Dear Tess and Nigel
Thanks for the new issue of TEXT. I was interested to read Bill Manhire's
piece and agreed with much it said and especially the concept of opening
students to the concept of reaching into the dark. This ties in with the
article on the Prose Poem by Kevin Brophy and I would like to offer a
'response' to Kevin's piece.
THE PROSE POEM IN AUSTRALIA - AND ELSEWHERE
In his article The Prose Poem: A Short History, a Brief Reflection
and a Dose of the Real Thing Kevin Brophy gives a quick reading
of the history of this genre, beginning in France with Baudelaire and
finding, it would seem, some sort of fringe habitation in America. Brophy
then goes on to relate difficulties he has had in persuading his students
to attempt the forrn.
I believe his 'difficulties' possibly relate to two things. Firstly,
from his article he seems not to have taken account of any Australian
attempts to develop the form, and secondly, the sense of resistance he
notes might be aligned with attempts to persuade students to write poetry
This latter statement of mine is, perhaps, overstressing the point,
but I think many teaches of creative writing have found a certain resistance
among students to attempt poetry outside the old 'mainstream' formal
structures. This, in my experience, relates back to the general Australian
resistance to any forms of modernism in the 20th century and a suspicion
of experimentation as a self conscious literary device.
At the basic level, new students often have great difficulty in even
writing about their local environment. Something far off, fantastic
(or fantasy-ful) or glamorous is often the instinctive choice. How many
futuristic or Gothic or Neanderthal epics have we seen from beginners?
To harness writers down to naming specific streets or suburbs is an
early but major task. To make the leap beyond habitation and specific
perception into the subjective dislocations and leaps of association
implicit in the prose poem is a leap indeed.
Perhaps if we had an anthology of the Prose Poem in Australia the task
os teachers might be considerably lightened. And some very exciting possibilities
In 1982 when I was writer-in-residence at Deakin University in Geelong
their magazine Mattoid published an interview with me on the
prose poem. This was reprinted in 1990 in my collection of essays, Biting
the Bullet (Simon & Schuster) and in that I gave not only a
run-down on the development of the form, from 19th century France to
modern English explorations of the genre, most notably in the U.S. (and
leaning on Latin American exemplars, which in the 1960s became suddenly
available in translation in the States). Kevin Brophy does not mention
the great rise of prose poems in the Latin America, nor Europe, but
these were pertinent phases. When Mark Strand and Charles Simic published
Another Republic in 1976 (Ecco NY) they made a major step in
introducing 17 contemporary poets in English translation. Of these,
no less than seven were represented with prose poems, several of them
entirely in this form: Francis Ponge, Henri Michaux, Zbigniew Herbert,
Julio Cortazar, Octavio Paz, Miroslav Holub and Italo Calvino. Most
of these names are now well know, even in Australia.
My interview article explored some of the reasons these took hold in
the creative minds of an important segment of American poets. What I did
not mention was that American poetry at that stage had already massively
broken with old formal traditions, and 'field poetry' offered an even
greater sense of flexibility and layout experiment than the prose poem.
Nevertheless, it can be said the prose poem did establish its place and
there are many more collections of great interest published than is hinted
at in Kevin Brophy's (admittedly concise) article.
The development of the form in Australia was outlined in my piece,
and it might be useful to re-print it at the end of this small response.
I had been interested - and still am - in the concept of an anthology
of prose poems from Australia, though to date I have not managed to
interest a publisher. Perhaps it is now time.
When I edited the UQP verse anthology The Moment Made Marvellous
in 1998 I included prose poems by Pamela Brown, Joanne Bums, Gary Catalano
and Judith Rodriguez (her Borges at 73 also invokes one of the
most influential of the influential Latin American experimenters in
the form, seen at its most expansive and flexible).
Certainly as a technique, the prose poem continues to attract Australian
poets and there are a considerable number of book-length collections
that have been published here. I could list, for instance, Andrew Taylor's
Parabolas (which as I mentioned in my Mattoid interview was
the first book of prose poems to be published in this country), two
books by Bruce Beaver (Headlands UQP 1986 and As It Was
UQP 1979), two by myself (Turning Full Circle New Poetry 1979
and Stump and Grape and Bopple-nut Bullion 1982), several stunning
books by Gary Catalano (including Fresh Linen, UQP 1988), Ania
Walwicz, Laurie Duggan (including the award-winning The Ash Range,
Picador 1987), Rodney Hall's The Most Beautiful World (UQP
1981), all of Philip Hammiell's books from 1976 to 1994, Rudi Krausmann's
From Another Shore (Wild & Woolley 1975), Gerard Lee's
Manual For a Garden Mechanic (1976), Alison Croggon's Nevigato
(Black Pepper 1996), and books by Pamela Brown, Joanne Bums and Anna
Couani. And that is only skimming the surface.
In addition, many Australian poets have published occasional prose
poems which are included in their general collections: Chris Wallace-Crabbe,
David Malouf and Kevin Hart, on to M.T.C.Cronin, Luke Davies, John Scott,
John Kinsella and Michael Sarabin, again to name only a few.
What these lists do suggest is that as a distinct genre, the prose
poem in Australia is alive and well. Probably in better health than
the Sestina, the Sonnet or the Haiku.
The advantage of an anthology, now, would be to suggest to teachers of
creative writing in Australia something of the Australian development
of the form. And it has taken, I think, specifically Australian resonances.
If it could be said to remain essentially lyrical in its preoccupation
with language (and even cadence), it is more gently satirical and sometimes
even rueful than its American counterparts. It has less anger, more stoicism.
Less extravagance, more essential caution. We are, let us remember, a
supremely cautious people. The Tampa affair has, most recently, all too
clearly illustrated that.
But the Australian evolution of the prose-poem is no merely pallid
thing, a sort of pale reflection of the wan English versions (and, as
with recent English art works which set out to shock, the English prose
poem has a terrible posing safety-pin-in-the-nostril and stud-in-the-penis
determination that merely chafes). It also has something of the Australian
laconic wit and defiance, and it can get under the skin of the more
conventional verse structures, which bear the ghostly train of the measured
cadence still. As Kevin Brophy says, the prose poem is subversive. That
is something Australians have always been good at, even if they are
outwardly cautious and conformist. If young readers could see something
of the range and scope that has evolved over the last generation of
our poets, they might be more able to see for themselves how and where
the adventure might take them.
THE 1982 INTERVIEW WITH MATTOID: ON PROSE POETRY
Mattoid: Could we start, Tom, by discussing the genre of the prose
poem? There seems perhaps a contradiction of terms here. Poetry and
prose are separate matters, how can you put them together and expect
them to be a 'real' form? What do you think a prose poem can do that
either a poem or prose can't do?
Tom Shapcott: Your statement that it seems a contradiction in terms
is the point at which the prose poem began. Most true prose poems
operate from a sense of contradiction or I'd prefer to say the tension
between certain sorts of claims being made upon language. The basic
claims are the demands of an innate lyricism and the demands of prose
realism. I think the genre as it has evolved in the last 120 or 130
years or so has tried to make use of the intrinsically dramatic conflict
involved. To place it in its historical perspective: the first sustained
attempts were by Charles Baudelaire - works written as a result of
heightened states through drug-taking. It was the urgency of getting
something down, I'm sure, that made him write these as prose. He was
a superb craftsman, and he discovered that something came through
which was different from what would have resulted had he attempted
it in a stanzaic form. There are precursors to that sort of discovery:
in the English language Walt Whitman used a non-stanzaic loping structure
at a time when it was a real innovation; this was based on the dynamics
of the Hebraic psalms, which involve a counterbalance in each sentence.
But Baudelaire's prose poems opened up further ways - they were celebratory,
in other words, lyrical, but they used the language of ordinary conversational
discourse. And it was through the conflict between these two forces
that something inherently different came out. The French tradition
ever since has explored this. In English, such experimentation was
much slower. Eliot's early attempts were quasi-translations of the
French, and he later abandoned the form. Then, in the 1920s and 1930s,
other (mainly American) writers made sporadic experiments...
M: Your summary of the prose poem's origins and relationships raises
several interesting points about the form. Just before we pursue those,
though, could you bring your survey up to date?
TS: American, English, even Australian poets had done the odd little
exercise. from the 1920s onward. But the form in English came to a
new stage of richness from the late 1950s when American poets started
using the prose poem in a serious and sustained way. This was through
their postwar interest in European and especially Spanish-language
poetry and translations. The Spanish-speaking countries had, as it
were, spontaneously fallen for the combination of vigour and violence
implicit in the structure. In Australia, Chris Wallace-Crabbe was
the first poet to tackle it seriously as a form. He was influenced,
though, by the French prose poem, which had become a much more elegant
and almost 'courtly' study in layers of irony. Through the last decade
the Americans have widely explored the possibilities of the clash
between the extrovert dynamism and greed and introverted idealism
and despair, and the prose poem allowed them to hit the raw nerve
of the subconscious - wham - in a way that had only been tentative
before - say, in the work of e e cummings...
M: To pursue that question of form and expectations: if the line-breaks
in a poem suggest how we should read it, what means does the prose
poem have of directing the expectations we bring to it?
TS: Very often the 'poetic' part of the prose poem is expressed through
an appeal to illogic: to states of receptivity which deny what we
have come to expect prose to offer - that is, rational discourse,
descriptive clarity, even rhetoric in its conventional sense of persuasion,
of using language to set certain cogs in motion. The prose poem creates
its lyrical frisson by pointing the reader's anticipatory glands in
that direction, and then somehow working a change ... Also, the prose
poem seems very much a present-tense form. It operates on a sense
of immediacy: I am doing this, this is happening to me. And that's
immediately conducive to a dream state, because a dream has exactly
that things-are-happening-to-me-now feeling. What's implicit is that
I am a passive receiver of certain things. Things flow around the
"I". This has become characteristic of a lot of prose poetry:
an observer is operated on by all sorts of things, some magical, some
absolutely mundane. Often the juxtaposition becomes the active force
- 'I am sitting in a car there is a blue pram being wheeled past by
a lady wearing a pink floral eiderdown...' The naming quality becomes
M: So although some of your prose poems suggest a narrative, that's
not the important thing?
TS: No. But there's another interesting quality of the prose poem
apart from that surreal experience presented with the openness of
a passive dream state. This is the implicitly dramatic context of
a you-and-me. The poem becomes a dialogue between writer and reader.
Many of the more bizarre elements of a lot of prose poems attempt
to provoke the reader into participating in what the work offers.
Sometimes shock tactics are used. Sometimes coercive tactics.
M: I've noticed that in some of your prose poems there's also a dialogue
within yourself, or there's an implied interlocutor, and perhaps very
occasionally a dramatic impersonation.
TS: Yes, though that's less characteristic of the form than the use of
surrealism. This is a way in which surrealism has become legitimate, opening
up possibilities that seem not just jejune.
M: Are there other ways, then, in which voices, or points of view,
are important in the prose poem?
TS: I suggest that the best prose poems of the twentieth century
have all tended to be groups of poems which build up into sequences.
Octavia Paz, in his book-length Eagle of Sun (the first major
Latin-American essay in the form, by the way), uses the "I"
as an ordinary person full of practicalities, involved with ordinary
functions, who is also exploring what it is to be a Mexican, and as
well having a vision of the old Aztec gods in the present-day world.
All these things cohere because of the surrealism and typical Spanish
violence of the juxtapositions, the balance between flat prose and
highly florid colouration. It only works as a sequence: each small
piece builds upon the next and upon the next, like infinite variation.
M: So you get both the advantage of lyricism, which you mentioned
earlier, and the more extended scope of prose?
TS: This is where the prose poem can develop as a major form. It's
a way of creating a lyrical epic, if you like, without a narrative
but with an implied dramatic context, so that all those things we've
been talking about, tensions within even the essence of the word,
the words as they cling together in a sentence, are expanded and built
upon in this larger accretion. The most exciting and successful prose
poems of the last twenty years have taken this form - such as Italo
Calvino's Invisible Cities, Robert Bly has also done three
or four books of prose poems; they're small sequences because Bly
is always a miniaturist, but all explore that capacity for growth
through accretion. In Australia, Andrew Taylor's Parabolas was
a pivotal work, the first book-length collection of prose poems here.
To mention just a couple of other Australian writers: Anna Couani
attempts a form closer to the non-narrative short-story but with all
the lyricism of an eternally displaced present-tense I mentioned before.
Robert Kenny in Etcetera tries to recreate and explore his
childhood in the early 1950s: he uses short prose forms that list
just a few non-essential items suddenly isolated to give that strange
intensity like an unexpected photograph of a familiar scene. The book
itself might not 'live' more than a few years, but its importance
is greater than can be objectively measured: it's already given rise
to other collections of a similar sort ?? by Laurie Duggan and Denis
Gallagher, for instance.
M: Among the titles you mention Parabolas and your own
Turning Full Circle both use the image of the curve, of the
momentum that comes back to itself. Presumably recurrence is important
in those sequences of prose poems you're talking about?
TS: Yes, that hits very much to the centre. Finding what's within
the circle. The greatest of all French prose poets must be Francis
Ponge and his Soap is a great circular pattern of finding and
refinding...I hadn't previously traced that as an overriding formal
focus, though I'd been intrigued by the capacity of the prose poem
to work through extended groupings - and certainly the 'rondo' or
'variation' musical forms had seemed somehow parallel.
M: Yet in your own Turning Full Circle you do use the image
of music from time to time so you have that sense of development of
motif, its recurrence and variation.
TS: In my collection there were certain recurring motifs and a self-conscious
preoccupation with 'turning full circle', of ending up where you started
- but you never come back to where you started with exactly the same
M: Yes, there's no sense of any contrived connections and yet they
obviously do relate to one another.
TS: One has preoccupations in any time of one's life. But others
which are much more basic come through. For the very last group I
looked back - and then I tried to do different things, partly because
I felt I'd been following a certain thread, seeing where it led, and
suddenly I thought: no, there are other things that can be done too
in this form. That was where I introduced the short-loin chops - to
create a compressed short-story resonance. I used a third person there
as a contrast. The temptation was to bust the form open, try something
Reading that interview again, these decades later, I am of course struck
with the extended book-length prose poem sequence that have been achieved
in Australia in more recent years. Certainly Laurie Duggan's The
Ash Range stands out, but also John Tranter's recent Different
Hands (Folio/Fremantle Arts Centre Press 1998), which calls itself
'seven stories', comes more truly into the genre of prose poem (and,
for that matter, some of David Brooks' stories similarly lean in that
direction rather than as straightforward 'prose'). I myself have always
considered my novel White Stag of Exile more truly a prose poem.
The thing is, I must maintain, we now have an achieved body of work
in this form. We should know more about it. Knowing it more closely,
we can teach it more ably. That is my belief.
Professor of Creative Writing, University of Adelaide