Fiction » Poetry

The Best Prose Poetry

recommended by Jeremy Noel-Tod

Interview by Stephanie Kelley

It's not quite poetry, yet not quite prose: the prose poem is “the defining poetic invention of modernity,” argues Jeremy Noel-Tod, editor of The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem. Here he chooses five of the best prose poems from Arthur Rimbaud to Claudia Rankine.

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Jeremy Noel-Tod

Jeremy Noel-Tod is a lecturer in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. His literary criticism has been widely published, in the Daily Telegraph, the Literary Review, the Times Literary Supplement, Prospect, the New Statesman, the Guardian and the London Review of Books, and he has been the poetry critic for the Sunday Times since 2013. His books as an editor include the revised edition of the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry (2013) and the Complete Poems of R F Langley (2015). You can follow him on Twitter @jntod.

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In your introduction to the Penguin Book of Prose Poetry, you call the prose poem “a form that has sometimes been regarded with suspicion but is now suddenly everywhere.” Tell us about the history of the prose poem. What is it? When does it begin?

When you’re editing an anthology of prose poems, the two questions people ask are: How do you define a prose poem? And: Where do you draw the line? How far back do you go?

Examples of poetic prose can be found throughout the centuries, but—like various other histories of the prose poem—I decided to start with the fairly clear, self-conscious invention of the form by Baudelaire, who declares his intention to write “the miracle of a poetic prose.” He does acknowledge that he has a model, though, that he’s taking his inspiration from elsewhere: a book called Gaspar de la Nuit (1842) by Aloysius Bertrand.

Bertrand doesn’t make any programmatic declaration that he is writing ‘prose poems’. But in these strange, short, historical vignettes (their subtitle is ‘Fantasies in the Manner of Rembrandt and Callot’, and there’s a distinctly pictorial quality to Bertrand’s writing) Baudelaire finds many of the elements that he needs to make a modern kind of poetry in prose for himself.

So, with the caveat that it’s existed in some form or another as long as literature has—like Ovid’s self-styled “loose song” or “loose poem” speeches or Lucian’s history, which he called “prosaic poetry”—the prose poem begins in late nineteenth-century France?

Yes. Stéphane Mallarmé—one of the French poets who responds to Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris, alternatively titled Petits Poèmes en Prose (1869)—says, rather brilliantly, that there is the alphabet, and then there is versification. As soon as you start to make language, then you begin to introduce all the elements that poetry heightens. And this is all part of the radical rethinking of traditional prosody in late nineteenth-century France which also sees the invention of free verse—the two develop together, I would say, although free verse comes to dominate when these experiments in France are translated into the Anglophone modernist tradition of the twentieth century.

We might now move to your first choice, which is John Ashbery’s translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations (1886). Here we have one of, if not the, most influential poets in the history of literature. He wrote these poems at an incredibly precocious age in his teens, and even called them “prose poems.” Tell us about Rimbaud and why his work is so essential to understanding the prose poem.

Illuminations is another extremely important book in the founding of the prose poem in nineteenth-century France. Like Gaspar de la Nuit and Paris Spleen, it’s posthumous: it brings together writings that Rimbaud effectively abandoned. He gave them to his lover, the poet Verlaine, and eventually publication was arranged, so the order in which these pieces come to us is almost certainly not authorial.

We do know, though, that he was writing them partly while he was living in Britain with Verlaine. He came and lived in London for a while, and I think that comes through: the poems evoke a modern European landscape which is not always clearly France. It has other places in mind. “Illuminations” itself, for example, in the sense of “decorative lights”, was a word that Rimbaud picked up in Victorian England.

“The Illuminations are the product of what Rimbaud said he wanted to do as a poet: the systematic derangement of the senses”

They have this very mysterious, elusive, hallucinatory quality. We know that he drank absinthe in Paris, and it seems he probably smoked opium down at the docks in London with Verlaine. They’re the product of what Rimbaud said he wanted to do as a poet: the systematic derangement of the senses. But the amazing thing about them is that they are so lucid. They use prose almost as a photographic medium to inscribe these surreal images, but with such precision and physical force—T S Eliot called the effect on the reader an “instant and simple impression.”

In the last paragraph of the introduction, Ashbery calls the “a disordered collection of magic lantern slides”, and remarks, “If we are absolutely modern—and we are—it’s because Rimbaud commanded us to be.” This is in many ways a manifesto for modernism, isn’t it?

Ashbery’s introduction is lovely. He calls the Illuminations “a crystalline jumble”, which gets perfectly that sense of chaos and order you feel when reading them (his translation, too, like his own poetry, pitches itself perfectly between ‘straight’ and ‘strange’ English: the phrase “Very robust rascals” at the start of “Sideshow”, for example). It gets to the essence of Rimbaud’s subject matter, which is late nineteenth-century Europe, the great cities, and this sense of living in the midst of an enormous, dangerous mass of life that never stops, never rests—Illuminations is written, as it were, in the lyric plural. It’s exactly what Baudelaire said in the prefatory note to Paris Spleen: his desire to write a poetic prose arose from the experience of living in large cities.

So the prose poem is the form of the urban wanderer, in a way.

Oh yes. Baudelaire is very clear and specific about this: he says it is the only way in which we can transcribe what he calls the “jolts of consciousness” and the intersection of countless lives—the feeling that you’re always about to bump into somebody you’ve never seen before. The intimate alienation that you experience in these cities, which he captures in his poem “Windows”, about looking in through lighted glass at a stranger who can’t see you.

Your second choice is a classic text in experimental modernism, Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein (1914). First, set the scene: how do we move from the late nineteenth-century French iterations of the prose poem to Stein and the classic modernists?

I suppose we stay in Paris, which is where Stein was living at the time of the publication of Tender Buttons (though she began to write them while she was on holiday in Spain.) I think that might be significant because in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933)—Stein’s autobiography told from the point of view of her partner—she directly connects what she was trying to do in Tender Buttons with the Cubist painters she knew at the time and what they were doing: breaking up the visual plane of these three-dimensional objects, things on café tables, and presenting them in strange, overlapping, abstracted ways.

She says that when she wrote Tender Buttons, what she was doing was sitting down, taking an object (like a tumbler, or something), looking at it, trying to get a picture of it in her mind, and then creating a “word relationship” in response to its name. The titles in Tender Buttons are things you might find in any well-to-do domestic interior, like Stein’s apartment in Paris.

She was fascinated by this idea that you could write a poem, she said, in which you name something without naming it. You write around the solid impression that it makes in your mind.

I wonder if you could say a bit more about Cubism and the influence of the art of the period. I read somewhere that Tender Buttons is meant to be read as a series of still lives. How do we approach a poetry that abandons syntactic logic in this way?

In that sense, I do see Stein as being continuous with Rimbaud and his Illuminations. It’s been suggested that Stein might have been stoned when she wrote Tender Buttons. [Laughs]. And Alice B. Toklas did later publish a recipe for hash brownies . . . But certainly, she, like Rimbaud, had an idea of trying to unhook her rational mind when it came to writing these poems, and letting it follow its own intuitive course. If these poems are still lives, they are not seen from one point of view—she wanted to find a way, she said, of “mixing the inside with the outside.”

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Tender Buttons in particular was the book that made her notorious. It was a small press publication, but it got picked up by the American newspapers, who began to quote it, parody it, and generally mock it as nonsense. Later, in the 1930s, she goes to the United States on a lecture tour and there’s a little audio clip of a journalist saying to her, “Miss Stein, what do you say to people who don’t understand what you write?” and she says, “I say, if you enjoy it, you understand it.” She emphasizes this in her Steinian way: “if you enjoy it, you understand it.” And then she says, “If you don’t enjoy it, why do you bother about it?” Which I think is a great response. She knows that there is something about her writing that fascinates people, and it fascinates them partially because it irritates them. But it irritates them because they’re sort of attracted to it, and don’t know why. It irritates the rational part of the mind which expects to be able to explain things.

“It’s been suggested that Stein might have been stoned when she wrote Tender Buttons

She says this elsewhere about ‘classic’ art—that there’s a period when most classic works are not recognized as classics, and to most people they’re actually more irritating than beautiful. People reject them because they’re new, and they don’t know what to do with them. But then they become accepted as a classic, and everybody forgets what it’s like when they were irritating. But, in a way, they were more interesting when they were irritating.

With Tender Buttons, somehow Stein has managed to write a book that has become a classic, and yet still has that quality of niggling at you. You can’t read Tender Buttons easily. I enjoy it—I love reading some of it out loud; its rhythms are amazing. But I’ve never read a critical account of Tender Buttons which really satisfactorily explains it. It has this effect on you that nobody has ever quite managed to put into words.

That inexplicability is part of its greatness. But I wonder if it’s also productive to think about a work like Tender Buttons philosophically. Stein was taught by William James. Can we consider Tender Buttons alongside Wittgenstein and the philosophy of language more generally?

Yes. I like that—it’s a sort of modernist mind experiment. And yet, at the same time, I think one of its satisfactions is that it’s a really sensory book. On one level, you can accept the fact that it’s talking about, say, roast beef or custard in its “Food” section, and if you hold your mental picture—your memory of those foods in your mind—as you’re reading, you can connect that pleasure with the intellectual pleasure of the poem.

And that probably ties into what’s signified by the title Tender Buttons. Should we read this as an erotic or even lesbian text?

Definitely. Stein scholarship has made a good case for taking a reading in that direction: the private erotic language that she had with Alice B. Toklas. Her poetry has the same passionately enigmatic yet emphatic quality. It teases and it pleases. “Poetry [is] really loving the name of anything and that is not prose”, as she says. It’s a book that asks you to enjoy the fact that prose doesn’t have to really make any kind of sense that you were expecting, while at the same time reminding you of all kinds of other prose that you read, every day. For example, if you set one of the Tender Buttons alongside a typical recipe book of the period, you would immediately see its resemblance to, say, a description of how you would produce a jam roly-poly. There’s the same brisk, confident, shorthand precision. Actually, on Twitter, there’s even a bot which mashes up Tender Buttons with phrases from a 24-hour shopping channel. It’s called Gertrude’s Gifts.

Your third choice is Francis Ponge’s Unfinished Ode to Mud, translated by Beverly Bie Brahic. At the time Ponge is writing and publishing poems in the 1920s, Hitler is beginning his rise in Germany, as does Stalin in Russia. As I was reading this one, I was wondered: how do historical pressures affect or catalyze or under-write the emergence of the prose poem form?

There is certainly a shadow history to do with the rise of prose in general here. I realize also that we’ve basically stayed in Paris for all of these books, one of the great modern metropolises. And these are places which are increasingly dominated by prose as the way in which an increasingly literate population consumes information and entertainment, in cheap books and newspapers. Some of Baudelaire’s prose poems, for example, first appeared as feuilletons, literary snippets in a daily newspaper.

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In an age of mass literacy, prose is also essential to political influence—Mein Kampf sells millions of copies—as well as being the medium of the administration of power, and so also empire: ‘Caesar himself is patron of our grammar books’, as Charles Bernstein says. For a poet to inhabit this medium, as Ponge does, and bring it to bear on the most apparently modest of objects—to make tentative propositions in prose—is to in some way try to recover the life of prose, because so much prose is effectively dead or deadening.

So poetic form-breaking is a form of agency, or can’t escape being a political statement?

Yes. In the 1930s, Ponge worked in a publisher’s offices, which he hated. He was a union representative who went on strike and later joined the Communist Party—and then during the war, the Resistance. His first, classic collection of poems, Le parti pris de choses (1942), has recently been translated as Partisan of Things, which I think brings out its spirit of opposition to what Marxists would call ‘reification’: turning people into things, through their labour. All poems, he thought, should be considered “reasons for living happily.” Unfinished Ode to Mud is perhaps my favorite translation of Ponge, although there are a number of other good ones. In the history of the prose poem, there’s a case for saying that that Ponge brings it to a kind of perfection. This is not to say that everything after him is a disappointment, but he somehow discovers an essence of the poetic in prose which comes from the way in which he proceeds by very simply trying to define the thing in front of him.

It’s as though he takes a step back from Gertrude Stein, and just takes the object in front of him as it is, like the oyster or the blackberry. He doesn’t do what Stein does, which is to go around it; he tries to focus on it. But he’s so attuned or sensitive to the dangers of closing down a definition that he develops this style where what he’s saying is always open to a further refinement.

He writes in a very provisional manner, as though he’s just drafting a poem—as if these prose poems are just notes towards verse poems that he’s going to write and then doesn’t. But all that is part of his extremely charming irony: he’s actually becoming very precise indeed about his perception of this object.

Ponge’s poems seem like lessons in how various the prose poem can be. Some (like the very first, “Rain”) read to me as if the unit of prose (like a paragraph) acts as an enlargement or saturation of a verse line, swelling the space and time the poet takes with each image. In others (like the second poem “The End of Autumn”), each section of several sentences is comparable to others in size. It makes you realize that there are just so many ways a poem can be, when the unit of organization is the sentence or the paragraph.

I think that’s very nicely put—and it’s borne out by the influence Ponge had on so many prose poets after him, which is something I tried to show in the anthology. His method is ostensibly scientific: he takes prose as a supposedly objective medium. From childhood, he was fascinated by reading the dictionary. It’s as though he puts on this white coat of prose to go into his laboratory, but then the great joke—and I do think of Ponge as a kind of comedian—is that actually, everything he’s dealing with is slippery and alive. And as soon as he starts to describe it objectively, the subjective enters. Every sentence of Ponge is metaphorical and self-reflexive; whatever object he’s describing, it turns out he’s describing a metaphor for the process of writing, too.

“Whatever object he’s describing, it turns out he’s describing a metaphor for the process of writing, too”

For example. What is rain? You could give a one sentence definition of it, but instead, in “Rain” Ponge gives you amazing, dazzling paragraphs which really attempt to capture that sense of what it is to look at rain, what it’s doing, out of a window. To really attend to how it splashes differently in different places—and how prose might be a way of catching every single perception. This, of course, works exactly against that tendency to close down and define. So there’s this constant tragicomic struggle against trying to be simple. In Ponge’s poetry, words are always coming alive and running away from him, like Mickey Mouse’s brooms and buckets in “The Sorceror’s Apprentice.”

You mentioned just now that prose poems can be funny. It reminds me of a remark by Alan Ziegler, who edited your fourth choice, the anthology Short, in which he points out the similitude between the short prose form and the joke. Short is a mammoth anthology—tell us about why you picked it.

I’ve never met Alan Ziegler, but I feel a lot of sympathy with him, because this anthology is the closest thing to what I was trying to do in mine. I also admire him because when confronted with this question—where does the prose poem begin, and how do you define it?—he actually opens it up more and says, ‘No, what I’m interested in is this perhaps even more elusive mode which is the short prose piece.’ So, as well as prose poems, he has short-short stories, brief essays, aphorisms, and other forms. He leaves the field more open than my book, and that I find very valuable, because it means that he brings in things that are evidently part of the bigger history here—for example, philosophers using short prose as well as fiction writers.

Whereas in your anthology you begin with the present day, “The Prose Poem Now”, and move backwards, Ziegler begins with a section called “Precursors”, including writers from Montaigne to John Aubrey and Louis-Sébastien Mercier. What do you think of this genealogy, which begins in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries but concentrates the bulk of its material in the last 100 years or so?

Again, I admire its faithfulness to the facts—it acknowledges that the prose poem is a modern form with a long tail. Ziegler comes up to the present, and the prose poem as we’re used to it comes to dominate his choices there. But—and this is my main reservation—it’s not necessarily the case that the prose poem does have to be short. Some of the most astonishing achievements in the form are extended pieces of writing.

Which is difficult for the anthologist, obviously.

Exactly. As an anthologist, sometimes you might be better leaving something out rather than misrepresenting it by an excerpt. Just respecting the fact that some works have an integrity that you can’t easily sample. But yes, I do think that although a lot of prose poems are short, which makes it tempting to take that as one of the definitions of the form, this would mean, for example, that you would only represent Stein by her shorter Tender Buttons. Sometimes they’re so short they’re a bit like jokes, such as “Roast Potatoes”, which is just the title repeated with a preposition (“Roast potatoes for.”). But other parts are extended and rhapsodic, like “Roastbeef”. And then there’s something like Auden’s “Caliban to the Audience”, which is his extraordinary reimagining of Shakespeare’s character in the prose of late Henry James—and so, necessarily, takes a long time to say anything.

I was really interested in the elasticity and flexibility Ziegler talks about with regard to genre. In the introduction, he writes: “I tried to base my genre designations on a sense of how much “air” was in a text—I was more likely to call denser pieces prose poems than short-short stories.” How can a reader measure how much “air” is in a text? In an age of relentlessly shifting experimentation, what’s the point of genre labels?

People might be surprised that I’m really not someone who wants to argue for a very fixed definition of the prose poem, perhaps paradoxically after producing this anthology. What I’m interested in is the poetic. I just became fascinated with how, if we do just allow ‘verse’ to be a synonym for ‘poetry’—say, The Oxford Book of English Verse—then there is this whole body of writing, especially contemporary writing, that falls between the labels that we’re using.

“I don’t think prose has yet exhausted the potential to disturb people’s sense of categories, if it presents itself as poetry”

From my point of view, ‘prose poem’ is partly just a pragmatic category to try and capture all this wonderful writing. There is often something marginal or misfitting about a lot of the prose poetry that I find most interesting. It’s not, for whatever reason, comfortable with framing itself as a recognizable poem; it wants to use prose because there is something elusive or fugitive or simply alternative about what it’s trying to do with language. I don’t think prose has yet exhausted the potential to disturb people’s sense of categories, if it presents itself as poetry.

To look ahead to my last choice, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, I think the response to that was revealing, because it was apparent that, even when they admired the book, people were still not entirely comfortable being presented with prose that was called poetry.

Let’s move on to Citizen. It’s the most recent book of your selections, and when it came out, seemed to constitute a real turning point in American poetry especially but perhaps internationally, even. I want to draw attention to its subtitle: ‘a lyric’. How is the history of the lyric entwined with that of the prose poem? The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics defines the prose poem as a “composition able to have any or all features of the lyric, except that it is put on the page—though not conceived of—as prose.”

Like a lot of definitions, that refers you to the definition of something else. This is one of the reasons that the epigraph to the introduction of my anthology was Gertrude Stein: “What is poetry and if you know what poetry is what is prose.” Because sometimes these arguments become rather circular. People ask, ‘How do you define a prose poem?’ My response to them is ‘Well, how do you define a poem?’ It’s not as though that’s a question with an easy answer. When we define a poem now, we usually mean ‘lyric’—that form of intense emotional expression associated with song, but obviously, in written poetry, increasingly detached from a musical setting. (Though I have sometime wondered if one analogy for prose poetry in popular music is the spoken-word song, such as Tom Waits’ “What’s He Building in There?”).

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I think when Rankine calls Citizen ‘an American lyric’ and calls her previous book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), an ‘American lyric’, she is deliberately challenging the definition of lyric. She’s in the tradition that goes back to Wordsworth and Coleridge calling their poems Lyrical Ballads, and thinking of how ‘lyrical’ has a certain high-culture association with the refined, literary way of writing poetry, and ‘ballads’ has the low-culture association of oral literature and folk song. Like Wordsworth and Coleridge bringing together those words, by juxtaposing those two terms ‘America’ and ‘lyric’, Rankine is saying that we need a new working definition of ‘lyric’, and perhaps a better definition of ‘American’ too. ‘An American lyric’ has the sort of oxymoronic quality that ‘prose poem’ does. These little two-word phrases that challenge you to rethink your definition of both parts.

So, Citizen is written in the second person. Rankine writes:

“Sometimes “I” is supposed to hold what it not there until it is. Then what is comes apart the closer you are to it . . . The pronoun barely holding the person together . . . Tried rhyme, tried truth, tried epistolary untruth, tried and tried.”

There’s this sense that there’s something about her subject—or about subjectivity—that can’t be captured by ordinary verse, by ‘rhyme’ or ‘epistolary untruth’, and instead has to take this shape-shifting form.

I think shape-shifting is right for Citizen. Obviously, it’s been admired and acclaimed, but I do feel the general reception of it has underplayed its artfulness. Its technical subtlety and overall arrangement has been neglected, because it has been classified as a kind of documentary work. The focus has been on its vignettes of everyday micro-aggressions, not its more extended argument.

So much time has been spent excavating the lyric essay or the documentary essay that the qualities of these works as poetry are lost.

Yes, and ‘shape-shifting’ is a nice description, because if you read Citizen as a through-composed work, as a complete thing, it changes its form. The plain documentary prose—which has come to characterize it—is only part of it. There’s the critical essay on Serena Williams. There are passages of verse, too. Rankine is clearly a writer who admires Stein; sometimes, her sentences sort of do what Stein does, which is to knock through the walls of grammar and just let words run up against each other.

“Rankine is saying that we need a new working definition of ‘lyric’, and perhaps a better definition of ‘American’ too”

At the start of Citizen, I think it’s the first sentence, she says, “You are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices.” That’s immediately a bit Ponge; it’s clueing us in to the fact that this is going to be a reflexive sort of writing. It’s saying: I’m too tired to use any of the devices that you might associate with lyric poetry. But over the course of the book, it’s full of devices, in that artful sense. It’s also a book which needs to be read out loud. Like Tender Buttons, it’s a book that needs to be heard and felt to have its full effect. Rankine was interviewed on the Guardian podcast when the anthology came out and she summed up her reason for using prose with a strikingly Steinian phrase—she said it was ‘the perfect form . . . to create the music of the narrative of the devastation altogether’. Anyone who can come out with something like that on the spot is, as far as I’m concerned, a bona fide genius.

Can we relate some of those devices to Rankine’s subject? Citizen focuses heavily on political collectivity and the condition of being a black person in America, of police violence. The form services those concerns really well.

Yes. Racism is structural and prose is a means of exposing that structure. There’s a great review of Citizen by the poet Vahni Capildeo, where she compares it to a “crystalline aggregation”, a “lump of geological fact”. She says, “fits no human palm without spiking it somewhere.” In using prose, Rankine wants to look the reader directly in the eye—not to go around the subject. But I think there’s another side of that, which is that she wants to also draw you in. Her lyricism wants to establish an interiority. One of the really important passages in the book is where she talks about Robert Lowell. She doesn’t name him directly, but it’s apparent that she’s addressing Lowell and in particular thinking of his book Life Studies (1959), which has a prose memoir as its middle section.

Your ill-spirited, cooked, hell on Main Street, nobody’s here, broken-down, first person could be one of many definitions of being to pass on.

The past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow.

Drag that first person out of the social death of history, then we’re kin.

[…]

Listen, you, I was creating a life study of a monumental first person, a Brahmin first person.

If you need to feel that way—still you are in here and here is nowhere.

Join me down here in nowhere.

It’s such a powerful passage because she’s directly addressing the author of the most famous book of post-war American verse, Life Studies, and the way he mixes prose and free verse to present that apparently open and confessional portrait of himself. She’s challenging that and how it has dominated the idea of the ‘American lyric’: Lowell, as a  privileged white man, has been able to do such a thing, to make such a full and open confession of himself. But what would have happened to a black woman who had tried to do that in 1959?

That makes me think of a claim of Maggie Nelson’s in her book on the New York School of poets: “Most discourse on late 20th century poetics has been written by men, and has aimed to delimit various aesthetic positions or movements.” Rankine addressing Lowell seems to echo that. Would you say that genealogies of the prose poem have failed to sufficiently include or document the work of women? Is this changing?

Because prose poetry often comes from the margins of the literary canon, scholarship on the prose poem perhaps has a slightly better-than-average track record here. Three important studies that come to mind, for example, are by women: Marguerite S. Murphy, Nikki Santilli and, most recently, Jane Monson. And its hard to account for it as an avant-garde form without acknowledging Stein. But I do think that the available accounts of prose poetry in English have tended to be very American-centric. That was something I wanted to try to shift in the anthology, to look at the way prose poetry has this international existence, and how important translation has been in developing it as a form that leaps almost simultaneously into multiple languages in the modernist era: from French into English, Russian, Chinese, Bengali, German, Spanish, Japanese, and more. And then, of course, Anglophone poetry is not just written in the UK and the US, but also in Australia, New Zealand, India, the Caribbean, Africa.

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To come back to your question, Stein, as I’ve already mentioned, suffered a lot of mockery before she was admitted to the modernist canon. There’s also Amy Lowell, who was almost totally forgotten because Pound won the propaganda battle to claim Imagism as this sort of pared-down free verse, whereas Lowell was developing what she called ‘polyphonic prose’, which is full of exuberant music and imagery. When I first read her “Spring Day” (1916), I thought wow, there’s a whole other side of Imagism here which is prose poetry, and it’s almost never mentioned.

There are various points all along the way where you find people have been written out of literary history. They’re often women, or queer writers like Jack Spicer—Spicer’s Letters to James Alexander (1958–59) is a sequence of wonderfully direct prose poems—or black writers. Ron Silliman suggests in his essay on prose poetry, ‘The New Sentence’, that possibly the first American prose poet is an African-American called Fenton Johnson, who writes this unforgettably poignant monologue called ‘Tired’—although, according to my own chronology, Johnson is predated by Emma Lazarus, the Jewish American poet best-known for the sonnet that hangs inside the Statue of Liberty, whose sequence “By the Waters of Babylon” is subtitled (after Baudelaire) “Little Poems in Prose”.

So, yes, I think there is still work to do in re-writing the history of modern poetry to bring those voices back in. There’s so much more that I could have put in the anthology, if I hadn’t had a page limit—a whole other book . . .

Interview by Stephanie Kelley

April 15, 2019

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Jeremy Noel-Tod

Jeremy Noel-Tod is a lecturer in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. His literary criticism has been widely published, in the Daily Telegraph, the Literary Review, the Times Literary Supplement, Prospect, the New Statesman, the Guardian and the London Review of Books, and he has been the poetry critic for the Sunday Times since 2013. His books as an editor include the revised edition of the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry (2013) and the Complete Poems of R F Langley (2015). You can follow him on Twitter @jntod.