private intimacies, transmitted one-to-one.
Writing about fiction, though it applies surely to all literature, Jaron Lanier expands on this in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now:
“Oh” we exclaim as readers, “I’ve always felt that way but never seen it expressed before.” And then we hold to this new intimacy, one shorn of all the contingencies of sex, race, class and nationality. By contrast with the anonymous and tacit intimacy to be found between hard covers, social media is all about stridently identified selves—and not simply to one another but to all. In the global village of social media it’s precisely those contingent factors of our identities—our sex, our race, our class, our nationality—that loom largest; no wonder it’s been the medium that has both formed and been formed by the new politics of identity.
Self-curation—the presentation of the self as a righteous, honorable (happy, beautiful, generous, etc.) person, often subject to injustice and aggression—is the engine of social media. The self is not a solid object, but as Jia Tolentino, following the sociologist Erving Goffman, writes in her essay “The I in the Internet” in her new collection Trick Mirror, “a dramatic effect that emerges from a performance.” She goes on:
The presentation of self in everyday internet still corresponds to Goffman’s playacting metaphor: there are stages, there is an audience. But the internet adds a host of other, nightmarish metaphorical structures: the mirror, the echo, the panopticon…. The everyday madness perpetuated by the internet is the madness of this architecture, which positions personal identity as the center of the universe…. This system persists because it is profitable…. We have generated billions of dollars for social media platforms through our desire—and then, through a subsequent, escalating economic and cultural requirement—to replicate for the internet who we know, who we think we are, who we want to be.
And one might add: who we want to be seen to be. One way poetry—as opposed to social media—assists us is that it tries to portray an unredacted version of the human self, replete with, say, mischief, sadness, guilt, rage, and also love and wonder. The poem that admits the speaker is confused or mistaken or casually malevolent is one a reader can identify with, rather than be seen to agree with and retweet.
Perhaps this is also why the certainties of the prose poem—the more fully ritualized transmission of a completed thought—are easier to square with the new Internet age than the doubts, ambiguities, and mysteries—the negative capability—of lyric poetry. This is of course to generalize, as many of the best prose poems here disprove that thesis. However, we see the effects of the Internet, and particularly social media, played out in our politics, in our print media, in our art. Poetry is not exempt. The celebrated poem “Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre)” by Warsan Shire, for example, is among the “witness poems” included here:
I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth for so long that there’s no space for another song, another tongue or another language. I know a shame that shrouds, totally engulfs. Allah Ceebta, I tore up and ate my own passport in an airport hotel. I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to forget.
They ask me how did you get here? Can’t you see it on my body? The desert red with immigrant bodies shot in the face for trying to enter, the Gulf of Aden bloated with immigrant bodies. I wouldn’t put my children on the boat unless I thought the sea was safer than land. I hope the journey meant more than miles because all of my children are in the water. I want to make love but my hair smells of war and running and running. Look at all these borders, foaming at the mouth with brown bodies broken and desperate.
Shire has explained in an interview that the poem came from her interviewing refugees at the abandoned Somali embassy in Rome, and she adapted—or, if you prefer, appropriated—the responses to write first-person poems in the refugees’ voices. The poem seems a fairly straightforward transcription, even including speech’s repetitions and redundancies (“another tongue or another language,” “I know a shame that shrouds, totally engulfs”). The poem recalls in its methods Forché’s “The Colonel,” gesturing to poetic metaphor at the end (“now my home is the mouth of a shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun. I’ll see you on the other side”), although the image on which Shire ends, contra Forché’s peach halves, is neither visually acute nor circumstantially arresting. It does not deepen or complicate the domain of the metaphor. It has the force of dramatic speech, and sounds like pop lyrics (and indeed Shire’s work was featured on Beyoncé’s album Lemonade). What power the piece has lies in its directness and immediacy: it is perhaps less an event in language than a testimonial to emotion.
In 1984 Levertov was clear in her suspicions about the popularity of the prose poem:
Poets who write nonmetrical poems but treat the line-break as nonexistent are not even respecting the traditional “slight pause” of the end-stopped line. The fact is, they are confused about what the line is at all, and consequently some of our best and most influential poets have increasingly turned to the prose paragraph for what I feel are the wrong reasons—less from a sense of the peculiar virtues of the prose poem than from a despair of making sense of the line.
In our time, if one attributes, as Noel-Tod does, the rise in popularity of prose poetry to the rise of the Internet, and “the email, the blog, and the tweet,” it may be useful to try to ask why, and what this correlation suggests.
In any event, the recent prose poems here are in the main excellent: notable among the modern contributions are Anne Carson’s, who rates two entries and, as always, seems to do something both inevitable and surprising with every piece she writes; Claudia Rankine’s clipped, formal, ambiguous, and self-scrutinizing prose; Kei Miller’s vivid and plangent poem “Place Name: Flog Man”; the breathless, slightly conspiratorial tone of Cathy Park Hong (“Adventures in Shangdu”); that connoisseur of ennui, Chelsea Minnis; the exquisitely dark and funny tonalities of Luke Kennard in “Blue Dog,” his disquisition on a plastic pug; Christian Bök’s virtuosic Oulipo restrictions; an extract from Keston Sutherland’s stunning collection Odes to TL6IP; Matthew Welton’s existential nightmare of modern nowhereness, “Virtual Airport”; Anthony Joseph’s mesmerizing phantasmagoric “Folkways”; Joe Wenderoth’s belligerent, comic Letters to Wendy’s (“Naturally I think about smashing the skulls and rib-cages of the other customers”); and Patricia Lockwood’s searing and already well-known poem “Rape Joke” (“Can any part of the rape joke be funny. The part where it ends—haha, just kidding!”).
Reading an anthology like this, however, one experiences the relentlessness of the form. “Without Contraries is no progression,” as Blake wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (which might be the first example of prose poems interspersed with verse), and, to my mind, prose poems tend to work best in counterpoint to lineated work. I know no better argument for lyric poetry than one made in a prose poem, Bishop’s marvelous “Strayed Crab,” included here, who, addressing a “sulking toad,” says, “You make a loud and hollow noise. I do not care for such stupidity. I admire compression, lightness, and agility, all rare in this loose world.” Compression, lightness, and agility, all rare in this loose world: I’d choose them over “expansiveness” any day.
Noel-Tod’s methodology as an anthologist falls somewhere between, say, Pound or Vendler, who sought to impose their own tastes on the canon, and Francis Turner Palgrave, who tried to include the greatest hits of his time. Noel-Tod has much fine discernment, particularly in the chronologically earlier sections, and he crowd-sources: “I am indebted to everyone who has pointed me in the direction of prose poems over the last three years, including the generous suggestions of many people on Twitter, both known to me and anonymous.” Whatever the approach, he’s created a marvelous and lively compendium of the prose poem, and a book very much of its time.