A Personal Reflection on Writing the Prose Poem.
By IAN SEED.
MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with small square blocks of prose presented as poetry1 was in the winter of 1974-75. I was in my final year of high school. My mother owned a few unusual books. One of these was Love and War Poems by the pacifist American poet Kenneth Patchen (1911-72), published in 1968 in a stapled, but high-quality edition as ‘whisper & shout no. one’. It sold for 2s 6d or 1 dollar.
What I found so affecting was not only Patchen’s passionate language, or his rich, sensory imagery, or his playfulness (often forgotten), or his utterly uncompromising style – which, granted, can at times result in terrible writing — but also the different shapes of the poems on the page: short lines, long lines, which like Whitman’s do not stop before the right margin, poems written in a mixture of prose and verse, titles written vertically down the left side of the poem, and those poems written as small square blocks of prose, such as the following:
Red grapes shielded from the sun by thick, velvety leaves. Vines strong with the strength of the loved earth, grapes like huge shiny drops of blood on the undersides of those green fingers. The air is rich with the smell of growing, womb-warm under the sun of the noon-day…
Down the rows walk three men in single file…heads bent…hands tied behind them… A few yards back a fourth man in the cab of a truck sprawled high with bodies listens to instructions over a two‑way radio and yawns nodding at something said by a fifth man who is squinting wearily down the sights of a heavy rifle mounted in the cowling…. After a time the voice of the two millionth man gives the awaited order and the finger of a two-millionth and first man tightens on the trigger. And under the sun of the noonday the air is rich with the sweetish smell of the harvest.2
One thing that struck me here — although I would not have framed it in such terms at the time — was the way in which the poetic is contrasted with a more objective, documentary style to heighten the obscenity of the atrocities being committed, off‑camera, as it were. The poem ends where it began, with the sensory description of the air ‘rich with the sweetish smell of harvest’. The lyricism of the language only reinforces a sense of horror, disgust and shame.
I was impressed by what could be achieved in so few words. And finally, there was the fact that this was called a ‘poem’, but in terms of shape it did not resemble any of the poetry that I was studying at school, although I had read and enjoyed Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which I had picked out on my own from the school library. Blake was in fact an important figure for Patchen. (In a short essay in the Love & War Poems, he memorably declares: ‘Thank God for William Blake! And thank William Blake for a very great deal of God!)’ Patchen’s political prose poems presage Carolyn Forché’s widely-anthologised, ‘The Colonel’, and the prose poems of writers such as Claudia Rankine.
THE FACT THAT I discovered prose poems through editions like this meant that for me they quickly became associated with a literature which was underground and subversive. Prose poems were outsiders. In spite of their square shape, they would not be boxed in by academic labels or commercial interests. Throughout the years, and through many a move from country to country, I have shed most of the books I have owned and read. However, I have hung onto my small press publications for dear life, always making sure they were safe somewhere.
However, while Patchen’s work widened my sense of the possibilities of language, it never occurred to me that I too could write poems — if that’s what they were — in square blocks of text, even if I was, of course, like many teenagers, trying my hand at lyrical free verse.
The first prose poems that made me want to write my own were those of Pierre Reverdy, which I first read in 1979 as a third-year undergraduate student at Nottingham University. As with the poems of Patchen, I discovered them in a small press publication. It was simply titled ‘Pierre Reverdy’, had a plain white card cover, and contained sixteen unnumbered pages of poetry on flimsy paper. Unlike the Patchen, there was no introduction, no afterword, no table of contents. Beyond the poems themselves there was only the information that the translator was Vivienne Finch, and that the pamphlet was published in an edition of 500 by ‘The X Press’.
I was immediately enchanted by the writing of Pierre Reverdy, and indeed remain so to this day.3 The prose poems in these translations by Vivienne Finch subtly evoke the atmosphere of Montmartre in the years just prior to the First World War. They also conjure up another, alternate world somewhere between dreaming and waking. Reverdy uses a language which is elliptical yet simple and vivid, and always hauntingly beautiful. Take, for example, ‘Mascot’:
Little doll, good luck charm, is struggling at my window, at the mercy of the wind. The rain has soaked her dress; her face and hands are fading. She has even lost a leg. But her ring remains, and with it, her power. Winter knocks her against the glass, her little foot blue-shoed, and she dances, dances with joy, and with cold, to warm up her heart again, her wooden heart, the good luck charm. At night, she lifts up her arms beseechingly towards the stars.
I tried several times to write something like this, but the results were almost always self‑consciously poetic. It was a couple of years later, in 1980 when I had left university and was working in series of menial jobs, that I discovered the prose poems of the British poet and editor, Cory Harding, who remains one of underground poetry’s best secrets. It was Harding who had brought out Vivienne Finch’s Reverdy translations. He also used his X Press to publish his own work, for example the A4‑chapbook, Blue Yellow & Green, which was, in the poet’s own words:
Typed on an Olympia portable typewriter (pudding face type) and dooplicated [Harding often played with spellings] on Armageddon (cheap & nasty) paper using ex‑army stencils run off on a Roneo‑Vickers 865 machine one rainy Sunday afternoon at the Cats Meat Warehouse, Tooting in a special limited edition of 75 copies only with a silk-screen cover by the author.
The title is perhaps unusual for a poetry collection, but it is an apt one. The prose poems make frequent references to colours and tell surreal stories that can be visualised as a painting, or as a series of paintings. Like many prose poems, Cory Harding’s convey strong feelings of estrangement and a loss of identity, employing an inseparable mix of pathos and absurdity, and have an oddly-biblical quality:
I would like to ascend into that little blue hole in the sky until I no longer remember how I was once human and how my body once consisted of spare parts that have now become obsolete. I would like to float up into that hole at the back of the sky until small clouds enter my body and I forget how my voice once consisted of thousands of wires that burned and sparkled in the dark, and how my body was once controlled by electricity, and how my feelings were ruled by magnets, and my thoughts by poisonous chemicals. You had promised me I would see the beautiful birds beneath the water and the fish swimming thru the blue sky and the clouds floating beneath the ground. But after you gave me this new face it dissolved into a pool of water on a road bordered by high trees where I lay breathing into a rubber tube that sighed like the passing of clouds across my chest.
For better or worse, Cory Harding’s work compelled me to try my hand at writing something similar. One early evening in January 1981 when I was walking home in the snow, the draft of a prose poem formed itself in my head. The final version came out like this, with the title ‘Insect’:
Walking by the council houses in the falling snow, I thought I saw someone waving to me from a downstairs window. Yet when I got close enough to press my face against the frosty glass, I realised I had been mistaken; there was only a family watching television. Looking more closely still however, I saw myself walking on the screen. The youngest daughter was crying because the way I dragged my crushed leg behind me reminded her of an insect.
The language here is very different from that of Reverdy or Harding, far less ‘poetical’. It is stripped down to a minimum. The po-faced narrator does not express any emotion. Nevertheless, loss (perhaps grief), estrangement and disorientation are conveyed through the storyline, the imagery, and the way the prose poem changes perspective, continually replacing one reality with another.
I sent ‘Insect’, alongside some much weaker work, to Pete Mortimer, editor of the prestigious Iron Press. He had always rejected my writings in the past, but his rejections were kind and encouraging enough for me to keep trying him. He accepted ‘Insect’, jokingly asking me if he should publish it under the name Franz Kafka.4 Astonishingly, I had not thought about Kafka when writing ‘Insect’, even though in my nineteenth year, I had soaked myself in his work, and I now realise that his influence has lasted to this day. Kafka’s very short stories, written around the same time that Reverdy was writing his early poetry, have been published both as fiction and as prose poems.5
However, a figure I feel even closer to is Max Jacob (1876-1944), friend and mentor to Pierre Reverdy, although I don’t believe I had read his work back in 1981. While Kafka builds an alternative universe through the accumulation of seemingly realistic detail, Jacob is a writer who with just a few brushstrokes plunges us into a world we create for ourselves.6 His language is plain, pared-down, almost conversational, like that of someone telling a jokey anecdote in a bar. Yet the pictures he paints are astonishingly beautiful, filled with a sense of mystery and loss, which is in no way diminished by their comic absurdity. Here, in John Ashbery’s translation, is ‘The Beggar Woman of Naples’, taken from Max Jacob’s groundbreaking collection of prose poems, Le Cornet à dés (The Dice-Cup), like Reverdy’s Le Voleur de Talan published in 1917 and at the author’s own expense.7
When I lived in Naples, there was always a beggar woman at the gate of my palace, to whom I would toss some coins before climbing into my carriage. One day, surprised at never being thanked, I looked at the beggar woman. Now, as I looked at her, I saw what I had taken for a beggar woman was a wooden case painted green which contained some red earth and a few half-rotten bananas.
What makes us do a double-take here is the way Jacob makes us believe in the impossible, or at least the highly improbable. Even when afterwards we realise that at one level we have been tricked, at another level we have absorbed and internalised the prose poem’s fictive logic. However unreal, it has become part of the reality of life. I attempted something similar in my own prose poem ‘Town Centre’, which a friend has described as a sort of secular version of George Herbert:
A thin youth with tousled hair and a wispy beard was walking from car to car stuck in the traffic. He tapped on each window and held out his hand for money. One driver, perhaps to show off in front of the woman next to him, jumped out of his car. Shouting and shaking his fist, he ran after the beggar all the way up the crowded high street. I thought he would catch him, but the beggar, turning a corner, ducked unseen into an Italian restaurant. I found him sitting at a table there, looking at a menu. The tablecloth was piled high with coins he’d taken from his pockets. He invited me to join him.8
After ‘Insect’ in 1981, I only wrote intermittently for a couple of decades: the odd poem, the very occasional short story, and around a dozen prose poems. The Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg has said that up until the age of around 25, writers can rely on a kind of innate lyricism. After that, if we are to write at all, we have to make writing an integral part of our everyday lives. Absurdly, it took me until my early forties to realise that. Even when I returned to writing, most of it was in the form of a more realist poetry and longer short stories.9
I OCCASIONALLY WONDER why I abandoned the prose poem for so long. Perhaps some part of me absurdly believed it was somehow not a valid form of writing. What brought me back to the prose poem in late 2004 was an increasing interest in abstract, rather than narrative poetry, for example the work of Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery, Rosmarie Waldrop, Sheila E. Murphy, Rupert M. Loydell and Jeremy Over. I began with a series of prose poems which depended mainly for their effect on rhythm and sound, and on the accumulation of disparate imagistic fragments.10 After about a year, however, I felt I’d written them out of my system. Instead, I turned to cut-up and collage, producing both lineated and prose poems in this way, with varying degrees of success, I think. On occasion, I still turn to cut-up and collage now, but I believe that there are other poets who use this technique to much greater effect than I could ever hope to.
And then, in 2010-11, almost without any intention on my part, I began writing narrative prose poems on a daily basis. Or rather, it was as if they were writing themselves.11 What surprised me was how similar they were in spirit to the few prose poems I had been writing thirty years before, as if they had just been waiting for me to open the door to let them out. It feels like cheating. I have not had to struggle with my narrative prose poems in the way that I do with other kinds of writing, and yet I believe that the best of them are the only writings of mine that are somehow genuinely themselves. They have needed just a little nurturing from me in order to make their own way in the world. Perhaps, like the friend in my prose poem ‘November’, they were simply waiting for me to recognise them:
I was sitting on a park bench, thinking of an old friend, of how I had never embraced him. I hadn’t seen him for years, and yet as I was wondering about him, I saw him pass by in the light rain that had started to fall. He turned and stared as if he could not believe it was really me. He seemed to have hardly changed, while I had aged almost beyond recognition. I got up and ran to take him in my arms, to hold him so close I could stop his eyes from wandering over my face.12
Ian Seed’s books of prose poems and small fictions include New York Hotel (2018); Identity Papers 2016) and Makers of Empty Dreams (2014); and two other collections containing prose poems, Shifting Registers and Anonymous Intruder, all from Shearsman; and two chapbooks, Threadbare Fables (LikeThisPress, 2012) and Distances (Red Ceilings, 2018). The Thief of Talant (2016) (the first translation into English of Pierre Reverdy’s Le Voleur de Talan) is published by Wakefield. Ian Seed’s work also appears in a number of anthologies including The Best Small Fictions 2017 (Braddock Avenue Books), The Forward Book of Poetry 2017 (Faber & Faber), The Best British Poetry 2014 (Salt), and the critical anthology, British Prose Poetry: The Poems Without Lines, edited by Jane Monson (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). His work has been featured on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb, hosted by Ian McMillan. He lectures in the Department of English at the University of Chester.
An archive of his work appearing in the Fortnightly is here.
- For a discussion of what a prose poem might be, see, for example, Anthony Howell’s article, ‘The Prose Poem: What the Hell is It?’, The Fortnightly Review, April 2016, or Jane Monson’s illuminating ‘Introduction’ to the anthology she edited, British Prose Poetry: The Poems Without Lines (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2018).
- ‘Vines with Their’, p. 24
- See, for example, The Thief of Talant (Wakefield Press, 2016), my translation of Reverdy’s 1917 self‑published ‘novel in verse’, Le Voleur de Talan.
- Over the decades, ‘Insect’ has taken on a life of its own, appearing in various journals and anthologies, for example, in 1987 it was featured on BT’s Dial-a-poem series. Most recently, it was discussed in Literary Non-Fiction: A Writers’ and Artists’ Companion, edited by Sally Cline and Midge Gillies (Bloomsbury, 2015).
- See, for example, Models of the Universe: An Anthology of the Prose Poem, edited by Stuart Friebert and David Young (Oberlin College Press, 1996).
- Max Jacob was of course also a painter and art critic, but it was Picasso who persuaded him that his true vocation was that of poet.
- I also remark on Jacob, with some translations from Le Cornet, in the Fortnightly Review here.
- From Makers of Empty Dreams (Shearsman, 2014).
- See, for example, my long short story Amore Mio, written in 2004, published in 2010 under Lancaster Litfest’s Flax imprint, available as an e-book.
- See my collection Anonymous Intruder (Shearsman, 2009).
- I should add that my prose poems were considerably enriched by my reading of contemporary authors of the prose poem, such as Linda Black and Lucy Hamilton. See, for example, Black’s Root (Shearsman, 2011), and Hamilton’s Stalker (Shearsman, 2012).
- From Identity Papers (Shearsman, 2016). Oddly, I think another influence here is the poetry of Edward Thomas, which is permeated with a sense of regret at roads not taken, and which made me want to start writing in the first place when I was in my late teens.