Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Monday, 27 May 2013

"This Line Is Not For Turning" by Jane Monson (ed) (Cinnamon, 2011)

A welcome anthology of contemporary British Prose Poetry, with both an Introduction and a Foreword. The term "prose poetry" can be used in a few ways. Just as "free verse" needn't use metre or end-rhyme (and usually doesn't) but otherwise can be any genre or style, so prose poetry forgoes the line-break, but can be any genre or style - take away the line-breaks from a free form poem and you have a prose poem. But in the 20th century, prose poetry in English was often written by American surrealists and people influenced by earlier French poets, so "prose poetry" came to describe a particular style. More recently the scope of the term has expanded again, and its common for collections and magazines to include a (token?) prose poem.

In the first issue of "The Prose Poem: An International Journal", editor Peter Johnson explained "Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels". In some of these pieces I feel that strain, as if the writer overcompensated while trying to avoid on the one side poeticisms and on the other narrative.

In the Introduction and Foreword, "prose poetry" is described as a both "form" and a "genre", which in this case is fair enough because this selection is quite constrained in style and length. The editor provides a description of the "form" "at its most disciplined" -

no more than a page, preferably half of one, focussed, dense, justified, with an intuitive grasp of a good story and narrative, a keen eye for unusual and surprising detail and images relative to that story, and a sharp ear for delivering elegant, witty, clear and subtly surreal pieces of conversation and brief occurrences, incidents or happenings (p.7)

She goes on to say that the time is right for an anthology that

focuses and captures a particular style; which shares in tone, pithiness and brevity the best traits of 'flash fiction', 'micro fiction', 'sudden prose', and the 'short short story' rather than the strengths and weaknesses of 'free verse', 'blank verse' and 'poetic prose' (p.8)

In Summer 2012's "Poetry Review", Carrie Etter (who was originally a co-editor of this anthology) wrote

While some poets and critics insist that we must resist defining prose poetry for it to retain its subversive genre-blurring character, I find some basic distinctions crucial for its appreciation ... a prose poem develops without 'going' anywhere

She cites Anthony Rudolf's "Perfect Happiness" from this book, whose point isn't to generate narrative flow - it "adds up to a single idea or feeling". This notion isn't quite in step with the Introduction's idea of a "good story". She also suggests that people should look at the sentence lengths for effects that poems achieve with line-lengths, though I can't help feeling that the line is a more explicit, effective unit than the sentence for this mechanism. David Meischen, considering the effect of line-breaks in narrative poems, wrote "If I were to remove the line breaks in Frost’s poem to make it look like a paragraph, it would still read like a lined poem, moving forward and down in increments, instead of steadily forward as in narrative". Perhaps a poem benefits from being viewed like a slide show, a line/frame at the time, whereas a prose poem is more like a movie (or at least the result of a camera panning across a still picture).

The editor's sources seem to be mostly poetry books. Perhaps she only considered pieces that were created as prose poems. It seems to me that some free verse could have been re-presented as prose poems (in the way that Yeats presented Pater's prose as poetry). Pieces from Steve Spence's "A Curious Shipwreck" could have been included. Certain Flash pieces (similar to Tania Hershman's recent pieces) could have strengthened this selection.

I liked "More about salt", "Building", "Unavailable", "Lobsters feel pain the same way humans do" ("My stepdad did his best in the fancy restaurant to sit me down with my back to the tank but I still went for the lobster ... Then my stepdad died and left ten thousand pounds. I blew it in a month. But sometimes when it rains I catch the number 82, cut through Regent's Park and spend all afternoon at the aquarium"), "from 'Fascicle LVI", "from Sexual Fantasies of the Inuit Warriors", "Scarecrow", "Pisanello", "Do Angels Eat?" (though the plot is staid - there are magazines devoted to angel poetry), "Woodpigeons", "Etiolated", "Miss Fuller and Miss Twigg" and "C17H19NO3". Some of the rest (e.g. "The Performance", "Loathing", "Good Behaviour") seem bland to me. Others (e.g. "Apus apus (swift)") I don't get. Several putter along with sequences of sentences all roughly the same length, then end.

I guess it's partly a matter of getting used to the standard templates. One is "the list with a twist" (e.g. "A Road in Berlin" - "On my daily route to or from Oranienstrasse via the Penny Supermarkt for a bottle of cheap dry white to drive The force that through the green fuse ... I never saw them laugh or make a 'knowing' gesture. Yes, that was the road where lost women popped out of windows like cuckoos from the clocks of ancient minutes"). I'd have liked more pieces to have a forward momentum connecting the sentences. I like how "After the Stories" begins - "The air just won't bulge though your curtains this evening. Even outside it feels like it is coming on to you stoned with a perfume swagger. Maybe it's like this to be water under oil and, if so, yes I should become an environmentalist", p.112. I'll need to read the book again one day, because by the time I'd reached the end my reading style and expectations had changed.

There's a typo on the contents page - "Life of Bones" begins on p.75, not p.77.

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