Sunday 28 November 2010

Hidden Form: The Prose Poem in English Poetry

The view that prose poetry evolved through French poetry is a partial one. Such a perspective doubtless has its origins in the impact of that evolution on American, Polish and other traditions. Certainly there is a distinct line of development through Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la Nuit (1842), Charles Baudelaire’s immensely popular Petites Poémes en Prose (1869), and on through Rimbaud, Laforgue, Mallarmé to Gertrude Stein, the Surrealists, especially Francis Ponge and Max Jacob, all of whom found it a useful tool in the quest for imaginative liberation. These modernist poets have their equivalents in the German and Spanish traditions as well as later examples in Greek, Russian, English and Japanese. Early English modernists appear to have followed T.S.Eliot’s view that this was a no man’s land for the aspiring poet who should be concerned with formal verse. An alternative viewpoint had been suggested by Shelley’s observation that the King James Bible was an example of prose as poetry. Indeed, English mainstream poets seem to have regarded the prose poem as a peculiarly foreign affair and one to be avoided apart from those times when there was a public questioning of identity and language. I don’t think that we would have seen a prose poem, such as Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945) published, for example, in 1925 or 1955, when the literary establishment and publishers were less open and firmly anti-internationalist. Indeed Smart’s work, reissued in 1966, became a classic in the Sixties and Seventies when it was possible to read the prose poems of Baudelaire, Neruda, Paz, Kenneth Patchen, the Surrealists and the Beats as well as the open-field poetics of Charles Olson. There was also interest in the work of David Jones, and his epic prose poem about the First World War, In Parenthesis (1937), at this time. It is this re-emergence of the prose poem, and its possibilities, into English poetry that I wish to discuss.

The prose poem can be seen as a site of struggle and potential subversion within an evolving and shifting variety of poetic forms and discussion of those forms. It is part of a counter-discourse through its lack of general visibility within mainstream English poetry. There are very few histories of the English prose poem and a relative lack of essays and journals devoted to the subject. Yet it has been a constant that has been seemingly re-discovered and developed by individual late modernist and avant-garde poets and writers.

The origin of that struggle can be traced from Oscar Wilde’s description of his ‘obscene’ letter to Lord Alfred Douglas as a ‘prose poem’ in 1893 and subsequent association with French decadence, sexual deviance and immodesty in the mind of the English reading public. This was reinforced and clarified by T.S. Eliot’s 1917 essay, 1 ‘The Borderline of Prose’, based upon his criticism of Richard Aldington’s The Love of Myrrhine and Konallis and other Prose Poems (1917). The essay essentially concerns definition and possibility. More generally it can be linked to his aversion to Ernest Dowson and Oscar Wilde’s appropriation of French symbolism. Eliot recognised the ‘unexplored possibilities’ of both poetry and prose but urged writers to write one or the other and not mix them. What constitutes the borderline and boundaries of poetry and prose thus became and remains a continuing debate.

The prose poem substantially entered English poetry through the impact of French symbolism and early modernism. I recall my own discovery of Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen translated by Louis Varése (New Directions 1970) in 1975, tracking down of his Wine and Hashish poems, and fascination with this alien genre. 2 There has been a continuous interaction since then as English poets have fed off and entered into subsequent French poetic discourse and French translations have arrived in England. A partial list since Dowson and Wilde would include Samuel Beckett, David Gascoyne, Norman Cameron, Charles Tomlinson, Roy Fisher, Peter Redgrove, Lee Harwood and John Ash. The prose poem often associated with the modern world, unofficial language and thought, can present through its hybrid nature unsettling and unfamiliar aspects of that world, which these poets have seized upon.

The prose poem seen here as a poem without line breaks retains the tension between line and sentence structure without the use of line endings. It has the potential to build pace, rhythm, music and produce meaning as much as free verse, only it has to generate tension, drama and crises through sentence structure, relationship and language use alone. It is in a sense a freedom to open possibilities and to move away from a stultifying rigidity and closure. Eliot objected to the pseudo archaic style of the Decadent prose poem and, by implication, indicated that the prose poem could not rely upon only emulating the musicality of verse in one narrative. Alternatives needed to be found. His own effort the prose poem, ‘Hysteria’ does show the way towards fabulism in its use of burlesque and fantasy. Notwithstanding, Eliot’s censure, the apparent failure of the Decadent prose poem, led to clear thresholds in English poetry

in the Twenties and Thirties. Clearly, later, the Movement and their successors, have a dualistic attitude to the questions of identity and the formal constraints of language and verse that runs counter to an opening up of the world and a discovery of variance through language. Don Paterson’s 2004 T.S. Eliot Lecture, ‘The Dark Art of Poetry’, is shot through with it: ‘Only plumbers can plumb, roofers roof and drummers drum; only poets can write poetry.’ (

I mentioned that the prose poem is part of a counter-discourse. I think that that can be seen in part in the criticism of Roy Fisher and his prose poem, The Ship’s Orchestra (1966). 3 There is scant attention in the critical volume on Fisher edited by John Kerrigan and Peter Robinson and Robert Sheppard in his essay refers to the work as ‘the nearest Fisher has approached to prose fiction’. 4 No mention in Nancy Santilli’s book on the prose poem in English. 5 Similarly, Robert Sheppard in his study, The Poetry Of Saying, neglects to include this major work in his discussion of Fisher. 6 There is no mention in Sean O’Brien’s The Deregulated Muse.7 or by Andrew Duncan in Origins of the Underground. 8 I would argue that The Ship’s Orchestra works as a prose poem because it is exceptionally well integrated as narrative prose and poem. It is a classic of its kind. There is a high degree of poetic technique in the form of rhythmic compression and musicality in sentences of varying length with considerable tension, drama and varying thematic repetition. It has a narrative symmetry that prompts memories of reading Kafka and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. There is, for example, pressure from the narrator to find unity and to become another: ‘To be somebody else: to be Amy,’ and ‘If only we could all play together on one single instrument!’ 9 The exact location of the musicians within the ship narrative is a state of mind. All the action takes place in the mind of a flexible character that has authentic piano player indeterminacy. He is a drinker, seer, liar, slacker, trying to find his place as a musician at sea in a band who are not allowed to play. His view is partial, cubist. It is at once bohemian, quirky and in the twilight of sensory perception.

Think of what all the people you see taste like and you’d go mad: all those leaping, billowing tastes through the world, like a cemetery turned suddenly into damp bedsheets with the wind under them. So the possible taste of a person is a small thing, just a flicker of salt, putrescence, potatoes, old cardboard across the mind, behind the words, behind the manners. And the actual taste, if you go after it, is something that’s always retreating; even if it overwhelms, there’s an enormous stretch of meaninglessness in it, like the smell of the anaesthetist’s rubber mask in the first moments – it ought to mean, it ought to mean; but how can anything mean that? There must be a taste about me that could be sensed by others. Somebody as skilled as a dog could recognise it as mine; yet I cannot. If I try to get it from

myself I just get the double feeling of tasting and being tasted all in one, like being in a room with an important wall missing. Hold hands with myself as with another person; the hands disappear from my jurisdiction. Looking down, I see moving

effigies; the hands that feel are some way off, invisible. There is an image of me that I can never know, held in common by certain dogs. 10

It is intensely physical and shot through with poetic externalisations. Thus Merrit’s saxophone is a husk and Amy’s trombone is an axe. 11 In essence the poetry and prose are woven together through the mutability of the narrator seeing from ‘far down’ the ship’s superstructure and seeing the world of the ship ‘like cake’. He gets drunk, vomits, sees a mermaid, hears Amy play the trombone and sees the ship as a structural and purposive unity proceeded with music. However, that is not how it is. The musicians don’t play and the ship is not a unity 12 and the musicians sink further into themselves and a world of claustrophobia and paranoia. The ship becomes a symbol of societal constraint and the musicians clearly want to break free and play. 13 Again the poetry burst through the prose as heightened externalisations of inner emotions. The narrator is ‘something that has been pushed out of Amy’s body’, with ‘no legs’, ‘no arms or hands’ and ‘pushed out of Merrit’s body in his sleep’ with ‘no head’ and thinks he is yellow. 14 He contracts to this limbless creature that can journey between ‘Amy’s breasts by caterpillar tractor.’ 15 The heightened poetic language serves to subvert the prose through the mutable and refractive narrative. It is at once a shocking and surrealistic poem and deserves to be much more appreciated.

Prose poetry seems to have evolved out of sentence structure long before it was designated as such and interrogated by Eliot’s either / or thinking. The Surrealists and Ethnopoets seem to have no trouble opening the reader to new possibility. As an early example of this trend consider the poem, The Nine Herbs Charm, featured in Jerome Rothenberg’s 1968 anthology Technicians of the Sacred (pp. 347-9) as a poem. This tenth century Anglo-Saxon magic text, with ingredients from and parallels in German and Norse, has been translated with and without line breaks. It relates to paganism, mythology and doubtless has been subjected to Christian interference, takes the reader into another world and has power as poetry when chanted aloud. It is this quality that marks it as one of the earliest prose poems and reminds us of the potential connection and connotation that a prose poem can muster. Here is a prose poem version I found on the net.

A worm came creeping, he tore a man in two, then Woden took nine Glory-Twigs, then struck the adder, that it flew apart into nine bits. … Woden established the nine herbs and sent them into the seven worlds, for the poor and the rich, a remedy for all, it stands against pain, it fights against poison, it avails against three and against thirty, against foe’s hand and against noble scheming, against enchantment of vile creatures.

(Sourced from 16

Prose poetry was certainly formed as a hybrid to shock and innovate against poetic tradition. Once the idea of introducing non-literary prose into poetry had been accepted as a form of modernist subversion then the genre spread as a strategy and innovation kicked in to the extent that by the 1980s it became a growth area and by the 1990’s an established way of writing poetry in American poetry.

The prose poem in England has never really disappeared. However, it is currently enjoying a renaissance, with expansion of possibilities and even recognition. Younger poets such as Luke Kennard, Vahni Capildeo, Patricia Debney and Elisabeth Bletsoe have joined older poets such as Gavin Selerie, Elizabeth Cook, Peter Riley, Brian Catling, Martin Stannard, Geraldine Monk and Alan Halsey in this revival. Kennard won an Eric Gregory Award for his prose poem collection The Solex Brothers (Stride 2005) and his second book, The Harbour Beyond The Movie, (Salt 2007) was nominated for the 2007 Forward Poetry Prize. His third collection of prose poems, The Migraine Hotel, (Salt 2009) has seen Kennard gain more critical recognition. Todd Swift, for example, in Poetry London 65, credits Kennard with introducing ‘an entirely new and distinct style to poetry in the UK – one capable ... of handling any subject or language it wants to.’ 17 Whilst it is not entirely new, one immediately thinks of Martin Stannard’s deadpan humour and wide range, Gary Boswell’s idiosyncratic comic monologues and many others, as being precursors, it is clearly distinct and seemingly more acceptable. Kennard has successfully applied French and American prose poem strategies into an English idiom. Here’s the beginning of ‘A Dog Descends’:

Before I was born the seer predicted, ‘You will be inaudible in the laughter of many doctors.’

When I was born they tied a red ribbon around my ankle and glued fur onto my back so that my blind father could tell the difference between me and the dog – a hairless breed. This didn’t work as the fur just wouldn’t stay on, so I had to learn to touch-type whilst drinking from a dog bowl and sleeping amid the scraps. Mother kept saying, ‘Father knows best.’ When I protested, father would scream, ‘WILL SOMEONE SHUT UP THAT INFERNAL TALKING DOG?’ When the dog barked my father would shout, ‘WILL SOMEONE TEACH THAT


This combines fable and narrative into tight comic lines that are self-contained and engaging. Kennard can be overtly self-conscious and self-deprecating in the manner of Dave Allen or Gerald Locklin and like them can be very funny.

The prose poem is susceptible to a wide range of strategies as shown by Brian Clements and Janey Dunham’s Introduction to the Prose Poem. This American anthology, with English contributors such as Rupert Loydell, Geraldine Monk and Gavin Selerie, identifies twenty-four strategies ranging from anecdote, object, image, aphorism, list, repetition, fable and on to surreal imagery / narration, rant, essay, epistle, monologue, dialogue, hybrid, sequence and so on. It also shows in the structural analogue strategy section how the prose poem can absorb a wide range of discourse. 19

English poets are grasping the possibilities that the prose poem offers. Two examples are Elisabeth Bletsoe’s Birds of the Sherborne Missal sequence from her Landscape from a Dream collection,20 which has been anthologised in Carrie Etter’s Infinite Difference anthology, 21 and Vahni Capildeo’s ‘Person Animal Figure’ from her Undraining Sea collection. Bletsoe’s narratives weave around the Sherborne Missal’s marginalia of birds employing religious iconography and local observation in short and very short vibrant sentences. Capildeo’s fabulous dramatic interior monologues render the world in a fresh and exciting way managing to be simultaneously breathtaking and mildly disturbing.

The animal who kisses persistently is much to be avoided. The more it is avoided, the more it comes back. It will seek out its prey in the middle of dreams about castles in nowhere, and make its catch before the staircase in the upper servants’ hall. The animal is known to feel like a peach that has been rained on. It carpets itself and plasters itself but insists that it does not cling. The degree of wildness that characterizes this animal has yet to be ascertained. It announces itself with popping sounds like a champagne bottle being opened on the roof. To determine the whereabouts of this animal, it is advised to make a fresh cup of tea and leave it about as if forgotten. With a loud slurp the top of the tea will be taken off. A second slurp, if permitted – and it seldom can be avoided – will put away half the cup. That is the way that the animal who kisses persistently strengthens itself in preparation for the attack. 22


1 See also Eliot’s 1917 essay ‘Reflections on Vers Libre’ and 1936 introduction to Djuna Barnes poetic novel, Nightwood, which he claimed was not poetic prose as it did not have sufficient rhythm and music.

2 For an interesting discussion of the impact of Thomas De Quincey on Baudelaire

and the development of the prose poem see N. Santilli – Such Rare Citings: The Prose Poem in English Literature New Jersey Rosemont Publishing 2002 pp.87-97

3 Roy Fisher – The Ship’s Orchestra London Fulcrum Press 1966

4 Robert Sheppard – ‘Making Forms with Remarks: The Prose’ in The Thing About Roy Fisher Edited by John Kerrigan and Peter Robinson Liverpool Liverpool University Press 2000 p. 134

5 N. Santilli – Such Rare Citings: The Prose Poem English Literature. Some of Fisher’s other prose poems are mentioned.

6 Robert Sheppard – The Poetry Of Saying: British Poetry And Its Discontents 1950-2000 Liverpool Liverpool University Pres 2005 pp. 77-102

7 Sean O’Brien – The Deregulated Muse: Essays On Contemporary British & Irish Poetry Newcastle Bloodaxe Books 1998 pp. 112-122

8 Andrew Duncan – Origins of the Underground: British Poetry Between Apocryphon And Incident Light 1933-79 Cambridge Salt 2008 pp. 62-70

9 Roy Fisher – The Ship’s Orchestra p. 44 and p. 43

10 Ibid pp. 11-12

11 Ibid p.8

12 Ibid pp. 18-22

13 Ibid p. 39

14 Ibid p. 46

15 Ibid p. 50

16 Bill Griffiths version of the The Nine Herbs Charm (Tern Press 1981) emphasises it sound and prose qualities. Moreover, Griffiths’ Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic (Anglo-Saxon Books 1996) makes a case for many Old English texts as list poems that can be translated with or without line breaks. Griffiths, of course, was a poet intensely concerned with questions of identity, language and power.

17 Todd Swift – ‘Catering to the Perfumed Cannibal’ Poetry London 65 Spring 2010

Sourced at

18 Luke Kennard – The Migraine Hotel Cambridge Salt 2009 p. 48

19 Brian Clements and Jamey Dunham Eds. – An Introduction to the Prose Poem Firewheel Editions 2009 pp. 233-254

20 Elisabeth Bletsoe – Landscape from a Dream Exeter Shearsman 2008 pp.49-57

21 Carrie Etter Ed – Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by U.K. Women Poets Exeter Shearsman 2010 pp. 80-86

22 Vahni Capildeo – Undraining Sea Norwich Egg Box 2009 p. 57


jed said...

Good to see you posting again. An interesting and informative post, as ever. Has this essay been published?

David Caddy said...

Thanks for commenting Jed. It is in Stress Fractures: Essays on Poetry Edited by Tom Chivers Penned In The Margins 2010 pp. 103-113. The volume has some other interesting essays.

Devin said...

Dear David,
this appears to be yet another superb article from you --sorry I am so late getting to it -and I need to read it in much more depth-just wanted to drop in and say 'hi' and that I hope you are doing great!!
I also need to get caught up at MD -as I missed some episodes and plan to do that soon -is that project still going? I hope so!!

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Unknown said...

I really liked your post about The Prose Poem in English Poetry

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

It is such an interesting post! The fact that prose poem as a hybrid genre can employ the tools of the language and culture it works within is very interesting . .That’s my main concern about this connection between the development of English prose poem and its Arabic counterpart out of the war and post-war atmosphere ..thanks

John Goodby said...

David, thank you very much - this is a fascinating account of the form.

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