Prose Poetry in Theory and Practice: ed. Anne Caldwell, Oz Hardwick, Routledge
Prose Poetry in Theory and Practice is an engaging collection of essays that focus on the on the how and the why of prose poetry. However, the question I get asked most about this enigmatic form as a poet, publisher and creative writing facilitator is: what is prose poetry?
In the introduction to this forensic collection, editors Anne Caldwell and Oz Hardwick offer what they describe as a serviceable definition from the Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics: “a composition able to have any or all features of the lyric , except that it is put on the page, though not conceived of, as prose.” But surely what is conceived as prose relies on the eye of the beholder. Conversely, in a recent seminar I ran on prose poetry, participants had their own ideas on which poems I presented were prose poems and which were merely prose as far as they could see. Thankfully, Caldwell and Hardwick have something else up their sleeve and put forth Michael O’Neil’s definition: “a chimera, even a fabulous unicorn among literary forms; neither anecdotal fish nor symbolic fowl, but a new species, neither parable nor fable, though it may offer some of the fleeting gestures towards insight and story offered by those genres.”
An interesting definition, yes, but still a little vague. I’m not pointing these quotes out as a criticism of the editors or those who penned them, but to show that this book never shies away from providing definitions that are at best, serviceable to different degrees but arguably still fall a little short. What this collection consistently shows is that these definitions are tricky because the form itself evolves constantly and continually and resists the definitions that attempt to restrain it. Indeed, in the first essay Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington quote Kevin Brophy, suggesting that defining the elusive form is in the end futile: “It is perhaps impossible to discuss the prose poem sensibly. If you move too far towards categorising the different forms it can take, you can end by defeating its defiant formlessness; and if you move down the path of pointing out its poetic strategies you re-align it with the form of poetry it is deliberately discarding,’
Strong words indeed - and I suspect a little tongue in cheek.
In chapter 8, prose poet and academic Ian Seed refers to the prose poem as an ‘outsider’ form. Seed asserts the prose poem is “especially well placed to create an alternative world in just a few sentences” and talks about “the rapid way in which perspective on a situation, object, or psychological state can suddenly change within the space of a small paragraph in a manner which forces us to suspend our belief in the reality we thought we knew”.
Indeed, if this collection of essays is focused on the how and why, one can see how prose poetry is particularly well placed to engage with an often perplexing world, in which traditional and free verse arguably offers too many constraints. In June Monson’s chapter later in the book, she shares Claudia Rankine’s experiences to exemplify this very point. In an interview in The White Review Rankine explains how one of her poems was received as ‘sociology’ rather than poetry by her publisher. Rankine explains her attraction to prose poetry as a form as opposed to traditional verse:
“ … In thinking about race, you’re thinking about people’s lives. A book like Citizen was dependent on stories of people, and so one wanted to find a form that could hold that ... I felt that the sentence helped me more than the line, so I went to the sentence.”
Elsewhere in Monson’s fascinating chapter, the notion of a prose poem as being a political choice or an ‘outsider’ like Ian Seed asserts, is supported by looking at the form much further back. To French writers like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, prose poetry was seen as an act of rebellion itself. Monson quotes the poet Roger Robinson talking about this in bath magg poetry magazine:
“Prose poems come from a revolutionary tradition of French poets from the late 19th century. Writers like Rimbaud and Baudelaire, and the whole idea that they were trying to rebel. But it is also a form based in ironic humour and surrealism and lots of different things.”
Ian Seed’s aforementioned essay offers examples of his own work to examine his development in the form. He shares a draft of an early piece, entitled ‘Insect’:
“Walking by the council houses in 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 reminded her of an insect.”
Seed admits to being significantly influenced by Kafka in his essay. Indeed, he mentions the editor of Iron, Pete Mortimer, “jokingly asking me if he should publish it under the name Franz Kafka”. The poem certainly takes on some of the surreal aspects in prose poetry mentioned by Roger Robinson. Interestingly, Seed goes on to note that “Kafka’s very short stories” have been published both as short stories and prose poems.
Elsewhere, Oz Hardwick shares the introduction of his chapbook length sequence, Wolf Planet (Hedgehog Press, 2019) to exemplify how the prose poem resists traditional narratives.
“Ahead of schedule, we’re entering the realm of science fiction, strapping ourselves into reclining chairs, watching screens fill with a planet that looks something like the earth we remember, but less detailed, less hospitable. Entering into the spirit of things, we adopt expressions of heroic concentration and end each sentence with Over. Who’d have thought that dystopia would be so mundane?”
There are numerous other engaging essays on aspects of the prose poem by Anne Caldwell, Edwin Stockdale and Helen Tookey and others, no less fascinating than those mentioned above.
Prose Poetry in Theory and Practice provides a smorgasbord of debates and insights on prose poetry. The fact that the essays were written by practitioners of the form make the book a must read for readers and writers of prose poetry. Each essay enthusiastically contributes to the field they have chosen to become a little obsessed with. Moreover, their energetic and varied essays significantly contribute to not only the theory behind prose poetry, but the very craft of it. If you’re new to the form and want any useful insights on how to write prose poems, I can think of no better place to start.