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Getting to Know Prose Poetry

31.05.18

Anne writes….

The prose poem as a form has been accepted for decades in France and America but has until very recently had a lower profile in the UK. As a poetic form, the prose poem can be traced back to the work of nineteenth-century French poets such as Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire. The poet Paul Hetherington in Australia has suggested that its lineage goes back to the Romantic Movement’s fascination with poetic fragments, and other writers cite the King James Bible as an example of prose poetry.

My own interest in the form took shape when I joined the Prose Poetry Project in Australia, started by IPSI (The International Poetry Studies Institute) based at the University of Canberra. To date, this project has involved writers from Australia, the UK and Singapore. It has produced three anthologies of work through Recent Work Press. The most recent is Tract edited by Paul Munden and Monica Carroll.

Another early influence on my writing was the work of the Canadian poet Anne Carson, whose first collection, Short Talks was re-issued by Brick Books Classics in 2015. Originally published back in 1992, the book takes the form of short, rectangular prose poems that explore the human condition with wit and wisdom.

Prose poetry’s British and Irish practitioners in the past have included: Oscar Wilde, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, T. S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf (even though T.S. Eliot was very disparaging about it as a form.) Other poets include Roy Fisher, Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill. The Welsh poet David Jones’s marvellous epic poem In Parenthesis was published in 1937 and explores the First World War as its subject.

When Jane Monson edited a collection of prose poetry in 2011 for Cinnamon Press (This Line is Not for Turning) she asked: ‘Why has it been the case that British editors, writers, publishers, teachers and general readers still seem to know so little about the prose poem or refuse to engage with it?’ Cinnamon’s anthology included poets of the stature of George Szirtes and Pascale Petit and showcased a range of high quality writing in the genre. However, even today the prose poem does not have a high profile as a form, and is seen as rebellious, or part of a poetry counter-culture.

The Cinnamon Press anthology is now over five years old and when I came to propose this project and apply for funding through Arts Council England, I argued that there has been a wealth of interest and work written in this form. The publisher Tongues and Grooves Press launched a major national (and international) prose poetry competition in 2018. I was delighted to come second in this competition and meet the other writers at an awards ceremony earlier this year.

Contemporary poets in the UK who have produced prose poetry collections include Simon Armitage, Carrie Etter, Patricia Debney, and Alan Halsey, as well as Luke Kennard, Patience Agbabi, Steve Ely and Bob Beagrie. Many examples of prose poems are scattered throughout single collections of poets’ work, showing the possibilities that the prose poem offers. For example, Elisabeth Bletsoe’s ‘Birds of the Sherborne Missal’ sequence, from her Landscape from a Dream collection, has been anthologised in Carrie Etter’s Infinite Difference anthology of poetries by UK women poets. 

I am hoping to extend and develop a rich and diverse snapshot of prose poetry and who is writing in this form through this project and would love to hear your views, about its history, how to define it or some recommendations of prose poets whose work inspires you. So please get in touch!