Friday, May 20

Forget labels. Stop worrying.

Review by Martin Stannard

Heart of Anthracite by Campbell McGrath (Stride, £8.50)

Jackie from Toledo: What do you tell people when they ask you to define the prose poem? (Has anyone ever asked you that?) Why write in the prose poem form rather than in broken lines?

Campbell McGrath: People ask me that all the time, and I'm happy to act as spokesperson for the prose poem, though I receive no recompense in my role as product endorser. First of all, I wrote a poem called "The Prose Poem" that is actually a parable or essay about prose poems, so check that out if what I say here is unclear. A prose poem is exactly what it says it is: a poem written in prose. This appears confusing only because of the false dichotomy some people perceive between poetry and prose, as if these were two realms divided by some kind of Berlin wall. Of course this is not true at all, but because of some confusing nomenclature, prose poems appear to be a logical impossibility, a homeless refugee in no man's land. If prose poems were called something else -like "gridmatics" or "Rufus"- there would be far less confusion about their identity and validity as a poetic form. Rather than inhabiting rigidly delineated zones, poetry and prose share a complicated terrain with no hard and fast boundaries; there are lyrical and poetic prose writers who steal generously from poetry, and poets who rely on traditional prose techniques. Poetry and prose are like silver and gold, and to emphasize their differences is to overlook their far more obvious kinship. A prose poem is essentially a shortish piece of imagistic, lyrically written prose that employs poetic structural strategies, in particular poetic closure. It is like a building sheathed in the smooth glass of prose, whose inner workings remain poetry. A prose poem is not written in lines, but in prose sentences - it surrenders the poet's most valuable tool, the line break, but in return gains access to a broader palette of syntax and sentence structures. I find prose poems particularly accommodating to poems with a strong narrative line, or a lot of landscape detail - a lot of hard-to-digest data. It is a great form, well worth exploring.

“The Prose Poem” Campbell McGrath mentions in the piece above ostensibly concerns a chunk of land (“less rill than rivulet, more gully than dell”) between two fields somewhere un-named but perhaps almost any and everywhere somewhere in the United States. It lays between a field of corn and a field of wheat; the farmers of those fields “are, for the most part, indistinguishable…… What happens in the gully between them is no concern of theirs”. But for the writer of the prose poem it’s what happens in the gully that’s the primary concern, because “what grows in that place is possessed of a beauty all its own, ramshackle and unexpected”:

even in winter, when the wind hangs icicles from the skeletons of briars and small tracks cross the snow in search of forgotten grain; in the spring the little trickle of water swells to welcome frogs and minnows, a muskrat, a family of turtles, nesting doves in the verdant grass; in summer it is a thoroughfare for raccoons and opossums, field mice, swallows and black birds, migrating egrets, a passing fox; in autumn the geese avoid its abundance, seeking out windrows of toppled stalks, fatter grain more quickly discerned, more easily digested. Of those that travel the local road few pay that fertile hollow any mind, even those with an eye for what blossoms, vetch and timothy, early forsythia, the fatted calf in the fallow field, the rabbit running for cover, the hawk’s descent from the lightning-struck tree. You’ve passed this way yourself many times, and can tell me, if you would, do the formal fields end where the valley begins, or does everything that surrounds us emerge from its embrace?

Campbell McGrath appears to be another of those Americans determined to make me feel energised by something other than British writing. He’s not going to succeed, of course, because I recognise no international borders, no accents, no different foodstuffs, no strange hairstyles, no nothing other: we’re all one. Mind you, I also wish I knew what I was muttering about. Let me start again: Campbell McGrath is really good. A student of American literature and history could go on at some length about, for example, the place of the catalogue in American literature, which dates from the very first person who ever wrote about what they'd found in the new found land and couldn’t believe his eyes and ears and nose and taste buds and sent back letters listing all he could name and some he couldn’t. The same student could also probably write a piece about the ambivalence felt towards the same catalogue. Is it good, or bad? Does all this American stuff (“Box cars and electric guitars; ospreys, oceans, glaciers, coins; the whisper of the green corn kachina; the hard sell, the fast buck, casual traffic, nothing at all…” -- this continues for another 15 or so lines…) constitute threat or blessing? Quite.

There is a good deal of poetry here (“and their husbands in toupees – from his hometown, too, Tupelo, Mississippi – and troops of women”) and a good deal of prose (“This is a true story”) and it’s good to accept McGrath’s take on the prose poem because this is a book by a poet, all of it written by a poet, and it is in a prose.

Forget labels. Stop worrying. This is absolutely cracking stuff.


(More questions for Campbell McGrath, and more answers, can be found here.

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