A review of The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem (2018)
When I can’t bear the blood, gore and apologist position on sexual violence of modern TV crime dramas – I resort to re-watching endless episodes of Poirot. There is one episode that comes to mind where a ballet dancer who suffers from her nerves becomes stranded in an avalanche bound Alpine hotel. For some plot reason that now entirely escapes me, this poor girl is kept medicated up to her eyeballs by an evil doctor (played uproariously by Simon Callow evidently enjoying the part) with things to hide and axes to grind. One evening, she wanders dazedly into the hotel dining room and demands “ a bottle of wine – and food of some description”.
I thought of this scene when just before Christmas I walked into a book store (remember those?) to be faced by mountains of the latest offerings penned by the great and the good, spread across thousands of square feet of floor space.
Trying to avoid the latest slush pile of sleb memoires in my face at every turn and all the stuff laid out on tables – a format I despise – I wandered lonely as a cloud looking for … something.
“Bring me a bottle of wine – and food of some description” I shouted. No. I didn’t. Not really. Had I done so I would have been carted away and be writing this from a locked room.
But as I stood there with no prospect of being rescued by any fictional detective, another most unlikely hero turned up instead in the form of Allen Ginsburg whose poetic words addressed to Walt Whitman march purposefully across the dust jacket of a new volume of prose poems
The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem (2018).
“I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?”
The idea of the prose poem is not one that is immediately comfortable to me. I tend not to try and write them because while I vaguely understand what a poem might look like, although in my case very rarely seems to, a prose poem is an oxymoron. Neither fish nor fowl, I used to think it was just poetry without line breaks or overly mannered prose. Well, that was where I was back then, all of two weeks ago. Now I have had my damascene moment. My mind has been utterly changed forever by the toenails of a squirrel.
Hear the words of Anne Carson describing how she spent Christmas Day alone reading Hegel:
The function of a sentence like “Reason is Spirit’ was not to assert a fact (he said) but to lay reason side by side with Spirit and allow their meanings to tenderly mingle in speculation. I was overjoyed 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. Not since childhood! I had forgotten how astounding it is. I went to the middle of a woods. Fir trees, the teachers of this, all around. Minus twenty degrees in the wind but inside the trees is no wind. The world subtracts itself in layers. Outer sounds like traffic and shoveling vanish. Inner sounds become audible, cracks, sighs, caresses, twigs, birdbreath, toenails of squirrel.
(Merry Christmas from Hegel)
I love that ‘Not since childhood!’
“‘All good poetry’ wrote William Wordsworth in the ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads (1802) ‘is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.’ Verse serves as a mould to a moment of emotion, shaping it to a rhythmic pattern. Without line breaks, the prose poem is free like this paragraph to extend across and down the page … and it is in this freedom that we can locate the distinctive feeling to which the prose poem gives form: expansiveness.”
I like this idea of expansiveness as part of the definition of prose poetry. And there it is – the very essence of expansiveness – in the Anne Carson extract I have used above. In the middle of this lonely Christmas that the narrator spends reading the work of dead philosopher, there appears a snowy scene of woodland complete with breathing birds and scrabbling squirrels and it is made manifest for us in one short paragraph.
But most of all the difference between Carson and all the toppling piles of ‘expert’ stuff on the bookshop tables is that poetry is sufficiently humble not to have all the answers or even some or any of the answers or even the questions. All those topping piles of certainty. I am sick of everyone pretending to know bloody everything when the reality is that if anyone knew even 20% of the stuff they claim to the world would be in less of a mess.
To light a lamp is to hide darkness in the same closet as sleep, along with silence, desire and yesterday’s obsessions. To read a book is to marry two solitudes, the way a conversation erases and erects, words prepare for wordlessness, a cloud for its own absence, and snow undresses for Spring.
(Alvin Pang, 2012)