The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.
Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made
is star-stuff too?
– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –
dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.
Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.
Tuesday, 2 February 2016
the prose poem & an invitation
Who is it who vanishes into the bigger darkness, over the banks, the water, the gorse-clad wooded hillside with its arteries of leaching streams? Who fingers stone, bone, moss; who noses towards air, the rush of wind? Who is it set ticking by some rhythm in the blood, tidal wave, drift that will not be stilled, who insists on the narrow twisting path towards the thinning light?
Roselle Angwin, 2005
Through February, I'm inviting a few contributions for this blog from anyone who writes, or would like to write, prose poems, whether you're a beginner or a more experienced writer. Please contribute – anything from 100-600 words. (And please note, too, that I may not be able to accept every piece for reasons of space.)
To kick you off, below is an edited excerpt from my book Writing the Bright Moment – inspiration & guidance for writers (the prose poem section contains a beautiful prose poem from Andy Brown).
Below that again, I'll post some short pieces of mine, and details of how to send your own prose poems to me. I look forward to reading your work.
Where Boundaries Blur
the prose poem
‘...the most that we can say about prose poetry is that it exhibits certain characteristics...’
The prose poem is better known on the Continent and in the States than it is in the UK.
Its original proponents were the French avant-garde from the mid C19th and the early C20th; it is intimately connected with both the Symbolists and the later Surrealists (like Surrealism, the prose poem draws directly on the unconscious), and Baudelaire, cornerstone of the French Symbolist movement, is generally seen as its originator, though a writer called Aloysius Bertrand was experimenting with this form in the early 1800s.
Baudelaire wrote of his ideas of poetic prose – a form which needed to be both fluid and muscled, without rhyme or rhythm, yet still musical; a form which was suited to the lyrical flights of the soul as well as to dream states and reverie; and one which also took account of the impulses of the conscience. In the rewriting of some of his verses as prose poems, he was aware that he was working with a new and as yet unformulated mode of expression; and today, 150 years on, this still holds true, in the sense that there are few formal ‘rules’.
I think of the prose-poetry spectrum as being a continuum, through from prose to prose poems to free verse to metrical form. In anatomical terms, I liken it to a muscle: if prose is that muscle relaxed, metrical poetry represents that muscle contracted. The prose poem sits between these two, but still has its own aesthetic.
It should be said at this point that in many ways the prose poem can only be arbitrarily defined – it is a form that is still evolving, and there are no absolute ‘rules’. What I’ve written here is my own opinion informed by conversations and readings of prose poems, and of the theory behind them as written by Those Who Know What They’re Talking About.
The prose poem has been described by Charles Simic as a literary hybrid, including as it does many faces of prose, from anecdote to allegory to fairy story to journal to reflection to dream imagery to écriture and pensée, all bound together using some of the devices of poetry.
That’s one description. This is how Peter Johnson, editor of an international prose poem journal, puts it: ‘Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels.’
What all this means in practice is that the prose poem will share some of the attributes of general poetic expression: imagery; metaphor; heightened intensity of content, thought, and feeling; compactness; patterning and repetition; as well as showing sound and syntactical elements common to poetry.
In some ways it is easier to talk about what the prose poem isn’t, or doesn’t do. What it won’t include are traditional rhyme schemes and typical poetry layout with line breaks; generally it will appear on the page in a continuous sequence of sentences, though this is not a hard and fast rule.
The diction will be poetic, but less conventionally so than in poetry. It will tend more towards the vernacular: conversational and colloquial. It may include echoing sounds and a rhythm that is tighter than ordinary prose, but any such ‘rhyme’ and ‘rhythm’ will not be formal or overdone.
Although there is no reason why it shouldn’t include ‘embedded’ lines of poetry (and in fact my long prose poem The Present Where, co-authored with Rupert Loydell, does), it generally doesn’t.
There is an inwardness about the prose poem that allows a personal content, and that also often conveys the kind of imaginative material that gives it a dream-like flavour. Often there is a strong visual element.
Although it may have a narrative content, it is not simply a linear short story, even though it may have aspects similar in kind to the mini-saga, which became popular in Britain in the late ’90s. It sometimes has an aphoristic feel to it, though it is not a moral parable or fable.
It may be a vignette involving both inner and outer detail, and its informal structure often gives it a compelling immediacy.
When I think of the prose poem I see it visually. It’s layered. For the sake of ease, I want to suggest that – and this is a generalisation – we could describe conventional prose and traditional poetry as proceeding along a horizontal, unfolding in time. For me, the prose poem is more a multi-levelled chunk, in ‘section’, rather as an archaeologist might cut through successive layers of soils to reveal differences in the strata. I think a prose poem can record different facets, or levels, of human experience.
A good prose poem will have an element of spontaneity about it; something of the sense of ‘stream of consciousness’; and to that extent it will appear less ‘worked’ than a poem ‘proper’ (though that is not to say that it hasn’t been). ‘It ... seem[s] to me that there is a shorter distance from the unconscious to the prose poem, than from the unconscious to most poems in verse,’ says Michael Benedikt.
Nonetheless, the writing will have a kind of tautness about it. This springs partly from its simultaneous occupation of two (at least) thresholds: the intimate, imaginative and associative ‘interiority’ of poetry, and the more narrative territory of conventional prose. At the same time, the prose poem is a fluid form that encourages originality and improvisation; reads as loose and organic.
© Roselle Angwin 2005/2016, excerpted from Writing the Bright Moment
Below is a sequence of tiny prose poems of my own, from my first collection Looking For Icarus (bluechrome 2005; reprinted by IDP 2015) The one heading this page is from the same sequence.
You will see that I ‘hang’ them on a place, but there is no need to do this, and these are not supposed to be ‘models’, but rather illustrations.
Questions of fire, earth, air, water. Questions of courage, of risk and safety. Questions of what must remain unspoken and what trouble the unsaid might cause. Questions of gaps and pauses and silence. Questions of music and dancing and song. Come closer, go away. On this June morning the landscape blazes with barley and birdsong. On this June morning the river’s broad body’s an invitation, an injunction. You’re holding hands. One of you jumps, the other does not. Who is it who keeps falling, falling in the bright air?
Cliff-path’s thick with summer - ragged robin, woodruff, vetch. Tight sharp blackberries, pink-fleshed. Stream’s shedding song, unthinking. Poised between day and night here where tide floods the creek and sunslicked sea rolls like a cat at our feet. Up to our eyes in it. If you ran a finger round the horizon’s lapis rim it would spill arpeggios into your bloodstream.
Lily pollen, staining the white windowsill and my hands the colour of sunshine. Walking round the hayfield this morning; air smelling of autumn. Few swallows; blackberries too soggy and too sweet.
The questions we need to ask and the ones we don’t.
J’s face last night talking of his dead wife’s face.
Day rolls in the stubble. Traces of fox and pheasant in the margins. Deer spoor. The wild geese this morning are silent. St John’s Wort – the wild one – lifts starry yellow faces.
Morning’s tide recedes. Bird tracks and strewn black wrack jostle driftwood and limpets. I think of you here; your last day, years away from the wild Hebridean shoreline, its lacing of yellow periwinkles like small fierce suns. Remember those days, I say to you. Remember. But still I can’t stop your falling, over and over, falling.
Some days I walk for hours.
The wisdom of flotsam. An ache like fog. You navigate by sound, listening for drowned things. This lover, that place, those words peel away like a bow-wave behind you. Only the present counts. No angels; but listen, the ocean’s singing.
In another place which we’ve not visited there’s a coffee cup and saucer in sunflower yellow. The cup is upturned and our separate moments have temporarily fused. The tides of us flow together. We walk barefoot through the lemon grove, lick honey from each other’s fingers, celebrate the sunshine, the moment. All there is.
All pieces © Roselle Angwin, 2005/2016
How to submit: in the first instance, use the Contact form on my website
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- notes, and a February prose poem from me
- prose poems from guest contributors: 5 Andy Brown
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- prose poems from guest contributors: 2 Jeff
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- the prose poem & an invitation
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