An interview with Jeremy Noel-Tod.
By SIMON COLLINGS.
PUBLICATION OF THE Penguin Book of the Prose Poem in late 2018 felt like a significant moment for prose poetry in Britain.1 Prose poems have long been with us but they were largely ignored by the dominant poetry institutions in Britain until the beginning of this century.
The 200 texts included in the Penguin anthology chart the evolution of the prose poem through the novel device of looking back in time, starting in the present and ending in mid-nineteenth-century France. Baudelaire is generally credited with originating the ‘poem in prose’ and Noel-Tod follows this convention. He traces the development of the form back to the work of the Symbolists through their influence on twentieth-century Modernism and the Surrealists. The literary innovations of the latter in turn influenced later generations of writers in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere.
Noel-Tod wisely avoids the definition trap, describing the ‘prose poem’ as a poem without line breaks. ‘Beyond that,’ he says, ‘both its manner and its matter resist generalisation.’ He describes the prose poem as ‘the defining poetic invention of modernity’. In an age when ‘grids’ of sentences, like grids of streets, dominate our lives, the prose poem disrupts our expectation that prose exists purely to convey information.
Prose poetry can take many forms, Noel-Tod argues. It can ‘follow the unmetrical pathways of thought’, or turn in the opposite direction ‘towards a plainer style, imitative of speech.’ It might take the form of the comic anecdote, explore the ‘mythology of everyday objects’, or invoke the world of dreams. Prose poems often work through metonymy rather than metaphor, though they may combine both.
This diversity of forms is reflected in the work included in the anthology, which has three sections. ‘The Prose Poem Now’ takes us from the present back to 2000, ‘The Postmodern Prose Poem’ covers the second half of the twentieth century, and ‘The Modern Prose Poem’ covers the century from the 1940s back to 1842. The middle section is the longest. Noel-Tod describes the aim of the anthology as: ‘to capture something of the same momentum of change and renewal in contemporary poetry’ as Wordsworth and Coleridge initiated with the publication of Lyrical Ballads.
The Penguin anthology first appeared in hardback in late 2018. At more or less the same time a volume of academic essays, British Prose Poetry, edited by Jane Monson, was published by Palgrave Macmillan. This publication, which I reviewed here in Fortnightly Review, was also evidence of the increasing interest in the prose poem in British literary practice. There are excellent individual essays in British Prose Poetry, including one by Noel-Tod on Vahni Capildeo, but I felt that overall the book focused too much on what Monson calls ‘mainstream influencers’ and that it failed to fully reflect the extent to which prose poetry has flourished for decades in the UK, albeit not within ‘mainstream’ circles.
The Penguin anthology avoids the mainstream/non-mainstream distinction and in his introduction Noel-Tod offers a narrative about the prose poem’s history which is more inclusive than Monson’s, a narrative which embraces what Margueritte S. Murphy calls ‘a tradition of subversion’. Prose poetry deliberately challenges conservative notions of genre, and has often been linked to a broader politics of dissent, though it doesn’t have to be.
COVERING 170 YEARS of literary history in 200 poems is inevitably challenging. Unlike the Monson book, the Noel-Tod Penguin anthology does not confine itself to British poetry but instead draws from the wider Anglophone poetry world, and also includes translations from other languages.
There were several new discoveries for me, such as the African-American ‘revolutionary poet’ Fenton Johnson, whose poem of 1919 ‘Tired’ includes the line ‘It is better to die than it is to grow up and find out that you are coloured’, and the Spanish poet Dulce María Loynaz whose ‘Love Letter to King Tutankhamun’ from 1953 records her moving encounter in a museum with the dead king’s remains.
Among contemporary writers new finds were the French writer Éric Suchère, whose meticulous and witty recreations of Tintin comic strips have been expertly translated by Sandra Doller, Clifton Gachagua, a Kenyan poet, and Cathy Wagner, whose ‘Chicken’, like many prose poems, is a wry comment on its own form. Among British writers it was refreshing to see work by Rosemary Tonks, Ken Smith, Brian Catling, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Bill Griffiths, Sean Bonney, and Peter Manson.
I spoke with Jeremy Noel-Tod recently and asked him about reactions to the anthology, and about the challenge of narrowing down his selection to just 200 poems.
SC: Were you pleased with the reception of the anthology? Has anything surprised you about reader’s reactions?
JN-T: I couldn’t have been happier with the reception of the book: I had no idea how it would be received, so widespread enthusiasm was a very nice surprise. In poetry, and academia, you don’t really expect anything you publish to be noticed straightaway, if at all. But the anthology got several newspaper reviews within a month or so of publication. So that made me feel it had caught people’s interest, as something that seemed new and interesting. That was the aim when the project began, in 2015, after Claudia Rankine’s Citizen was published in the UK, and it occurred to me that there was no book to point to as a way of showing the tradition that lay behind it. There was a Guardian article at the time which quoted an anonymous academic as saying it was ‘sociology not poetry’, which really annoyed me. So that, in part, was where the idea of beginning in nineteenth-century France and leading up to the present day came from.
Another inspiration around that time came from my day job, teaching at a university, where I noticed how creative writing students were increasingly interested in the form – and, again, there wasn’t anything obvious to give them as further reading. So it’s been really nice to hear from people who are now planning to teach with the book. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of its reception, though, was the way that people responded on Twitter. When I began to research the anthology, I put out an open call on Twitter for suggestions, and there were so many replies that in the end I lost track, but looked up as many as I could. That crowd-sourcing approach undoubtedly made the contents much richer than they would have been otherwise. So to see people tweeting favourite new poems brought that sense of reader involvement full circle.
SC: The crowd-sourcing approach was interesting. I remember making some suggestions to you myself at the time. Anything else you recall about the launch of the book?
JN-T: I think one unexpected thing that helped is that, due to a delayed publication date, it came out in hardback in November, and over the next few weeks became an odd kind of Christmas book. People were buying it for relatives with curious reading tastes, and on Christmas Day I got online messages from people saying how pleased they were that they had been given it. Which for me was really the perfect outcome: the aim of the book was to expand people’s general sense of what is available in poetry, what can be done in a poetic mode, and how many kinds of poetry and poet there are. So for an anthology with a fairly high quota of unknown names and avant-garde strategies in it to be embraced by a more general readership was great.
SC: One of the things I like very much about the book is the inclusion of a wide range of material without any attempt to categorise work. The texts are left to stand on their merit. But I remember reading at least one critical review, and there must have been others.
JN-T: Later on, there were a few more sceptical or even negative reviews, and I’m glad there were, because that’s all part of a healthy critical culture. Nobody fundamentally rejected the idea of the prose poem as such, though, as they might have done in earlier decades. It was more about querying my editorial choices and claims. And one point that I do think particularly worth arguing is whether the definition of the prose poem has anything to do with length. Because, as an anthologist, I did gravitate towards shorter, self-contained pieces – and some people feel quite strongly that this is essential to the form, almost like a sonnet. But to challenge this I deliberately excerpted from some longer episodic works, such as Auden’s ‘The Orators’, while at the same time drawing the line at simply taking a chunk of something novel-length. I did really want to include something by the English poet Peter Larkin, who often works in prose, but I found his sequences were too densely textured to extract an anthology-length piece.
SC: I think a strength of the anthology is your refusal to allow the ‘prose poem’ to be too narrowly defined. It can take many forms, as you argue in the introduction to the book. Were there any reviews which annoyed you?
JN-T: There was one review which made up a sort of parody quotation to ‘prove’ the point that there is a generic style to contemporary prose poetry – which I think there can be, although this is also something that I wanted to guard against demonstrating too much. I felt it was a cheap shot, which really only suggested that the reviewer couldn’t find the smoking gun that he wanted. It also gave me a horrible moment of doubt, because of course I couldn’t remember the ‘poem’ it was supposedly from….Another worry was that I knew I had, of necessity, omitted many excellent US poets, and indulged my taste for some quite obscure UK ones. So it was a relief when American readers and poets said how much they liked the selection, and didn’t complain that I’d missed out the great Doug Buggins or whoever. After publication, though, I did discover that the hugely popular American poet Mary Oliver, who I only knew as a ‘verse poet’, and who died in 2019, had written some very distinctive prose poems, and I wish I had been able to represent this.
SC: Limiting the selection to 200 poems must have been tough. Are there particular poems which didn’t quite make it, or work you’ve come across since the book went to press (you mention Mary Oliver), which readers might want to look up?
JN-T: The first draft of the book had to be cut in half, and then I had a one-in-one-out policy on later choices. So there was never any shortage of material, and there is almost a whole other anthology again in files on my computer. It became particularly difficult to choose the closer I got to the present day, because one of the original aims of the anthology was to respond to the great spreading of prose poetry as a form in the last 20 years. There’s no doubt that you could produce an anthology of new prose poems every year at the moment – and I did do something like this in miniature on Twitter in January, with a thread of poems just from books that I happened to read in 2019. The same year saw the publication of The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry, a wide-ranging survey of new work from the UK, which included many poets missing from my table of contents. And just a few months ago J.H. Prynne published a long prose poem called Parkland, which is unlike anything anyone’s ever written before.
SC: Any other writers who you wish you could have included but didn’t have the space for?
JN-T: It would probably be invidious to name too many names that didn’t make the cut, but in general I did try to curb the temptation to choose things for historical interest rather than for the effect they had on me as poems, i.e. to start constructing a checklist for academic researchers rather than an anthology for curious readers. Just to give one example, there is a fascinating unpublished piece of prose by Dylan Thomas, which John Goodby included in his recent Collected Poems – and I was very tempted to include it, because I’m particularly interested in the experimental stirrings of prose poetry in 1930s Britain. And of course anything by Dylan Thomas has a richness and a finish that is attractive. But somehow it didn’t work like the other pieces around it — reading through, I would get stuck in its richness, like over-applied varnish. So in the end Thomas seemed a good example of a poet for whom verse was an important armature, a way of structuring his extraordinary rhetorical flow.
Another, more positive imperative that emerged as I got into my researches was to make it both Anglophone and international. I hadn’t appreciated quite how widely the tradition had travelled from Baudelaire’s France in a century and a half, and how exciting it was to trace that where translations were available. I also wanted to show how the English-language tradition wasn’t just confined to the US and the UK, but had a history in other modern literatures written at least partly in English: in India, Africa, the Caribbean.
And it’s that general decolonising direction that my reading keeps going in, after publication: there was a wonderful translation of Adonis’ Rimbaldian ‘Psalm’ from The Songs of Mihyar of Damascus (1961), for example, which appeared in Poetry magazine last year, and which I would love to include in an expanded edition, to make good a significant gap in the representation of prose poetry in Arabic. I’ve just been sent a terrific new pamphlet of prose poems by the Singaporean poet Alvin Pang, too, published in Australia, where there is exciting creative and critical work going on around prose poetry at the moment.
SC: You clearly made a concerted effort to achieve a balance of gender and ethnicity across the anthology. You did this even in the historical material. The contemporary scene is of course very diverse as you say, with a lot happening in different parts of the world, and more critical studies appearing too.
JN-T: I do think there’s an obligation on any anthologist to try and do that work of redress, through the recovery of historically marginalised voices. And the history of the prose poem is often a history of the excluded and the overlooked. This is where the archaeology of academic research can be particularly valuable, too: there is an excellent article, for example, by the scholar Keiko Mizuta which led me to include one of Katherine Mansfield’s experiments with ‘special prose’ in her Journal.
And that’s perhaps the main thing that I’ve been noticing since the anthology appeared: not only how much new prose poetry there is, but how much more critical work there is on it too – for example, there was the recent collection of essays called British Prose Poetry: The Poems Without Lines, edited by Jane Monson, which you reviewed for Fortnightly Review, and there’s an up-to-date introduction to the prose poem coming out from Princeton University Press later this year by Paul Hetherington and Cassandra Atherton. So it’s nice to see my book getting a gang of friends.
Simon Collings lives in Oxford and has published poems, stories and critical essays in a range of journals including Stride, Journal of Poetics Research, Café Irreal, Tears in the Fence, Ink Sweat and Tears, Lighthouse and PN Review. Out West, his first chapbook, was published by Albion Beatnik in 2017, and a second chapbook, Stella Unframed, was released by The Red Ceilings Press in 2018. Why Are You Here? Very Short Fictions was published by Odd Volumes, our imprint, in 2020. He is a contributing editor of the Fortnightly Review. An archive of his work is here.
- The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem: From Baudelaire to Anne Carson, edited by Jeremy Noel-Tod, Penguin, 480 pages, pbk £12.99.