It seems most readers of literature have no notion of what 'prose poetry' is. In the introduction to This Line Is Not For Turning: An Anthology of Contemporary British Prose Poetry, the editor Jane Monson states that prose poetry “is still discussed in the UK (when it is discussed), as a non-form.” My own non-scientific survey of family and friends interested in literature reinforced this view. I got one “Is this a new form of poetry?” and a few “prose-what?”. Monson blames the inability of readers, reviewers and teachers to fit this form of poetry into a 'genre' for its lack of popularity.
But this line of argument feels like a cul-de-sac, at best. Coleridge provided strict definitions to new poets, “…prose – words in their best order; poetry – the best words in their best order”. It is quite possible that students of English literature following such advice become confused by the title 'prose poetry'. Certainly, it appears to be a hybrid, neither prose nor poetry. But, most readers of poetry, if introduced to the poems in this anthology will not identify the witty, pithy and often surprising poems as anything other than poetry. Readers understand them as poems without needing to be given the details of the exact technical form.
But, in the interest of our general education, let’s explore the form itself. The dictionary definition of prose poetry refers to it as a form of poetry and goes on to explain that it contains the devices and modes of perception of lined-out poetry, except that it disposes with the convention of line-breaks. The poets who have contributed to This Line Is Not For Turning certainly seem to have taken the poetic form itself and let their imaginations run. Released from the tyranny of the line-break they have chosen other poetic devices to render their poems extraordinary.
A number of the poems included in the anthology make use of internal rhythmical and syntactical movement. This approach has the advantage of taking up the slackness in formal tension that sometimes results from the lack of line endings. Robert Van Dias’s ‘Life of Bones’, Jane Monson’s ‘Via Negativa’ and Kate North’s ‘The Snow Spits’ all use internal rhythm successfully to create beautiful and poignant poetry.
Others like ‘Visitation’ by Carrie Etter and ‘Terracotta’ by Jacqueline Haskell skilfully use allusion and symbols to breathe life into the experience of having a sudden revelation. The imagery in both these poems is so alive that only the tyranny of their existence on the page stops them from being viewed in three dimensions.
Some poets have taken advantage of the elasticity of the form to explore unusual subject matter. ‘More About Salt’ by Richard Gwyn takes a view on the lunatic attempts at healing the world. By contrast, poems like Jean Long’s ‘Balloons’ use mock formal language, almost pretending at poetry, but are successful in producing poems that are part-parody, part-revelation.
There is play on tone in other poems. John Taylor’s ‘When Cody’s older daughter’ and Joyce Goldstein’s ‘Miss Fuller and Miss Twigg’ are witty, sceptical, and self-consciously playful poems, all opening up the range of available moods in their own way.
The sheer wealth of styles, tones and structures in this anthology – from poems considering the minutia of everyday life to those considering the bigger philosophical questions – makes it accessible to a number of different types of readers. It will educate those looking for education but it will also delight, entertain and move the most unsophisticated reader of poetry too. As an unrefined but enthusiastic reader of poetry, my only advice to future would-be anthologists is to not confuse us at the outset with the misnomer 'prose poetry'. Instead, let us discover the many joys of the poems for ourselves.
Read four poems from this anthology under the Writers' Hub Poetry Section.