Eleanor Perry delves into that grey space between poetry and prose.
Lately I’ve been thinking about prose poetry. It seems to me that, as a poetic form, it’s characterised by its lack of rules, which makes it both a wonderful and difficult thing to approach as a poet; wonderful because with such an absence of parameters it’s free to be explored without limit, but difficult for precisely the same reason – boundaries can be reassuring guidelines at times, and a navigating a place without them can be a daunting prospect.
Strangely enough, a lot of my recent reads fall into the non-place that is curiously in between poetry and prose, leaning toward one or the other in various degrees. Firstly, Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, a book T.S Eliot described as ‘poetic prose’ in his introduction of it, is indeed written in a lyrical style that wanders languidly between story events, but underlying that is a solid narrative framework. It seems to me that, crucially, a coherent narrative could be part of what separates prose poetry from flash fiction.
Secondly I have just finished reading Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, an ethereal and mellifluous tale of transience and a childhood invaded by vagrancy. In a similar fashion, it is the narrative that anchors the wayward writing firmly to prose rather than poetry, although at times Robinson creates such a sense of the poetic ephemeral that it is easy to see why it sits ambiguously between the two.
And then there is Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, a kaleidoscopic word-tapestry woven with light and sadness, and which would appear to sit quite securely at the prose poetry end of the spectrum, although beneath the surreal is a barely tangible sense of narrative at work. It seems to me that it isn’t as simple as putting pieces of work on a spectrum with poetry at one end and prose at the other. Pinning down what differentiates a prose poem from a piece of poetic prose or a piece of flash fiction is extremely difficult, and I wonder whether it is down to some sort of inherent intention in the writing itself that contributes to its definition of one or the other.
Take, for example Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, a genre-defying collection of comment-card poems that add up to a sort of post-consumerist confessional diary, touching upon the dehumanisation of the customer, the compulsive and self-perpetuating nature of desire and the notions of detachment and anonymity that result from it. These at times seem to be prose poems and at other times something else entirely, borrowing a little from either form and fashion them into something new.
Or how about Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, a prose that is constantly shifting in perspective among each of the six characters’ voices and to the voice of the waves themselves and then back again in a pleasantly perplexing stream of consciousness. that has at least as much in common with poetry as with prose — in fact, Woolf herself defined the form she used as a ‘playpoem’. Finally there is Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, a febrile and relentless interior monologue accounting the deterioration of a passionate relationship told in a frenzied and tormented prose soliloquy that makes constant use of devices like amplified imagery, repeated motifs and an oblique and disconnected tone that would normally be associated with poetry.
Like the works themselves which dally joyfully between the conventions of one or the other, prose poetry is not so easily categorised as perhaps one might hope. But again, therein lies the magic; a lack of rules means that there are no rules to be broken. Writers looking at exploring prose poetry are free to dance lightly along the spectrum and back again, free to experiment without the fear of being tied down to a particular form. For anyone interested in examining transience or transition, this would appear to be an ideal form to explore.