What the hell is it?
By ANTHONY HOWELL.
IT’S AN ENIGMA, that’s what it is, especially in English; a form that is far more common in French. The “poem in prose” was taken up by many Gallic poets in order to escape the clutch of the Alexandrine – twelve syllable couplets of iambic hexameter – an orthodoxy which tyrannised the making of French verse during the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Baudelaire used the prose-poem to liberate his writing from the Alexandrine, and Rimbaud followed with his brilliant Illuminations.
Graceful son of Pan! Around your forehead crowned with small flowers and berries, your eyes, precious spheres, are moving. Spotted with brownish wine lees, your cheeks grow hollow. Your fangs gleam. Your chest is like a lyre, jingling sounds circulate between your blond arms. Your heart beats in that belly where the double sex sleeps. Walk at night, gently moving that thigh, that second thigh and that left leg.
In my view, some of the finest prose poems have been written by those mystics and philosophers who engage us through the saying. An aphorism with its laconic precision is equivalent to a prose “verse” and there are several fine exponents of this usage. In The Fortnightly Review of March 1877, Sir M. E. Grant Duff writes: “It would possibly be rather difficult to disprove the thesis that the Spanish nation has produced the best maxims of practical wisdom, the best proverb, the best epitaph, and the best motto in the world. If I had to sustain it I would point, with reference to the first head, to the Oráculo manual.”
Grant Duff is referring to The Oracle: a manual of the art of discretion by the Jesuit Baltasar Gracián first published at Huesca in 1647. This is a collection of 300 paragraphs, each in itself a prose poem. Let me pick one at random:
Do not be completely dovelike. Alternate the cunning of the serpent with the candour of the dove. There is nothing easier than to deceive an honourable man. The person who never tells lies is extremely credulous and the man who never deceives is very trusting. To be taken in is not always the result of stupidity but sometimes of virtue. There are two types of men who ward off injuries with ease: those who have suffered them, very much to their own cost, and those morally insensible people who have learned their lesson at very great cost to their fellows. The wise should show themselves as ready to suspect as are the cunning to ensnare, and no one should want to be so good a man as to cause another to be bad: one should be a mixture of dove and serpent; not a monster, but a prodigy.
—L. B. Walton translator (London J. M. Dent 1953)
This is how The Oracle should be used. Open it anywhere, and that paragraph you first set eyes on constitutes an oracular reading for the day. There is a Machiavellian irony to the thought (The Prince appeared in 1513). And by deft usage of symbols, Gracián creates imagery to support argument.
Gracián’s paragraphs are aphoristic, and another great exponent of the axiom forceful as as a proverb was François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, the first edition of whose Maxims and Moral Reflections came out in 1665. After a heroic youth, the Duc entertained La Fontaine, Racine, Boileau, Molière and others at his home in Paris; a glittering life that generated a host of glittering bon mots. Swift wrote of these:
As Rochefoucauld his maxims drew
From Nature, I believe them true.
They argue no corrupted mind
In him – the fault is in mankind
Often the maxims are single sentences:
The accent of a man’s native country is as strongly impressed on his mind as on his tongue.
Grace to the body is like good sense to the mind.
So the sentence, polished, finely calibrated, becomes an object constructed with art – a European form of the haiku. Sometimes the sentences come together in a paragraph:
Nothing is so contagious as example. Never was there any considerable good or ill action that hath not produced its like. We imitate good ones through emulation; and bad ones through that malignity in our nature which shame conceals and example sets at liberty.
—John Fletcher Hurst translation, 1899
With Jean Paul Friedrich Richter, darling of the Romantic composers, German prose itself became pure poetry. You can tell it’s poetry, surely, if you can open it anywhere and it takes your breath away – as is the case with the writers already cited. There isn’t the same drive forward that the narrative thrust of the novel imposes.
Man climbs a mountain, as the child does a chair, in order to stand nearer the face of the infinite Mother, and to reach her with his puny embrace. Around my height the earth lies sleeping, with all its eyes of flowers under the soft mist; but the heavens already lift themselves up with the sun under the eyelid; under the paled Arcturus mists begin to glow, and colours extricate themselves from colours; the globe of earth rolls, vast and full, to rapture, of blossoms and living creatures, into the burning lap of morning.
—Hesperus, translated by Charles T. Brooks, Boston, Ticknor & Fields, 1865
But this is page 148 of a two-volume work of well over a thousand pages. Jean Paul’s prose is not exactly purple. Rather than overblown, it seems suggestive. It comes over as a precursor to the lyrical modernism of Salvatore Quasimodo. There is intensity and precision and at times acerbic satire, as in this passage from his novel Flower, Fruit and Thorn, which retains the verbal density of a prose poem:
” Merciful heaven! we are surely not going to sell our pewter!”
“I am only going to turn it into silver,” said he; “as princes get dollars from steeple-bells, so we, too, can get them from bell-dishes. You surely cannot be ashamed of turning miserable eating-utensils—these animal-coffins—into fine coin, since Duke Christian of Brunswick, anno 1662, even turned a prince’s silver coffin literally into money, i.e. coined it into dollars. Is a plate, then, an apostle ? And yet great princes have cut up many an apostle, if they only happened to be of silver; a Hugo of St. Karo, and others, dividing their works as it were into chapters, and verses, and legends, and sending them, thus analysed, from the mint into the whole world.”
” Nonsense!” answered she.
HUGELY IMPORTANT IN his day, a veritable architect of romanticism, Jean Paul is now all but forgotten. I find his writing addictive. You can trip out on it. It’s like music, romantic music, articulated through words. It’s all wonderful stuff, as abstract expressionism is wonderful stuff, as Wagner is wonderful stuff, seemingly without beginning or end. But, anyway, is the prose poem merely to be dismissed as purple prose? Are the breathless exclamations of Elizabeth Smart in By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept – evidence that it’s a prose poem? Is Virginia Wolf’s The Waves a prose poem – or what about a paragraph by Kafka or the late texts of Samuel Becket? Again I ask, what the hell is it?
A passage that employs heightened imagery, parataxis and emotional effects is the generally received view. I get the sense that the “unit” of the prose poem is actually the sentence itself. A prose poem can exploit the way a sentence balances subject and predicate, how it can serve paradox and rhetorical figures, how the construction of an opening phrase can cut across the drift of the previous sentence. And yes, truncated, it can yield parataxis and a fragmentary way of saying; all part of an insistence on the sentence as a material form, rather than the line with its ordered feet.
In English literature, the pioneer of this form, for me, is Thomas Traherne, whose Centuries of Meditations were written between 1666 and 1671, so they are contemporaneous with the Maxims:
As Eagles are Drawn by the Sent of a Carcais, As Children are Drawn together by the Sight of a Lion, As People flock to a Coronation, and as a Man is Drawn to his Beloved Object, so ought we. As the Sick are Drawn by the Credit of a Physician, as the Poor are Drawn by the Liberality of a King, as the Devout are Drawn by the fame of the Holy, and as the Curious are Drawn by the Nois of a Miracle so ought we. As the stones were Drawn to the Building of Thebes by the Melodie of Amphion, as the Hungry are Drawn with the Desire of a Feast, and the Pitifull Drawn to a Wofull Spectacle so ought we. What Visible Chains or Cords draw these? What Invisible Links allure? They follow all, or flock together of their own accord. And shall not we much more? Who would not be Drawn to the Gate of Heaven, were it open to receiv him? Yet nothing compels Him, but that which forceth the Angels – Commoditie and Desire. For these are Things which the Angels desire to look into. And of Men it is Written, They shall look on Him whom they hav Peirced. Verily the Israelites did not more Clearly see the Brazen Serpent upon the Pole in the Wilderness, then we may our Savior upon the Cross. The Serpent was seen with their Eys, the Slayer of the Serpent is seen with our Souls. They had less need to see the one, then we to see the other.
—Thomas Traherne, section 57 of the “First Century of Meditations”
Here one senses the influence of the “authorised version” – the first edition of which came out in 1611. Cadence and repetition are favoured in a way that is reminiscent of the Bible’s verses, and yet this flavour is tempered by the Pagan classical references. It’s a poetry of nouns guided by a repeated verb. The last use of draw is deftly camouflaged by a near rhyme – allure – which in turn is rhymed with more and nearly echoed by Desire, lower down. It is very definitely a structure made of words considered in sentences.
The sentence is a random unit, but a unit nevertheless, in that words can become a whole between the opening capital and the stop. Consider. The weight of a single command, suitably framed by start and end, may balance the wordy modification used in the next sentence. This is a form which appeals to modernists like John Ashbery who acknowledges Traherne as a precursor.
ASHBERY IS ALSO a champion of Giorgio de Chirico as a writer, as well as an admirer of his painting. The Italian artist is well known as one of the Italian metaphysical movement – Pittura metafisica – a group established in 1917 which included Carlo Carrá and de Chirico’s brother and later Giorgio Morandi as well as the Englishman Paul Nash.
Published in 1929, de Chirico’s Hebdomeros is a novel-length poem in prose. There is a surreal dislocation to the flow of its narrative. We follow Hebdomeros, the main character, but where we have been dissolves behind us. Light is heavily contrasted with the deepest shade. Metaphysical art is linked to the surreal, but there is always a distinction to be sensed. With the surreal, anything goes – molten clocks, monstrous distortions, the open pages of books that float off as seagulls. With the metaphysical, there is dislocation, yes, but there is also restraint. Very often the rubber glove retains its identity as a glove, the bunch of bananas remains a bunch of bananas. It is the juxtaposition of things, their context, that renders an eeriness to these objects. This is also true of de Chirico’s prose. There is some narrative thrust, a nod in the direction of the novel as a convention, but just as its past dissolves as we read, its future proves free to wander anywhere. Peter Owen brought out an English translation by Margaret Crosland in 1964. It was actually written in French.
Leaving the vast railway station of this metropolis where nearly eight million men worked in a state of agitation from morning till night without rime or reason, Hebdomeros went towards the district where fetes were held at night, constituting a world apart in the very heart of the city. The district had in fact its limits and its frontiers, its laws, its statutes, and it was by sheer chance that highly zealous customs officers were not watching at its gates to ask you if you had anything to declare. At the edge of this indescribable area the city traffic stopped; it was there that the convulsive movement of the vehicles, the coming and going of the busy pedestrians finally came to an end as the wave dies on the beach. Happiness has its rights, that is what one saw written on the main gate built in the middle of a vast triumphal arch on which female figures carved in the wood and painted in soft, striking colours blew like obstinate tritons into the long trumpets of fame. The fortresses which were going up alongside, to house those neglected by fortune but not forgotten by grateful, kind-hearted men, watched alone in the darkness. Their solemn vaults were silent in the profound peace demanded by rest; the world slept, enveloped in deep tranquillity, and in the same way the storm which agitated the troubled heart of Hebdomeros seemed at last to subside.
In 1970, Ashbery brought out Three Poems: The New Spirit, The System and The Recital. These were all prose poems, and the most significant development of the form in English literature since Traherne. Renowned for his mastery of syntax, Ashbery’s poetry flows from one line to the next, and it feels appropriate that this line should follow the one before, although, for all the grace of it, sense may elude the reader, who may need to come to terms with the notion that the meaning resides in the grace itself, the fittingness of the phrases.
In the UK, my take on such writing has been kept out in the cold. Our literary establishment remains deaf to the notion that meaning may be gauged by anything other than narrative significance. All too often, this does not hold true for radical creativity. Once, in an interview, Peter Maxwell Davies said, “People have criticised me for writing music in which they find no meaning. I take it for granted that what I write has got a meaning. I think a composer should be able to take that for granted, otherwise he should not be in the business at all.” This applies to poets, as it does to all artists.
IN THREE POEMS, it is the sentences that follow each other in a way that feels right as we read, but we shouldn’t project abstraction too forcefully on the text. Like a dolphin, the meaning dips in and out of the ocean: sometimes we understand, or feel we understand, and sometimes understanding slips below the surface.
From the outset it was apparent that someone had played a colossal trick on something. The switches had been tripped, as it were; the entire world or one’s limited but accurate idea of it was bathed in glowing love, of a sort that need never have come into being but was now indispensable as air is to living creatures. It filled up the whole universe, raising the temperature of all things. Not an atom but did not feel obscurely compelled to set out in search of a mate; not a living creature, no insect or rodent, that didn’t feel the obscure twitchings of dormant love, that didn’t ache to join in the universal turmoil and hullabaloo that fell over the earth, roiling the clear waters of the reflective intellect, getting it into all kinds of messes that could have been avoided if only, as Pascal says, we had the sense to stay in our room, but the individual will condemns this notion and sallies forth full of ardor and hubris, bent on self-discovery in the guise of an attractive partner who is the heaven-sent one, the convex one with whom he has had the urge to mate all these seasons without realizing it. Thus a state of positively sinful disquiet began to prevail wherein men’s eyes could be averted from the truth by the passing of a romantic stranger whose perfume set in motion all kinds of idle and frivolous trains of thought leading who knows where—to hell, most likely, or at very best to a position of blankness and ill-conceived repose on the edge of the flood, so that looking down into it one no longer saw the comforting reflection of one’s own face and felt secure in the knowledge that, whatever the outcome, the struggle was going on in the arena of one’s own breast.
—From “The System”, Three Poems, The Viking Press, NY 1972
Through the Glass Mountain (Bloom Books 1997) and Petrol (Anvil 2012) are both novella length prose-poems by Martina Evans. Each is arranged in numbered episodes, each is a column of prose which might be half a page or a page and a half long. In each there is a narrative, moving and tightly constructed; so narrative in itself does not disbar the prose from being a poem. Each accurately conveys the tone of a narrating character – but why should this eliminate the writing from inclusion in the genre under discussion, since all of this could be said about Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” – and that is most definitely a poem? Again the sentence is the lever, poised on the fulcrum of its verb, the effort of its subject equal to the load of its predicate. Its verb is its force. The predicate may be designed to generate surprise, and it’s that surprise which makes Petrol, for instance, poetic.
Old Danny boy suffered from Real Depression, real depression was when you couldn’t get out of bed and you had to take tablets for it and Bertha complained about him wearing the pink shirt. Once I looked out the bedroom window and Agnes and Old Danny Boy were lit up by the BP sign, the pump was purring and Agnes was filling his golden Cortina. He was like Danny and the pink shirt just suited him, his black and grey hair sat on the collar. Justin had said that Old Danny Boy’s hair was a bit long for an ould fella and I said I didn’t think he looked that old. Agnes and Justin looked at me and when Bertha threw her eyes to Heaven, they were like blue and white marbles and I carefully watched them go rolling up. That was to stop myself going red, I had a few tricks that I used like that and Agnes said that good looks ran in that family like TB and Justin said he’d met stupid young fellas in his time but Danny Boy took some beating and when we were walking to Mass, Danny passed up in a tractor, wearing a new denim shirt. I stared at the spot of altar candle grease on my desert boot. Bertha said that was another disgrace, working on a Sunday and Agnes said he was a poor thing, he’d no mother.
There is a “throughness” to conventional prose. With it, we travel on through one sentence to the next, and we are building something by going towards it. The writing may well feel “transparent” – we are simply looking through it at the sense. With prose poetry such as the above though, each sentence comes at you from its own direction. Each is its own whole, an atomic sentence. That is, it may differ from the previous sentence as much as one atom may differ from another. We don’t experience the same drive to get anywhere. This strategy may be used by “language” poets in a particularly abstract way, dislocated from meaning; but in the case of these intense prose poems, a story is being collaged together, a vivid story that hangs together in a disconcerting way, as one might concoct an image of a cow from many different images of cows. So we are in a double place where we savour the words in each sentence as if it were a separate dish in a Chinese restaurant at the same time as we make a meal of the yarn. And a good one is being spun, while each sentence sparkles like an Irish gem, and trade names and specific nouns are embedded in a tone that with authority sets the voice. We know where we are at the same time as we are surprised by where it is. Reading these texts is a delicious experience. Martina Evans has just released recordings of sections of a new prose poem, a chilling exploration of the troubles, the “auxies” and the “black and tans”, on RTĒ 1, available this March – anniversary of the 2016 Easter uprising.
ANOTHER WRITER MAKING the contemporary prose poem his own is Ian Seed. I heard him read several of these on The Verb recently, in an edition devoted to the new town. Ian McMillan, the programme’s host, considers the prose poem an apt form for Basildon – “An angular slab of words surrounded by white space.” Interviewed on the programme, Ian Seed expressed a kinship with “outsiders, and odd surreal moments.” He said that his poems often moved from “a concrete place into a more dream-like world.” He pointed out that the prose poem “sets up the idea of a contradiction in terms…it forsakes the tool of the line-break.” For him, flash fiction differs from the prose poem because its sense of story enables a resolution, whereas in the prose poem “you still want a resolution.”
I was already middle-aged and divorced when I was sent to Italy. An Italian family was paid to put me up until I could find a place of my own. They were suspicious of me at first, although the father was friendly in a gruff sort of way. All I wanted to do was to fit in, to be one of them.
A woman from England arrived to work in my office as a translator. She was fresh out of university. The father made jokes about a future wife for me, though I was obviously much older than her. I was going bald and grey, unlike the father. He had a head of rich, dark, wavy hair, which looked especially beautiful when ruffled by a breeze in the Italian sunlight.
—Ian Seed, Identity Papers, Shearsman Books, 2016
Here the sense of the sentence as the essential unit is epitomised by the last one in this particular piece. It does not resolve, it transfixes the poem. The entire context is somehow sucked up into its final image. I am taken by the notion that the prose poem “forsakes the tool of the line break”, just as blank verse forsakes rhyme, or free verse forsakes a standardised metre. Art seems to evolve, to grow, when some time honoured tenet is “let go of” – though this tendency to grow by relinquishment often offends pundits and traditionalists – who may accuse blank verse of “not rhyming”, for instance; ignoring the absurdity of their judgement.
Ian Seed has also published, Makers of Empty Dreams (2014), another collection of prose poems. The work is that of a “Europoet” – sometimes residing in Italy or elsewhere, but it is always a contemporary elsewhere. His prose poems are non-denominational, in that they embody the sort of narrative that may not appeal to lovers of narrative, but may well interest practitioners of language poetry and abstraction. A metaphor may be touched upon, implied, suggested, not quite clinched, so that there is an openness of space around the dissimilar things being alluded to as having a connection. There is a dryness here, similar to that I relate to in a painting by Gwen John or Giorgio Morandi, or indeed Paul Nash. While the sentences may each be dynamic, at the same time there is a quality to the overall surface of the text, akin to the notion of matière — a sense of the surface as some unique matter, matter that coheres (very much sensed in Morandi, for instance) — it’s a term that may aptly be applied to these prose poems.
In literature, I’m reminded of the work of Italo Svevo. There is the same self-disparagement in the sensibility of the protagonist – who is one to whom things happen, rather than one who makes things happen. Svevo has a passage concerning three sisters and a proposal of marriage – and so does Seed. I leave the reader to sleuth these out.
Both Ians on The Verb expressed an admiration for the poetry of the American Charles Simic, who wrote prose poetry with a ragged right hand margin. However, this tips the debate into the question of the longer line in contemporary poetry – as well as touching on the longer poem, and extended narrative in poetry – all fertile territory for several American poets. I know Martina Evans admires Driving and Drinking, a narrative in verse by David Lee (Copper Canyon Press, 1979), and there’s also the work of George Pitts, who writes with a significantly extended line in his long poem Partial Objects (Jerkpoet, NY 2016), but this notion of line length and narrative length in poetry warrants a separate essay.
Finally, in this disconcerting age of the multitudinous, I note the Marie Alexander Poetry Series, one of whose editors, Robert Alexander, has a comprehensive essay on the prose poem available online here. The site makes the prose poem a speciality and offers anthologies of the same and samples that can be read online.
These days, it feels as if everything can be mass produced by the sheer number of poets out there. I know of two sites specialising in Fibonacci series poetry, and doubtless there are sites offering a comprehensive survey of poetry on pottery.
Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here.