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Curiouser and curiouser - a new reader of prose poetry explores its territory


From John Tenniel's classic illustrations for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Anne Caldwell writes..... 

Glynis Charlton is a writer and highly experienced arts project evaluator/manager who has worked for The Bronte Parsonage, Hebden Bridge Arts Festival and many other clients. She also runs Italian Writing Retreats. Glynis has many years’ experience of running workshops, both in Italy and in the UK.  Her work has been published both in print and on screen.  Most recently, it was Highly Commended in the Bridport Poetry Prize 2016. She is acting as a consultant on project management and coordinating evaluation for this prose poetry project. I commissioned her to write us a blog posting about her own experience of prose poetry, from a reader's point of view: 

Alice in Wonderland

It’s like a Mad Hatter riddle. When is a poem not a poem?   No doubt he would tie Alice in knots with discussion about line breaks, half rhymes, the very shape of it all.  Is it as simple as that, that if the words go right across the page and the whole piece contains rhymes and rhythm, then it’s a prose poem?  Surely not …

It makes me wonder now. All those short chunks of prose I’ve written over the years without identifying them, thinking they were just a bit odd and didn’t have a home … maybe they are prose poems in the making. 

The cynic in me asks is this genre just a repository for things that don’t fit anywhere else? Maybe there’s a touch of The Emperor’s New Clothes going on here – people stroking their chins and saying ‘the artist is being playful’ and all that.  And, if this genre is prose poetry, does that make all the rest conventional, standard, traditional?

Then there’s the whole ‘I don’t get it’ territory.  For me, with ‘traditional’ poetry, that feeling, if it comes at all, is buried deep within the lines somewhere – between the lines often – and the tipping point is blurred. With prose poetry, I find the ‘not getting it’ is more immediate, right there on the surface – the repetition of words until they irritate me, the inclusion of words that seem to serve no purpose, the obscure references that leave me floundering. The point at which I want to throw in the towel and say ‘OK. Whatever’ comes more quickly. With conventional poetry I feel it’s probably worth the digging, because I'm often rewarded in some way, even if the exploration is largely inconclusive.

And yet I find a lot of prose poetry really satisfying to read.  I like its freedom, its lack of instruction. No line breaks telling me when to pause, no punctuation telling me when to take a breath or reflect, or urging me to hurry along. I can reach the end of a sentence and have the freedom either to move straight on or to stop on this bridge and take in the view before continuing.  It’s all an optical illusion though, I’m sure. Varied sentence lengths, alliteration, assonance, juxtaposition – a whole raft of them, cunningly camouflaged in those edge to edge lines.

Then there are the smaller things, such as the way that, unlike ‘conventional’ poetry, the titles only seem to have upper case at the start.  I’m drawn to most prose poetry titles: somehow there’s more of an ease about them, they seem less worked on.  And if they take the form of an intriguing phrase, then so much the better.  

But what about narrative? asks Alice.

Prose poetry?  Why, it’s Unpoetry.

Glynis Charlton