Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Book review: The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, ed Jeremy Noel-Tod (2019)

This is a watershed publication that can serve as a compendium of styles and modes from the beginning of the moment, in the middle of the 19th century, when high culture appeared (privileging the individual, the elites) and, abruptly, at the same time as working-class consciousness emerged, took off on its own path.

Noel-Tod’s book is important and thrilling and demonstrates an acquaintance with a wide array of work including people as well-known as Gertrude Stein (an extract from her ‘Tender Buttons’ of 1914 is here; I’d never read her work before) and Charles Baudelaire (‘The Stranger’ and ‘Windows’ of 1869 are included).

Noel-Tod wisely starts from the present and goes backwards. This tactic allows you to feel comfortable with the selection before you are asked to read pieces that, because of their distance from us in time, are written in styles that might be more difficult to identify with.

While reading the poems in the first section of the book I had the feeling that prose poetry resembles in a way the formulaic prose of officialdom or of commerce. Then, when I got to the second part of the book (the Postmodern moment, which noel-Tod leads from the middle of the 1940s to 1999) I found my feeling echoed directly back to me, in an explicit way, by Laurie Duggan’s 1985 poem ‘Hearts’.

I will start at the beginning: it seems as though, I think, we have had a return to the demotic in a form that combines it with the political. The more recent stuff also seems to have a good number of people writing it who are from marginal groups (women, migrants). After the Postmodern mode had run its course we suddenly wake up to a world where the everyday (conventional narratives, genre tropes) has been regained and is, now, the mode of literature with the most utilitarian purpose despite it having, from its origins, the avowed purpose of entertainment. If you want to find politics in a book of fiction you read genre novels now or, at least, the hybrids that are being produced these days. It’s a paradox.

I was reminded of the shortcomings of Postmodernism and the need to revisit more conventional modes of representation when I was reading Peter Robb’s brilliant study of the mafia, ‘Midnight in Sicily’ (1996). Robb notes how postwar Italian novelists such as Italo Calvino might avoided realism out of fear of the consequences of portraying reality as lived in the country in the years since WWII. Calvino’s first novel, ‘The Path to the Nest of Spiders’ was clearly about the antifascist partisans but in the following years he relied mainly on self-referential and metatextual ploys to make meaning.

I call our new literary mode “Divergism” and I’ve written about it here and here.  Good examples of this kind of writing in Noel-Tod’s book are an extract from ‘Adventures in Shangdu’ (2012) by Cathy Park Hong, a Korean-American poet, ‘Conversations about Home (at the Deportation Centre)’ (2011) by Warsan Shire (a Brit, but her parents are from Somalia), and ‘Phases of the Moon in London’ (2004) by Amjad Nasser, which was translated from Arabic. Nasser lives in Britain and uses a pseudonym for his writing. In this section of the book I particularly admired his piece.

In Noel-Tod’s second section, on Postmodernism, the metatextual elements are handled well in ‘In Love with Raymond Chandler’ (1992) by Margaret Atwood, and ‘Chekhov: A Sestina’ (1990) by Mark Strand, a Canadian-born American poet who died in 2014.

In the 90s, furthermore, you tend to get a large number of words such as dream, dreaming, imagined, desire, wishes, and sleep appearing in published prose poems. There is for example one poem titled ‘Human Wishes’ in this section. In one poem the word “real” crops up, too, suggesting ambiguous feelings about the nature of existence itself.

‘Meeting Ezra Pound’ explicitly combines a dream with the metatextual impulse. It deals with a person attending a literary festival. The event might or might not have happened. There are questions as to whether the person through whom the narrative is focalised really exists and whether the world itself exists. But the fact of literature, functioning like a tunnel connecting two people from different times, is something that the poet marks out as real even though literature is, by its very nature, evanescent. This piece is by Miroslav Holub (1980), translated from the Czech. Holub died in 1998.

This metatextual impulse emerges again in an extract from Jack Spicer’s ‘Letters to James Alexander’ (1959) which is in the form of a letter from a man named Jack (the poet, presumably). “I read them all (your letters and mine) to the poets assembled for the occasion last Wednesday. Ebbe was annoyed since he thought that letters should remain letters (unless they were essays) and poems poems (a black butterfly just flew past my leg) and that the universe of the personal and the impersonal should be kept in order. George Stanley thought that I was robbing Jim to pay James. They sounded beautiful all of them.” Spicer, who was gay, died in 1965.

There is also collage in Frank O’Hara’s 1954 poem ‘Meditations in an Emergency’, which uses a quote from Hester Thrale, a 18th century diarist, about a person named Fanny Brown. The quote is (reportedly) from page 407, volume 1, of ‘Thraliana’, in the two-volume Oxford edition, which first appeared in 1942.

‘The Clerk’s Vision’ by Octavio Paz, 1951, is particularly fine. Also, in the next section (Modernism), I liked the extract from John Lehmann’s ‘Vigils’ (1942) and George Seferis’ ‘Nijinski’ (1940). (Lehmann, an Englishman, was also gay.) ‘A Day’ by Rabindranath Tagore also good (1921). It provides the reader with a moment in time that is captured and contextualised as a fragment of eternity. (Fragments are used to make collages.)

The theme of dreams returns with ‘The End of the World’ (1878) by Ivan Turgenev, which is subtitled ‘A Dream’. There are also other collages, such as Amy Lowell’s ‘Spring Day’ (1916) and Jessie Dismoor’s ‘London Notes’ (1915).

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