Prose Poetry by Paul Hetherington and Cassandra Atherton

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Prose Poetry: An Introduction is a deep study of what the authors maintain is “a highly significant literary form flourishing in most-English-speaking countries”. The writers intend to “explore prose poetry’s trajectory as a literary form and discuss the emergence of significant key practitioners”, significant because their views have strongly influenced the way the form has been received and understood. “We probe the ways in which they [scholars and critics] have characterised or defined what has often been understood as a contradictory or paradoxical literary form” (Preface).

A book such as this should be welcomed by most ‘poetryphiles’. Previous writers on the subject have not always agreed on what ‘prose poetry’ actually is. Hetherington and Atherton supply a concise, and precise, definition on the back cover of their book:

A prose poem looks like prose but reads like poetry: it lacks the line breaks of other poetic forms but employs poetic techniques such as internal rhyme, repetition, and compression. Such is the definition. According to the authors, this form “opens new spaces for writers to create riveting works that reshape the resources of prose while redefining the poetic”. Those who accept prose poetry say it opens new imaginative vistas.

According to tandfonline.com, Paul Hetherington has published and/or edited 27 books, including 13 full-length poetry collections and nine chapbooks. Among these are Moonlight on Oleander: Prose Poems (UWAP, 2018) and Palace of Memory (RWP, 2019). He won the 2014 Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards (poetry) and undertook an Australia Council for the Arts Literature Board Residency at the BR Whiting Studio in Rome in 2015-2016. He was shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize in the 2017 New South Wales Premier’s Awards and commended in the Surprise Encounters: Headstuff Poetry Competition 2018 (Ireland). He is Professor of Writing in the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Canberra, head of the International Poetry Studies Institute (IPSI), and one of the founding editors of the international online journal Axon: Creative Explorations. He founded the International Prose Poetry Group in 2014.

Cassandra Atherton is a prose poet and Associate Professor in Writing and Literature. She was a Harvard Visiting Scholar in English and a Visiting Fellow at Sophia University, Tokyo. She has published 17 critical and creative books and edited special editions of leading journals. She is the successful recipient of many national and international grants including a VicArts grant and an Australian Council Grant. Her most recent books of prose poetry are Pika-don (2018) and Pre-Raphaelite (2018). She is co-writing a scholarly book, Prose Poetry: An Introduction (Princeton University Press) and co-editing The Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry (Melbourne University Press) with Paul Hetherington. She is the current poetry editor of Westerly magazine.

One would not feel comfortable arguing this topic with these authors. They are experts in their respective fields.

Still pursuing definitions (since this is a fascinating area) I note that prose poems are fragments. They do not give the whole story and resist closure. Their practitioners “regularly make use of literary techniques that suggest additional meanings beyond the literal, emphasizing the evocative and even the ambiguous and creating resonances that move expansively outward” (14). Don’t most poets worthy of publication do this? T. S. Eliot certainly does. Shakespeare does. In prose poems the ‘poetic’ is said to inhabit language and colour sentences and paragraphs with the result that their denotative qualities are overwhelmed by the connotative (14).

The authors devote considerable thought (and time) to explaining the main features of the prose poem. Most readers would strike difficulty distinguishing differences from traditional poetry except in the case of shape. Prose poems are described as rooms seen from above. “Other prose poems are written in conventional paragraphs and appear at first glance to be ordinary prose…[until] poetry asserts itself over the idea of the prosaic” (15). The explanation for a prose like shell harbouring a powerful poetic kernel is not convincing. The remainder of this introductory chapter covers such topic as the history of the prose poem, prose poetry as a Janus-faced form, the prose poem and subversion, and this poetic form’s future.

One of the literary forms discussed in the book is the lyric. The traditional version provides a good example of lineated form. Wordsworth’s Daffodils immediately comes to mind and is familiar to most readers. Its shape is distinctively lyrical.

Anne Carson’s prose poem ‘Short Talk on Defloration’ is said to turn on compressed imagery and is upfront about the lyric “I”. It is anything but lineated:

The actions of life are not so many. To go in, to go, to go in secret, to cross the Bridge of Sighs. And when you dishonoured me, I saw that dishonour is an action. It happened in Venice; it causes the vocal cords to swell. I went booming through Venice, under and over the bridges, but you were gone. Later that day I telephoned your brother. What’s wrong with your voice he said.

“Even in this interior moment, Carson destabilizes the lyric by questioning the nature of voice in the prose poem (214).

Carson’s work is a long way along the spectrum from traditional verse. Claudia Rankine claims that her poem ‘American lyric’ is about “pulling the lyric back into its realities” (214). Her use of imagery “compares the square television screen to the prose poetry box or frame” and she notes “the way the media manipulates events in the news and damages people’s sense of self-worth.”

It occurs to me that forty could be half my life or it could be all my life. On the television I am told I don’t want to look like I am forty. Forty means I might have seen something hard, something unpleasant, or something dead. I might have seen it and lived beyond it in time. Or I might have squinted my eyes too many times in order to see it, I might have turned my face to the sun in order to look away. I might have actually been alive (215).

Prose Poetry is meant to be an introduction. Yet it has chapters in Sections One and Two on the prose poem’s post-Romantic inheritance, prose poetry rhythm and the city, open form and closure, neo-surrealism, and time and space. Section Three takes a new direction in its discussion of image and memory, metaphor and metonymy, women, and what the authors call short form. There is an Acknowledgments section, a comprehensive Bibliography, a huge Notes section, and an index.

Prose Poetry is not an introduction, not by a country mile. It is an exhaustive consideration of a topic few of us know much about. Even given our lack of knowledge of the field, the authors maintain an intellectual stance that requires deep and constant thought. The position is: you ascend to our level; we don’t descend to yours. It was a challenge, and I loved the opportunity to engage. However, the notion of prose poetry is too radical for me to accept.

Prose Poetry: An Introduction

(2020)

By Paul Hetherington and Cassandra Atherton

Princeton UP

ISBN: 978-0-691-18065-6

USD19.95; 344 pp

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