‘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

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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

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