British Prose Poetry: The Poems Without Lines
Edited by Jane Monson
The Little Book of Passage
By Franca Mancinelli
translated by John Taylor.
By PETER RILEY.
IN THE LAST decade or so there seems to have been a lot of excitement and worry about the concept of prose-poetry. The emphasis has been on the prose poem as an innovation which breaks away from the conventions and restrictions of lineated poetry and makes possible a new and more radical content, and this is what is happening now. Such is indeed the emphasis in the critical collection British Prose Poetry:
…a form which naturally opens up discussion around fusion, division, boundaries, migration, in-between places, cross-gender and a host of related terms and subjects […] an increasingly pertinent and manageable container in which to explore and probe on-going and complex issues and themes.
———— From the introduction
Leaving aside doubts as to whether a poem can ever be called a “container”, and whether “opening up discussion” on particularly topical subjects is what we mainly want from poetry, I find it hard to think of any way in which prose poetry should have a prior claim to all these subjects, most of which have only become known to us at all through explanatory and exegetic prose and most of which are plentifully evident in modern poetry, prose or not.
To avoid endless problems of definition, it would help if they were called “short prose pieces”, which is one thing they undeniably are. This was Eliot’s idea (who hated them). Then it would only be necessary to introduce poetry at a point beyond which it could not be avoided, which would be when the text transgresses into a different language use. Or, rather than “prose-poem” which claims an achieved unity, “prose/poem” which sets up a question.1
A majority of the contributors to British Prose Poetry undertake to advocate the genre as a liberating format, freeing the poet from the constrictions of lineation. These claims are mostly very close to the old argument between traditional verse and free verse; indeed it sometimes feels as if this old battle is being fought all over again, the prose-pieces replacing the poetry of unmeasured line and metre. The same argument goes on between spoken or performance poets and “desk-bound poets” (poor things). Most lineated poetry now lineates instinctively; it is difficult to see this as a restriction which prose-poetry liberates you from. Indeed, anyone who thinks lineated poetry must be restricted or conventional in its subject-matter and manner should look at the poetry of Hannah Sullivan, though it should be enough to remember Allen Ginsberg.2
For a personal testimony (since I am treated of in British Prose Poetry), in the 1960s, when I started writing poetry, it was quite normal among the poets I knew and read (admittedly American-influenced poets seeking change) to write a prose/poem now and again and introduce it into a poetical context. It still is, as it is to write whole books of prose/poems as I and others have done since. It did not feel like breaking boundaries, but much more like the introduction into a poetry context of parenthetical, informative material, or simply the need to move at a different pace. Sometimes, having thought of the first few words and the concept of a possible poem I might recognise that this is not going to fit into a verse framework; it is going to need longer lines, a faster pace, sometimes longer sentences, and a more direct mode of address. The fact that by the 1960s poetry was primarily lyrical, making it difficult to move into narrative or discursive modes without seeming to retreat fifty years from the present tense, probably made prose/poetry to some extent necessary.
Of course in writing prose you do not have to worry about the line ending — it is done for you by the printed justification. Similarly, you do not have to worry too much about line-ending if you’re writing in heroic couplets, where line length is more-or-less fixed. But if the verse is free, an act of decision is demanded in the structuring of every line — about how much disruption there should be by the degree of halt or enjambment, how the line may radically lengthen or shorten, whether the left margin should be observed and so on. These and other considerations all carry significant meaning within the poem and cannot be taken for granted. A recourse to prose/poetry can be seen as a release from these responsibilities, a relaxation, but also a reduction of the poem concept, since lineation is what makes poetry distinctive.
I think other poets shared with me this free and casual access to the prose piece, extending to the prose-poem. Modernism and America may have had a lot to do with it, especially when you consider that the poets we read then as elder exemplars were not necessarily what is remembered now — not only Williams (Kora in Hell, 1920), but also Hilda Doolittle,3 Amy Lowell, Richard Aldington (Greek translations), Sherwood Anderson… But there was really nothing inherently radical about the practice. I think the principal factor was that in those days French poetry was open to us in a way that it is now not. Aside from the ancestry of the French prose-poem-piece, which goes back to the 1840s,4 we were aware of an uninterrupted lineage of such writing going right through the twentieth century. The number of French poets who were well enough known to have some kind of classic status, or at least seniority, and whose work consisted substantially of prose pieces (-poems) or who felt free to turn to that mode whenever it suited them, was -— well, look at them! Ducasse. Gide, Saint-John Perse, Reverdy, Segalan, Jacob, Ponge, Laude, Giroux, Jabès, Fargue, Follain, Char, Breton, Tzara, Desnos, Cesaire, Jaccottet, Deguy, Dupin, Gracq, Michaux, Roubaud, des Forêts…
This list includes fervently innovative surrealists and Dadaists, and on the other hand some, such as Fargue, whose pieces I can only see as plain descriptive prose. There is no evidence here for a distinction between prose piece and prose-poem; both seem like established options.5
British Prose Poetry demonstrates a sprawl of claims and attempted definitions, constantly claiming both innovation and a respectable lineage. A wide range of writings is pressed into service as “prose poetry” or “poetical prose”. I think it should at least be insisted that the prose-poem is conceived by its author as a single and independent work, whether in sequence or not, and it does demand brevity, otherwise it cannot command poetry’s lyrical suspension. So it cannot be a page of a novel by Virginia Woolf or a whole prose book by Samuel Beckett. It was good that Claudia Rankine’s Citizen won the Forward prize for best poetry collection in 2014 because it has an important mission which the prize furthered, but that does not quite make it the work of poetry it claims to be in the subtitle: “an American lyric”. Much of it is standard essay or small-scale narrative prose and only some different, rather more enigmatic pieces could claim to be poetry — pieces, in fact, in which the central moral of the book is not so obvious.6
The claim that an extended prose work can become poetry at certain points relies on the unfortunate Victorian adjective poetic or poetical, by which the text may slide, as it were, as it runs its course, into a poetical condition by increasing intensity or extravagance of figurative vocabulary. Poetic prose is then a coloration of normal prose, whereas a prose/poem should be a distinct thing with unique qualities.
I mentioned that a different language-use might distinguish prose-poem from prose-piece, though even this would be difficult to maintain, as it depends on a definition and recognition of poetry as a distinct language use, which is everywhere transgressed. I think poetry does use language differently, and this is obvious in the most extreme usages, (heavily figurative and disrupted, and all the conditions where the text forms a barrier as much as an access) but can be present too in the plainest of indicative poetry, where close attention has been given to the sonorities of the language, thus lifting the poem above purely prosaic usages of declaration, opinion, depiction etc.
This can be a very delicate distinction, and lineation actually helps a great deal in reaching the kind of linguistic condition I’m talking about, where the poem is no longer exactly speaking straight at you, but is overheard in the air and retained. If it’s possible to recognise something like this definition, then it is should be possible to recognise a piece which does it in prose and is certainly a prose-poem, with no more differentiation needed than technicalities of address and pace, with the possible corollary that in a poetry context prose poetry may hearken back to its informative and descriptive function, sometimes as an aside, a need to wake up and check the alarm clock. But I think it finds its best function as a tension, even an uncertainty, between the still, contemplative ”moment” explored in lyric and the contextual demands of narrative, that the ecstasis be shown to exist within a worldly reality.
British Prose Poetry has, of course, a lot more in it than agonising about definition, though there is more than enough of that. There are helpful and informed essays on many aspects of the history and revealing analyses of individual (prose) poems.7 But the function of criticism here is generally seen not as a duty to describe what is written and follow the history, but (as so often now) as an advocation, ascribing innate virtue to the prose/poem in the contemporary context, a justification of its use, and a plea for it to spread. It is mainly viewed as some kind of advance. This seems rather foolhardy when the whole question of artistic advance is under question, and the avant-garde / rear-guard dichotomy is losing its edge. There is some helpful analysis of particular prose/poems, though a lot of what is said in terms of content, themes, technique, etc. is what might well be said whether the work in question were a poem or a prose-poem.
And is there really such a new outburst of prose/poetry? If The Fortnightly Review receives ten books of new poetry, one or two of them may be prose/poetry. Poetry collections with at least one prose/poem included may be four or five. But if this is a prolixity it is not necessarily militant. As much as a venture into a more real world, the prose/poem can be a way out of the demands a poem makes, cloaking its life messages in easy and familiar received ideas.
If this were all the prose/poem could offer we could well do without it, but fortunately it is not.
One new book which I particularly wanted to mention is Franca Mancinelli’s The Little Book of Passage which even in translation (by John Taylor) seems a perfect manifestation of the full prose-poem concept. This is because it enacts a constant tension between stasis and movement. I think that’s what prose-poems are for. It consists of a sequence of 33 prose-poems in four parts, each delineating an enigmatic and disconnected moment or event in the life of the speaker in relation to ”you” which is never entirely told. It is a kind of inner event, an event from which any reason for the pervasive sense of loss is omitted; “you” is present but lurks in the past or future, a forgotten or possible meeting. Yet through the whole sequence there is reiterated mention of being in a train compartment which is taking me to you or away from you. So every invocation of an evasive singular reality is cloaked in the prose sense of passage; the body of the other is physical and imaginary and the prose element enacts the repeated journey between the two, until at the end there is a suggestion of a consummation and/or a death, entirely real and entirely an event of the poem. Here the prose-poem format participates in the process of attenuation, so that the lyrical moments are stretched into the quotidian.
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.
Peter Riley’s latest books are Pennine Tales and Hushings (both from Calder Valley Poetry) and Dawn Songs (Shearsman, 2017). His Due North (Shearsman), a book-length poem, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, 2015. A collection of his ‘Poetry Notes’ columns has been collected in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, and published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint. An archive of his Fortnightly columns is here.
Note: Altered twice after initial publication to correct editing and technical errors.
- In The Fortnightly Review of June 1894, Oscar Wilde used a simple, if problematic, phrase— “Poems in Prose“. —Ed.
- Hannah Sullivan, Three Poems, Faber 2018. See also Anthony Howell’s remarks on the form here, and here on both Sullivan and Ginsberg, and Linda Black’s examples and comment.
- See “The Poems of ‘H.D.’” by May Sinclair in The Fortnightly.
- Some critics, eager to establish Baudelaire, a “major poet”, at the point of origin gloss over Aloysius Bertrand (Gaspard de la Nuit, 1842) but I remember that some distinctly forward looking poets some 40 years ago valued him highly, not only for the prose-poetry but also for alternatives to a Romantic and individualist poetical diction.
- The connection was facilitated, of course, by education in foreign languages as it then was, and also by the French habit of keeping poetry collections in print, as in the Poésie series of paperbacks from Gallimard, as against the English habit of closing and bolting the door at the end of each phase or decade, except for a few privileged escapees.
- Rankine may have started a tendency. Just published: Ken Edwards, Wild Metrics: A Poem. Grand Iota 2019. This is a book of memoirs in standard, somewhat colloquial, narrative prose throughout. The justification given for the subtitle is “…I call it a poem, it’s my right as a poet to do so, in just the same way that an object is a work of art if the artist says it is.”
- See the comprehensive review of the book by Simon Collings here in the Fortnightly Review. Also: Ian Seed, “Prose Poetry Lost and Found”, here.