‘Poetry is in the eye of the reader’
A wonderful anthology, from Carson to Baudelaire, takes Tim Smith-Laing into the weird world of the prose poem
THE PENGUIN BOOK OF THE PROSE POEM
by Haji and Stephen Watts. For Haji, a Kurd who fled Syria in 2011, the “End of Days” must feel like something more than a theoretical notion; and yet the poem’s closing phrase, “The dots and signs with which we ended our lines leapt towards the words scattered about them, and all meanings changed”, forecasts a kind of emergent linguistic and poetic freedom. In other words, this is an anthology that is keen to take into account marginal voices in a marginal form, and to keep an eye on political realities at the same time as literary experimental possibilities.
It feels invidious to pick favourites in a collection this good, but Anne Carson’s 2016 “Merry Christmas from Hegel”, with its mixture of gravity, philosophy and childlike wonder, must be one. It is a poem in which Hegel’s famously abstruse phraseology collides with the death of Carson’s brother, and a magical walk in what can only be described as a winter wonderland.
“I was overjoyed,” Carson writes, “by this notion of a philosophic space where words drift in gentle mutual redefinition of one another but, at the same time, wretchedly lonely with all my family dead and here it was Christmas Day, so I put on big boots and coat and went out to do some snow standing.” Out in the wilderness, “trying on the mood of Hegel’s particular grammatical indignation”, she finds “a plausible way to change the icy horror of holiday into a sort of homecoming.” She ends cheerily with the title’s off-kilter sign-off: “Merry Christmas from Hegel.”
Alongside Carson, Claudia Rankine – represented here by a well-chosen section of her 2014 book Citizen: An American Lyric
– must rank as the leading modern proponent of the form. Citizen explores the everyday strangenesses and dangers of life as an African-American woman. Despite Rankine’s resolution that “Yes, and this is how you are a citizen: Come on. Let it go. Move on”, the unbearable cumulative weight of them is all too clear.
One suspects it could only become so clear in the hybrid form of the prose poem, with its slow, patient accumulation of detail, far beyond the loadbearing capacity of normal prose.
While sharp definition might elude prose poetry, Noel-Tod’s anthology is a series of object lessons in what it is and what it can do. One tendency of the prose poem is to inhabit a pleasurable space midway between dream and joke. Often these are small worlds where things happen one after another, as in dreams, with scant regard to the logic of causes, and where every new sentence threatens to invert the whole order of being.
Nowhere is that more apparent or more engaging than in George Seferis’s 1940 “Nijinski”: “He struck a match, set fire to the box, disappeared behind an enormous flame, and then stood before me. […] Gradually his arms began to separate from his taut body and to form a cross. Where did so many birds come from. It was as if he’d had them hidden under his wings.” Similar logics, often surreally funny, rule poems such as Simon Armitage’s 2010 “The Experience” (“I hadn’t meant to go grave robbing with Richard Dawkins but he can be very persuasive”), and Eileen Myles’s 1995 “The Poet” (“A comma is a little fish, a dash a sort of raft. When we say capitals we mean apples. German words about the same size as God”).
Of course, not everything will appeal to everyone – there would be something suspicious about an anthology in which everything did. I found pieces such as the excerpt from Keston Sutherland’s The Odes to TL61P (sample phrase, “A liquid sieve was slicked on mock extinct”) or Bernadette Mayer’s “Gay Full Story” (“Gay full story is authentic verve fabulous jay gull stork”) dull precisely by dint of their syntactic and lexical hyperactivity. But they may reveal more to me in time. This is an anthology to be absorbed in small, slow doses.
Call 0844 871 1514 to order a copy from the Telegraph for £20
‘TRY SNOW STANDING’Canadian poet Anne Carson