‘Hidden’ Form: The Prose Poem in English Poetry
This essay will acknowledge the prose poem as a ‘hidden’ form in English poetry, but will focus on the re-emergence of the British prose poem this century. I outline the practitioners and the exposure of the prose poem in publishing, and examine a number of key prose poets and works. Their poetry will be read in relation to the development of the prose poem on the one hand, and in relation to post avant-garde developments on the other. Attention is paid to how the prose poem is defined, the importance of the end-line, its relationship to fable and the occasional blurring with flash fiction. I will look at how poets are using prose and determine whether the prose poem affords more possibilities than closures.
The view that prose poetry evolved through French poetry is a partial one.1 Such a perspective doubtless has its origins in the impact of that evolution on American, Polish and other traditions. Certainly, there is a distinct line of development through Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la Nuit (1842), Charles Baudelaire’s immensely popular Petits Poèmes en prose (1869), and on through Rimbaud, Laforgue, Mallarmé to Gertrude Stein, the Surrealists—especially Francis Ponge and Max Jacob, all of whom found it a useful tool in the quest for imaginative liberation. These modernist poets have their equivalents in the German and Spanish traditions, as well as later examples in Greek, Russian, English and Japanese. Early English modernists appear to have followed T.S. Eliot’s view that this was a no man’s land for the aspiring poet, who should be concerned with formal verse. An alternative viewpoint had been suggested by Shelley’s observation that the King James Bible was an example of prose as poetry. Indeed, English mainstream poets seem to have regarded the prose poem as a peculiarly foreign affair and one to be avoided, apart from those times when there was a public questioning of identity and language. I do not think that we would have seen a prose poem such as Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945) published, for example, in 1925 or 1955, when the literary establishment and publishers were less open and firmly anti-internationalist. Indeed, Smart’s work, reissued in 1966, became a classic in the 1960s and 1970s when it was possible to read the prose poems of Baudelaire , Neruda, Paz, Kenneth Patchen, the Surrealists and the Beats, as well as the open-field poetics of Charles Olson. There was also interest in the work of David Jones, and his epic prose poem about the First World War, In Parenthesis (1937), at this time. It is this re-emergence of the prose poem, and its possibilities, into English poetry that I wish to discuss.
The prose poem can be seen as a site of struggle and potential subversion within an evolving and shifting variety of poetic forms and discussion of those forms. It is part of a counter-discourse through its lack of general visibility within mainstream English poetry. There are very few histories of the English prose poem, and a relative lack of essays and journals devoted to the subject. Yet, it has been a constant that has been seemingly re-discovered and developed by individual late modernist and avant-garde poets and writers.
The origin of that struggle can be traced from Oscar Wilde’s description of his so-called ‘obscene’ letter to Lord Alfred Douglas as a ‘prose poem’ in 1893 and subsequent association with French decadence, sexual deviance and immodesty in the mind of the English reading public. This was reinforced and clarified by T.S. Eliot’s 1917 essay, ‘The Borderline of Prose,’2 based upon his criticism of Richard Aldington’s The Love of Myrrhine and Konallis and other Prose Poems (1917). The essay essentially concerns definition and possibility. More generally, it can be linked to his aversion to Ernest Dowson and Oscar Wilde’s appropriation of French symbolism. Eliot recognised the ‘unexplored possibilities’ of both poetry and prose, but urged writers to write one or the other and not mix them. What constitutes the borderline and boundaries of poetry and prose thus became, and remains, a continuing debate.
The prose poem substantially entered English poetry through the impact of French symbolism and early modernism. I recall my own discovery of Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen translated by Louis Varése (New Directions, 1970) in 1975, tracking down his Wine and Hashish poems, and my fascination with this alien genre.3 There has been a continuous interaction since then as English poets have fed off and entered into subsequent French poetic discourse, and French translations have arrived in England. A partial list since Dowson and Wilde would include Samuel Beckett, David Gascoyne, Norman Cameron, Charles Tomlinson, Roy Fisher, Peter Redgrove, Lee Harwood and John Ash. The prose poem—often associated with the modern world, unofficial language and thought—can, through its hybrid nature, present unsettling and unfamiliar aspects of that world, which these poets have seized upon.
The prose poem, seen here as a poem without line-breaks, retains the tension between line and sentence structure without the use of line-endings. It has the potential to build pace, rhythm and music, and to produce meaning as much as free verse, only it has to generate tension, drama and crises through sentence structure, relationship and language use alone. It is, in a sense, a freedom to open possibilities and to move away from a stultifying rigidity and closure. Eliot objected to the pseudo-archaic style of the Decadent prose poem and, by implication, indicated that the prose poem could not rely upon only emulating the musicality of verse in one narrative. Alternatives needed to be found. His own effort, the prose poem ‘Hysteria’, does show the way towards fabulism in its use of burlesque and fantasy. Notwithstanding, Eliot’s censure, the apparent failure of the Decadent prose poem, led to clear thresholds in English poetry in the 1920s and 1930s. Clearly, later, the Movement and their successors have a dualistic attitude to the questions of identity and the formal constraints of language and verse that runs counter to an opening up of the world and a discovery of variance through language. Don Paterson’s T.S. Eliot Lecture, ‘The Dark Art of Poetry’ (2004), is shot through with it: ‘Only plumbers can plumb, roofers roof and drummers drum; only poets can write poetry.’4
Think of what all the people you see taste like and you’d go mad: all those leaping, billowing tastes through the world, like a cemetery turned suddenly into damp bedsheets with the wind under them. So the possible taste of a person is a small thing, just a flicker of salt, putrescence, potatoes, old cardboard across the mind, behind the words, behind the manners. And the actual taste, if you go after it, is something that’s always retreating; even if it overwhelms, there’s an enormous stretch of meaninglessness in it, like the smell of the anaesthetist’s rubber mask in the first moments – it ought to mean, it ought to mean; but how can anything mean that? There must be a taste about me that could be sensed by others. Somebody as skilled as a dog could recognise it as mine; yet I cannot. If I try to get it from myself I just get the double feeling of tasting and being tasted all in one, like being in a room with an important wall missing. Hold hands with myself as with another person; the hands disappear from my jurisdiction. Looking down, I see moving effigies; the hands that feel are some way off, invisible. There is an image of me that I can never know, held in common by certain dogs.11
It is intensely physical and shot through with poetic externalisations. Thus, Merrett’s saxophone is a husk and Amy’s trombone is an axe.12 In essence, the poetry and prose are woven together through the mutability of the narrator seeing from ‘far down’ the ship’s superstructure and seeing the world of the ship ‘like cake’. He gets drunk, vomits, sees a mermaid, hears Amy play the trombone, and sees the ship as a structural and purposive unity proceeded with music. However, that is not how it is. The musicians do not play and the ship is not a unity, and the musicians sink further into themselves and into a world of claustrophobia and paranoia. The ship becomes a symbol of societal constraint and the musicians clearly want to break free and play.13 Again, the poetry bursts through the prose as fine-tuned externalisations of inner emotions. The narrator is ‘something that has been pushed out of Amy’s body’, with ‘no legs’, ‘no arms or hands’, and ‘pushed out of Merrett’s body in his sleep’ with ‘no head’ and thinks he is yellow.14 He contracts to this limbless creature that can journey between ‘Amy’s breasts by caterpillar tractor.’15 The heightened poetic language serves to subvert the prose through the mutable and refractive narrative producing, at once, a shocking and surrealistic poem.
A worm came creeping, he tore a man in two, then Woden took nine Glory-Twigs, then struck the adder, that it flew apart into nine bits. … Woden established the nine herbs and sent them into the seven worlds, for the poor and the rich, a remedy for all, it stands against pain, it fights against poison, it avails against three and against thirty, against foe’s hand and against noble scheming, against enchantment of vile creatures.17
Prose poetry was certainly formed as a hybrid to shock and innovate against poetic tradition. Once the idea of introducing non-literary prose into poetry had been accepted as a form of modernist subversion, then the genre spread as a strategy and innovation kicked into the extent that, by the 1980s, it became a growth area; by the 1990s, it was an established way of writing poetry in American poetry.
Before I was born the seer predicted, ‘You will be inaudible in the laughter of many doctors.’
When I was born they tied a red ribbon around my ankle and glued fur onto my back so that my blind father could tell the difference between me and the dog – a hairless breed. This didn’t work as the fur just wouldn’t stay on, so I had to learn to touch-type whilst drinking from a dog bowl and sleeping amid the scraps. Mother kept saying, ‘Father knows best.’ When I protested, father would scream, ‘WILL SOMEONE SHUT UP THAT INFERNAL TALKING DOG?’ When the dog barked my father would shout, ‘WILL SOMEONE TEACH THAT INFERNAL BOY TO SPEAK?’19
This combines fable and narrative into tight comic lines that are self-contained and engaging. Kennard can be overtly self-conscious and self-deprecating in the manner of Dave Allen or Gerald Locklin and, like them, can be very funny.
The prose poem is susceptible to a wide range of strategies, as shown by Brian Clements and Janey Dunham’s Introduction to the Prose Poem. This American anthology, with English contributors such as Rupert Loydell, Geraldine Monk and Gavin Selerie, identifies twenty-four strategies ranging from anecdote, object, image, aphorism, list, repetition, fable and on, to surreal imagery/narration, rant, essay, epistle, monologue, dialogue, hybrid, sequence and so on. It also shows in the structural analogue strategy section how the prose poem can absorb a wide range of discourse.20
English poets today are grasping the possibilities that the prose poem offers and the form shows little sign of disappearing in the UK, or anywhere else. On this note, I will end the essay with two examples by writers carrying the form forward in this country and abroad, as well as taking it in new directions. The first is from Elisabeth Bletsoe’s ‘Birds of the Sherborne Missal’ sequence in her Landscape from a Dream collection,21 which has been anthologised in Carrie Etter’s Infinite Difference anthology.22 Bletsoe’s narratives weave around the Sherborne Missal’s marginalia of birds employing religious iconography and local observation in short and very short vibrant sentences. The second is from Vahni Capildeo’s ‘Person Animal Figure’ featured in her Undraining Sea collection and the dramatic interior monologues render the world in a fresh and exciting way, managing to be simultaneously breathtaking and mildly disturbing. Bletsoe and Capildeo herald the form as a genre in its own right, while retaining a respectful nod to its relationship with other forms; it is this fittingly dualistic approach that may well be key to ensuring a secure place for the prose poem in British literature:
David Caddy, “Hidden Form: The Prose Poem in English Poetry.” Previously published in Stress Fractures: Essays on Poetry, ed. Tom Chivers (Penned in the Margins, 2010), 103–13. Permission by the author to use with any necessary editing has been granted.
See also T.S. Eliot’s 1917 essay “Reflections on Vers Libre” and 1936 introduction to Djuna Barnes’ poetic novel, Nightwood, which he claimed was not poetic prose as it did not have sufficient rhythm and music.
For an interesting discussion of the impact of Thomas De Quincey on Baudelaire and the development of the prose poem, see N. Santilli, Such Rare Citings: The Prose Poem in English Literature (USA: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002), 87–97.
Don Paterson, “The Dark Art of Poetry,” T.S. Eliot Lecture, 2004, https://www.poetrylibrary.org.uk/news/poetryscene/?id=20.
Roy Fisher, The Ship’s Orchestra (London: Fulcrum Press, 1966).
Robert Sheppard, “Making Forms with Remarks: The Prose,” in The Thing about Roy Fisher , ed. John Kerrigan and Peter Robinson (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000), 134.
Robert Sheppard, The Poetry of Saying: British Poetry and Its Discontents 1950–2000 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005), 77–102.
Sean O’Brien, The Deregulated Muse: Essays on Contemporary British & Irish Poetry (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1998), 112–22.
Andrew Duncan, Origins of the Underground: British Poetry between Apocryphon and Incident Light 1933–79 (Cambridge: Salt, 2008), 62–70.
Fisher, The Ship’s Orchestra, 43, 44.
Bill Griffiths’ version of the The Nine Herbs Charm (Tern Press, 1981) emphasises its sound and prose qualities. Moreover, Griffiths’ Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic (Anglo-Saxon Books, 1996) makes a case for many Old English texts as list poems that can be translated with or without line breaks. Griffiths, of course, was a poet intensely concerned with questions of identity, language and power.
Todd Swift, “Catering to the Perfumed Cannibal,” Poetry London 65 (Spring 2010).
Luke Kennard, The Migraine Hotel (Cambridge: Salt, 2009), 48.
Brian Clements and Jamey Dunham, eds., An Introduction to the Prose Poem (Western Connecticut State University, Firewheel Editions, 2009), 233–54.
Elisabeth Bletsoe, Landscape from a Dream (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2008), 49–57.
Carrie Etter, ed., Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by U.K. Women Poets (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2010), 85–86. Mentioned here as an important and complementary resource to this volume, in terms of other exemplary female writers practising prose poetry and experimental poetry in the UK.
Elisabeth Bletsoe, “Birds of the Sherborne Missal,” in Landscape from a Dream (Exeter: Shearsman, 2008). This extract from Etter, Infinite Difference, 85–86.
Vahni Capildeo, “Person Animal Figure,” in Undraining Sea (Norwich: Egg Box, 2009), 57.
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