British Prose Poetry: The Poems Without Lines
Edited by Jane Monson
Palgrave Macmillan 2018 | 370 pp | £89.99 hardcover
By SIMON COLLINGS.
FOLLOWING DECADES OF hostility from the British literary establishment, with poetry in prose largely confined to avant-garde presses and journals, the ‘prose poem’ seems suddenly to have become respectable. An increasing number of ‘prose poems’ are being published in Britain, including work from ‘mainstream’ writers, and collections which contain prose poetry now win major prizes. So what is going on? This is the question which British Prose Poetry, edited by Jane Monson, sets out to answer.
Scholars, and writers alike, struggle when trying to pin down the characteristics of a ‘prose poem’. Apart from a general agreement that there is no lineation, there’s little commonality in the way the terms ‘prose poem’ and ‘prose poetry’ are employed. This diversity of usages is reflected in the essays gathered in this volume. One contributor (Alan Wall) asserts that it ‘cannot be book length’, others that ‘brevity’ is a key characteristic. Despite this, we have an essay by Scott Annett on Samuel Beckett’s novel How it is (136 pages in the Calder edition), Owen Bullock discusses Claudia Rankine’s book-length Citizen (which won the Forward Prize in 2015), and Roy Fisher’s The Ship’s Orchestra, which runs to 50 pages of text in the original Fulcrum edition, is analysed by Peter Robinson as a ‘prose poem’.
Monson herself avoids trying to untangle issues of definition, recognising in her Introduction that poetry in prose form comes in many shapes and sizes. The disparate views of her contributors reflect, she says, the current variety of understandings, and it’s appropriate to present these conflicting positions. The ‘prose poem’ or ‘poetry in prose’ by its nature challenges ideas of genre, and clearly overlaps with other forms of writing, including poetic prose, short fiction, flash fiction, aphorisms, anecdotes, memoir, and the lyric essay. At the start of the 21st century we are faced with a diverse set of practices to which old taxonomies no longer apply.
British Prose Poetry takes a historical perspective. Part I includes an overview of the topic, an essay on early Modernism in Britain, and another on US influences. Part II, ‘The Early Narrators’, looks at the origins of the prose poem in Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris: Petits Poèmes en Prose, at William Carlos William’s Kora improvisations, and at Virginia Woolf’s experimental prose. There’s an essay on James Joyce’s youthful ‘epiphanies’ (later recycled in works like Stephen Hero) and the ‘Giacomo Joyce’ sequence he wrote in Trieste between 1911 and 1914 (which was not published in his lifetime). T. S. Eliot’s single published prose poem, ‘Hysteria’, is analysed in a further chapter, and the essay on Beckett’s How it is also appears in this section.
Part III includes essays on a diverse mix of poets, with the emphasis on major ‘influencers’. There’s an essay on Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns from 1971 (which Hill did not consider ‘prose poems’ but ‘versets’). Another essay discusses Seamus Heaney’s forays into prose poetry, particularly Stations (1975). Mark Ford’s only prose poem, ‘The Death of Hart Crane’, and the work of Vahni Capildeo are examined in two other essays. The final piece in this section discusses Rankine’s Citizen, the prose poetry of Simon Armitage, and work by Peter Riley.
‘Other voices’ are presented in Part IV, with essays on David Gascoigne’s Surrealist prose poems of the 1930s, on Jeremy Over, on parallels between developments in jazz and prose poems by Roy Fisher, Tom Raworth and Patience Agbabi, plus the analysis of Roy Fisher’s The Ship’s Orchestra by Peter Robinson. The final section, Part V, contains two essays: the American poet Patricia Debney on her experience of teaching prose poetry in Britain, and Michael Rosen on writing it.
All the contributors offer interesting insights on the texts and issues they discuss, and the book serves a useful role as a collection of essays providing scholarly comment on examples of ‘prose poetry’, defined in a broad sense, mostly from Britain, both historical and contemporary. Aside from Nikki Santilli’s 2002 work on British prose poems, Such Rare Citings, there has been no book-length study devoted to the form, and this volume certainly helps to fill a gap.1 Its publication is itself evidence of the changing attitudes it describes.
Where the book doesn’t live up to the expectations created by Monson in her Preface, is in answering the question of why the prose poem is finally becoming more widespread in twenty-first-century British literature. The historical sections, while valuable and interesting, shed no real light on why the literary establishment shunned prose poetry for so long. Clearly there were early Modernist writers working in something like a prose poetry form, but what does this have to do with the emergence of the prose poetry we see now in Britain? There is a suggestion that Eliot was a malign influence, but this argument isn’t pressed very hard. No other explanations are offered. In the spirit of ‘celebrating’ the prose poem’s ‘arrival’, questions about British literary culture in the second half of the twentieth century are side-stepped.
Perhaps a kind of answer is attempted by grouping the writers studied into ‘influential’ and ‘other’, in Parts III and IV. Monson, in her Introduction, describes Part III as including poets who have ‘fundamentally influenced its [i.e. prose poetry’s] prevalence in modern British literature.’ The implication seems to be that the writers discussed in Part III help account for why the prose poem is now much more common in Britain. Those in Part IV are more marginal voices, who aren’t part of the main narrative, but are nonetheless worthy of note. In her Preface, Monson endorses Andy Brown’s2 argument that we need to move on from seeing prose poetry as the preserve of the avant-garde, and recognise that it is now ‘mainstream’. But while Brown is no doubt right, it’s unclear how we are to understand the relationship here between ‘influencers’ and the ‘mainstream’. Part III includes poets who would not normally be considered ‘mainstream’, and who would not describe themselves this way. So who and what is being ‘influenced’ by the poets included in this section? This is far from clear.
The works by Hill and Heaney discussed in Part III appeared in the 1970s. Andy Brown, writing on Heaney, argues that the Irish poet’s example is a critical factor behind the recent emergence of the prose poem in Britain. He claims that Maurice Riordan’s The Holy Land (2007) is ‘unthinkable’ without Heaney’s example, and that: ‘One might go so far as to argue that…Stations has influenced other high profile and popular contemporary lyric poets’. He lists Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars, John Burnside’s ‘Suburbs’, Robin Robertson’s inclusion of prose poems in his collections, and Alice Oswald’s Dart. But there are surely more obvious factors which would account for some of these poets embracing prose formats. Armitage has said that if there’s a template for Seeing Stars, which appeared in 2010, it’s Return to the City of White Donkeys by the American poet James Tate.3 Oswald’s Dart (2002) is usually compared with the work of James Joyce and Ted Hughes.
Vahni Capildeo is a very different kind of poet from Simon Armitage, John Burnside or Robin Robertson. Her first collection, No Traveller Returns, which Jeremy Noel-Tod discusses in his essay, was published by Salt. Poetry in prose format features as a major element throughout Capildeo’s work. And her writing practice is profoundly shaped by her Trinidadian background. She had four more collections published by small press publishers before being taken up by Carcanet and winning the Forward Prize. Is she ‘mainstream’? She is undoubtedly a vital presence for a younger generation of writers, but her rise to recent prominence is surely a function of changing attitudes in the UK, even if she also contributes to that change.
Peter Riley is another poet whose many works in prose form owe nothing, I would suggest, to Heaney’s example. See for example Lines on the Liver, originally published by Ferry Press in 1981 and included in The Derbyshire Poems published by Shearsman in 2010. He would also not normally be thought of as ‘mainstream’. For several decades Riley’s work appeared only in small-press publications. Carcanet published a selected poems in 2000, and has brought out other volumes of Riley’s work since, though he also continues to publish with Shearsman and other small presses. Riley is much respected as a critic and his ‘Poetry Notes’ published in The Fortnightly Review (available in book form from Odd Volumes) have had a following in the UK, though mainly among more ‘experimental’ poets.
Inclusion of the essay on Mark Ford in this section seems odd given that, as its author Anthony Caleshu says, Ford has only published one prose poem. The article seems to be here because it provides an occasion for bringing in Queer Theory (and perhaps because Ford could be considered ‘mainstream’). Including at least one contribution from a gay perspective is entirely appropriate, and Caleshu’s essay is interesting. But why not focus on a gay poet who has written a significant number of prose pieces – John Ash for example, or the bisexual Lee Harwood (John Ashbery’s lover at one time)? Or a younger poet like Kai Miller who won the 2014 Forward Prize and also writes stories and novels? These are all poets who, unlike Ford, might plausibly be argued to have contributed to the more widespread acceptance the prose poem enjoys today.
To her credit Monson does refer in her Introduction to a wide variety of contemporary writers of prose poetry, and does not attempt to distinguish between them. It’s unclear, therefore, why she feels a need to classify writers into ‘influential/mainstream’ and ‘other’ when structuring the volume. Current practices are diverse, as are the networks of influence which give rise to them. Is the concept of ‘mainstream British poetry’ useful when reviewing the contemporary scene? I’m not sure it is. I also don’t believe that changes in literary practice can be explained solely by pointing to the ‘influence’ of certain high-profile figures.
So what might be some of the factors which have contributed to recent changes in British prose poetry? One important element, as David Caddy points out in his overview chapter, is that since the 1960s there has been an active community of poets working in prose formats, their practice influenced by developments in American and European poetry. Peter Riley, Tom Raworth, and Roy Fisher, all of whom are discussed in British Prose Poetry, are examples of such poets. Other members of this group who receive fleeting mentions include: Lee Harwood, John Ash, Gael Turnbull, Geraldine Monks, Gavin Selerie, Brian Caitling, and Martin Stannard. These poets (and there are others like Denise Riley and Peter Larkin who are not mentioned) continue to influence younger poets drawing on those same traditions, and this is part of the diverse range of prose poetry being produced now. Some of these older poets have become better known in the last 15 years, with work that was largely unavailable being published as a ‘collected’ or ‘selected’ poems by publishers like Salt, Shearsman, Reality Street, Arc, Bloodaxe, and Carcanet. Peter Riley is a case in point. The internet has also made their work more available.
Additional factors influencing recent trends are proposed by Monson in her Introduction. These include technology changes, access to other writing through the internet, reading on screens (including phones), a growing preference for shorter formats, the emergence of short prose and ‘flash fiction’ in the 1990s (think of Lydia Davis who Robert Vas Dias mentions in his essay), and the growth of creative writing courses. Monson seems to pull back from pressing these as lines of enquiry, but I think her first instinct is right. These wider social, cultural, and technological trends are likely to offer richer insights into the diversity of current British writing practice than an appeal to the examples of Hill and Heaney. There is a lot more that could be said about contemporary British prose poetry.
Simon Collings lives in Oxford and has published poems, stories and critical essays in a range of journals including Stride, Journal of Poetics Research, Tears in the Fence, Ink Sweat and Tears, Lighthouse and PN Review. Out West, his first chapbook, was published by Albion Beatnik (2017), and a second chapbook, Stella Unframed, was published earlier this year by The Red Ceilings Press. An archive of his Fortnightly contributions, including his film commentary, is here.
- Nikki Santilli, Such Rare Citings: The Prose Poem in English Literature (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002).
- Andy Brown, “The Emergent Prose Poem” in A Companion to Poetic Genre, ed. Erik Martiny (John Wiley, 2012), 327-328. Quoted by Monson in her Preface.
- See ‘Simon Armitage — Seeing Stars‘ in Pam Johnson’s Words Unlimited blog.