Book Review

The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem edited by Jeremy Noel-Tod

a fresh anthology that's worth YOUR attention

The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem is a late 2018 masterpiece of anthology edited and introduced by Jeremy Noel-Tod. It is alluringly subtitled From Baudelaire to Anne Carson and it was one of the last books I finished reading and phone-blogging about during my Toronto-tram life. (See here for details on that.)

Notes made on the Torontonian trams:

  • Viscous nature of the Prose Poem????
  • what is “prose poetry”? is it always Self defining?
  • Wonderful selections, some of my favourite poems and poets are represented here, like Anne Carson, Hera Lindsay Bird, Allen Ginsberg, Claudia Rankine, Warsan Shire, others
  • Stylistically fascinating for me, prose poetry engages with form without being overwhelmed by it????
  • Prose Poetry usually contains the grammatical consistencies of prose but none of the trappings of of of and not even always the grammatical consistencies of prose???????
  • Poetry is cleaner than prose for its paucity. I don’t mean cleaner. I don’t mean paucity. ???????

///

Prose poems have existed for centuries, and the only real criticism I have of Noel-Tod’s anthology is that the oldest piece included here is from 1842, several centuries after (for example) Thomas More’s Utopia, let alone Classical writings.

Stretching or collapsing definitions aside, this is a book to revisit, to read slowly or to read from at random when you have a spare five minutes.

There are famous pieces, obscure pieces, pieces about love and war and politics and death and sex, and there are pieces from British, Canadian and American writers, obvs, but also lots of pieces translated from French and Spanish, and multiple works originally composed in Japanese and Chinese.

The prose poem, or poetic prose, however you want to think of it, is international, is appropriate for slick translation in a way that more formally tight verse often fails to be. (??????)

What’s interesting about the chronological ordering of the pieces is the forced focus on shifting imagery. The anthology starts with a piece from 2017 and works backwards.

As we shift towards the past, the content of the poems become more prudish then less prudish again, though God and Jesus (and other forms of religious belief) become ever-more important. Travel becomes less casual, war becomes closer to the direct experience of poets, death becomes something treated both more reverentially (due to its historical spiritual connections) and more casually (due to the higher mortality rates of the past).

My interest dropped off for periods: I don’t think the 1970s to 1990s had much going on for them, culturally, and likewise I didn’t enjoy that creative lull that happened when everyone in Europe pretended that nobody ever fucked anyone that lasted from the mid-1890s through until the horrors of the First World War came into focus. There’s loads of cracking nineteenth century stuff, some gorgeous contemporary stuff, some really fucking joyful pieces from the 50s and and and…

I’ve treated The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem as a bit of a coffee table book since Christmas, when I received it as a gift. I plucked a few pieces at random on that day (there is a piece by Patricia Lockwood about sexual assault that has haunted me since), I read a few on the plane across the ocean, and I read one or two when home alone and anxious about reading a book that I was about to finish because, for a period, I was intimidated by the self-imposed responsibility that maintaining TriumphoftheNow.com has become.

Sometimes I have lucid moments and remember some of the sensitive, incriminating and morally-dubious details about myself I have posted on here and feel like it’s something I should have valid anxiety about. But I don’t. I don’t have any need or plan or dream to reenter society. I say reenter, I was never really there. When I got closest to being a member of society, I wasn’t really close, I was a long long way away. I haven’t been outside today. Maybe I won’t.

Sometimes I think about events from my past and struggle to believe that they happened to anyone at all, let alone me. I have a strange life. Will I continue to have a strange life? Probably. Maybe I shouldn’t have rejected society so firmly. I didn’t know what I was missing. I still don’t. But so many hundreds of millions of other fucking people seem to love it that it must have something going for it… or not.

The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem does have a lot going for it. Recommended.


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Order my sad prose chapbook via Selcouth Station Press.


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