Friday, 12 August 2011

Poster poems: Prose poems

This French avant garde innovation is now firmly part of US poetry. But can land it between verbosity and faux profundity?

In the second half of the 19th century, France was where it was all happening as far as avant garde poetry was concerned. The symbolists were bent on challenging the poetic status quo, and vers libre was one of the great technical innovations to emerge. Another formal innovation developed at this time was the prose poem, a blurring of the boundaries between prose and verse with roots in early translations of the Bible, brought to a new level of proficiency in the Petits Po�mes en Prose by Charles Baudelaire and Aloysius Bertrand's Gaspard de la Nuit.

Baudelaire's experiments caught the imagination of his fellow poets, and soon writers like Arthur Rimbaud and St�phane Mallarm� were busy producing their own poems in prose. A new poetic form was born.

Towards the end of the century, the influence of the symbolists began to be evident among the English poets of the fin de si�cle, and that great Francophile and father of Irish literary modernism Oscar Wilde was one of the first of them to publish prose poems. Sadly, the poets of the 90s were something of an ill-starred crew, and their symbolist-inspired experimentalism petered out and was lost among the polite formalities of the Georgians.

The next English avant garde movement, the imagists, tend to be associated with vers libre; however, one of the contributors to the imagist anthologies, Allen Upward, is best remembered for his long prose poetry sequence Scented Leaves from a Chinese Jar. Upward may have been a minor figure, but William Carlos Williams was one imagist who went on to become a major poet in his own right. He too wrote a number of works of prose poetry; one of the most successful of these is the Kora in Hell: Improvisations sequence.

Characteristically, Williams's prose is much less self-consciously "poetic", much more idiomatic, than that of his predecessors. In his hands, the form developed into a major feature of 20th-century poetic practice. Even TS Eliot, who didn't really approve, tried his hand at one. Since Williams, the prose poem has become an integral part of American poetry, with practitioners as diverse as Archibald MacLeish, John Ashbery, Rosmarie Waldrop and Jennifer Moxley.

Twentieth-century British poetry has, perhaps, been more technically conservative than its American cousin on the whole. However, a number of poets have written poetry in prose on this side of the Atlantic. These include Gael Turnbull, Peter Riley and the Australian-born David Miller.

All in all, it's probably fair to say that what started out as a daring French experiment has achieved respectability, even spawning its own dedicated online journal, The Prose Poem Project. Because it lacks the obvious discipline of a sonnet or haiku, a prose poem can seem easy to do, but like most apparently straightforward things it's harder than it looks. It may not be easy to define a good prose poem, but it's easy enough to spot a bad one when you read it. The poet using the form walks a fine line between verbosity and faux profundity.

So, the Poster poems challenge this time is to write a prose poem on any theme you like. You may want to be as obtuse as a symbolist or as matter-of-fact as Dr Williams; the choice is yours. Get prose-poemifying. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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