In part one of our series on prose poems, The Irresistible Rise of Prose Poetry, our new Poetry Correspondent Mark Connors begins with The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry.
On the back cover blurb of Valley Press’s book, we are told that “prose poetry is at the cutting edge of contemporary writing, freeing words from the bounds of traditional poetic grammar”. It might be prudent to come up with a working definition of what constitutes prose poetry in order to discuss it but, as the editors suggest in their introduction, there seems to be a reluctance to define the genre, as if doing so would somehow constrain prose poetry in the shackles it attempts to escape and subsequently subvert. Moreover, as the editors explain, it is perhaps “its mercurial resistance to definition which has led to a growth of interest”.
It could also be argued that poets liberated beyond line breaks let their imaginations run a little more riotously in ways they may not when adhering to the more traditional conventions of poetry. In the opening poem, the forever innovative Luke Kennard riffs on why it’s pretty straightforward for us to create artificial intelligence like humans “because all any of us really cares about is how we come across”. He also tells us that the AI version of himself “would be a nodding dog on the parcel shelf of a 1980s hatchback”.
Meanwhile, the Poet Laureate’s surreal A New Career in a New Town imagines a telephone conversation with David Bowie where the poet shares anecdotes with his hero, such as the time he braved a local youth club to play table tennis with “lads who’d stolen cars and thrown punches at officers of the law”. Simon Armitage tells Bowie that he was “wearing shorts and sweatbands in the style of my favourite Scandinavian table tennis champion of the era”. Assuming this was 1980s Yorkshire, it’s a wonder our Poet Laureate made it out alive.
The collection also includes newer voices such as the brilliant Becky Cherriman who delivers an engaging tale about her uncle’s framed 35Ib carp, “angled from a lake and silenced like someone whose heart is in trouble and is put in a coma to give them a chance”. As with much plain-speaking lyrical prose poetry, what Cherriman doesn’t say in the poem is as significant as what she does.
Elsewhere, our modern angst is represented achingly by Julia Webb in sparkling lines like “we are not in control. We are not in control of our own collapsing”. And then there’s the surprising active ekphrasis of Jane Burn in her poem Picture of the Dead Woman as a Bride: “I put my palm over the photograph, blank out the man so I see only her. She is untethered, floats from the portrait. A rising cloud.”
In my favourite poem of the anthology, one of several I wish I’d written, fellow poet and fellow runner Anne Ryland waxes lyrical on the transformative powers of the long run: “Running, redrafting myself, I return to my primal language of sigh and puff and and laugh; i become sweat and tear, the low-thud song of my lungs. I become a woman wintering.”
The poems in this anthology teleport the reader in ways which pan out and zoom in, breaking free of the line break, unconcerned with enjambment, riding the crests of their narrative waves. The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry is a thought-provoking and enjoyable introduction (or re-acquaintance) to the world that prose poems inhabit. Prose poetry is nothing new but its recent resurgence is undeniable and, judging by the quality of the writing here, its resurgence comes as no surprise to this poet. This anthology does exactly what it should and leaves us wanting more.
By Mark Connors, Poetry Correspondent
The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry edited by Anne Caldwell & Oz Hardwick is published by Valley Press and available to buy now.