The “problem” with prosepoems. And a Polished Gem: Anne Caldwell

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Ah, the problem with labels and definitions. Has your heart gone black at the obscenity being perpetrated on our children. “Write a sentence with a fronted adverbial” indeed. What does it mean? Simply, it means writing a sentence starting with words like because, whenever, if, because. These will trigger adverbial clauses that tell you something about the when, where, how and why of what’s happening, or about to happen. So why, in the name of all that’s holy, confuse the issue with labels and definitions (well we know the answer to that don’t we? It lies in the ideologies of ranking and testing as the aim of education. If it confuses and humiliates, then so much the better…don’t want the working classes getting ideas above their station, now do we?). Why not just work productively with our children? I’ve written books about teaching writing. I’ve taught trainee teachers how to do it. It’s not rocket science.

“Let’s see if we can say a bit more; let’s see where we can put it; lets see what happens when we turn this sentence around.”

The alternative, imposed by a government of self-important fools, is to make children tongue-tied, dismayed, deskilled, and artificially inarticulate. And, because the majority of teachers are themselves insecure (like 99% of the population) with analytic approaches to language, it’ll be badly taught, and the unhappy teachers will fall back on commercial workbooks/worksheets. Someone’s making a lot of money out of all this. Which, in the prevailing ideology, is the point. I’m very angry. It does me no good. But still, what does this have to do with poetry? Bear with me a while..but hang on to the idea that labels and definitions are less than helpful, and potentially harmful….because they are never adequate. They leak. They cause argument and division.

Let’s try another tack. If you haven’t seen the stunning documentary film about Picasso on BBC4 recently, track it down on iplayer. There’s so much stuff I’d not seen before, including time spent on his sketchbooks in his early cubist period. And a longish section that traces the process that took him from his excitement at seeing the Ingres image of the seraglio to his own stripped-down reconstruction in Les demoiselles d’Avignon. What’s genuinely enlightening is the time the process took, the complex stages, the examination of all its elements.Here was a man entirely fluent in the language of drawing and painting since the Renaissance and the revelations of perspective. And what does he do? He goes back way beyond Giotto, through medieval art to ‘primitive’ sculpture and imagery. Why? Because he couldn’t say what he wanted to say in the complex language he’d learned. Hold on to that thought. And also to the fact that art students now, including those who have never learned to look and draw accurately, can knock off images that look not unlike Picasso’s. At 16, I could do you a passable piece of cubism. I couldn’t draw that well. No surprise you get people who’ll say: call that art? my kids could do better than that. Embedded in this is an assumed ‘definition’ of art, what it looks like, what’s expected of it.

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Right. Poetry….and definitions. I’ve written before about how, as a young and insecure teacher, I’d be knocked off balance by the simple question posed by bright kids who knew how to waste time.

Please sir, what’s a poem?

It genuinely bothered me. I used to go looking for definitions…and that way madness lies. In the end I settled for saying if it’s got a raggy right hand edge, it’s poem. Which held a grain of descriptive truth, since it inherently acknowledged the tradition of the line break as somehow distinguishing poetry from prose. Later I added to this the firm belief that since the roots of poetry are oral, and that poetry was invented to be memorisable, it probably would involve elements of repetition, especially rhythm, and, later, rhyme. Poetry would be, in one way or another, musical. Which didn’t mean it needed to be pretty. The Blues are music. Substantially, right up to the end of the 19thC that was substantially true.. And then along comes Rimbaud, the poetry equivalent of Picasso, and after him, Eliot, Pound, Whitman and so on. The prose poem starts, as far as I can tell with Rimbaud’s Iluminations.

I embraced the summer dawn.

Nothing yet stirred on the face of the palaces. The water is dead. The shadows still camped in the woodland road. I walked, waking quick warm breaths, and gems looked on, and wings rose without a sound.

The first venture was, in a path already filled with fresh, pale gleams, a flower who told me her name.

 I laughed at the blond waterfall that tousled through the pines: on the silver summit I recognized the goddess.

 Then, one by one, I lifted up her veils. In the lane, waving my arms. Across the plain, where I notified the cock. In the city, she fled among the steeples and the domes, and running like a beggar on the marble quays, I chased her.

 Above the road near a laurel wood, I wrapped her up in gathered veils, and I felt a little her immense body. Dawn and the child fell down at the edge of the wood.

 Waking, it was noon.

It’s not a pretty translation, is it? But it feels like prose full of elements of traditionally poetic diction, and still doesn’t seem to to be prose. Poetic prose? Why don’t we just say: it is as it is. What does it say? How? How do I know that’s what it means to say? The thing is, it takes you out of a comfort zone of expectation, which is exactly what Picasso did. And  Eliot, and Pound and the rest.

Rimbaud wrote something interesting, though. Or at least,something that suits my argument.

Ina letter of 15 May 1871  he says that “Viendront d’autres horribles travailleurs” (Other horrible workers will come along)—a prophetic assertion of his role as initiator of a process that would continue long after he himself had ceased writing. Horrible workers. I like that. Because if something looks simple, people who should know better will think it is, and assume that anybody can do it. Free verse. Prose poems. The thing is, Rimbaud was, in traditional terms, technically accomplished. And he felt that this hard-earned technique was stopping him from ….something. He didn’t know what that would be till it was done. Hold on to that.

Right, you’ve been fantastically patient. Just one more thing. I nail my colours to the mast. I spent too long worrying about what prose poems and prose and poems are; about labels and definitions. I know that I find that if I read prose these days (apart from ‘rubbish’ (see an earlier post: https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2017/08/13/confessions-of-a-tripe-addict/) I’d rather spend time with writers whose prose is close to something I think of as poetry. Hilary Mantel, for instance.

“His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horse-back, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.

Later, Henry will say, ‘Your girls flew well today’. The hawk Anne Cromwell bounces on the glove of Rafe Sadler, who rides by the king in easy conversation. They are tired; the sun is declining, and they ride back to Wolf Hall with the reins slack on the necks of their mounts. Tomorrow his wife and two sisters will go out. These dead women, their bones long sunk in London clay, are now transmigrated. Weightless, they glide on the upper currents of the air. They pity no one. They answer to no one.”

[Bring up the bodies]

I think the italicised bit is prose. The rest is poetry. It’s something to do with the rhythm, the music. Don’t ask me to be more precise. I just want to say: it is what it is. Definitions won’t help, and they’ll probably be destructive.

And with that off my chest and out of the way, you’ll be more than ready for today’s Polished Gem : Anne Caldwell. And from here I’ll let her do all the talking, you’ll be pleased to hear.

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Anne Caldwell writes:

I am a blow-in, an incomer to the north of England, but have made it my home for so long that it feels strange to admit that I was born in London. I left when I was two, and grew up just south of Manchester on the Cheshire/Staffordshire border. After travelling and a nomadic early life, I have lived in West Yorkshire now for over fifteen years. I have written since childhood, and the first poetry success I had was at primary school, where I won a speech cup for reciting one of my own poems. This urge to write has been with me ever since. I have always been a great reader of poetry as I think critical reading is the key to good writing. It goes in the ‘creative compost’, so to speak. I think the cadences of poetry need absorbing, on a conscious and unconscious level. I would see the process of reading as a similar activity to listening to music.

When I was younger, the poets who inspired me were the people I met when studying at UEA. I was part of a society that promoted poetry and guests included Tony Harrison, Margaret Atwood, Hugo Williams, Liz Lochhead and Fleur Adcock. This was back in the early 1980’s and I thought this was how life would always be, surrounded by all these writers! I had not realised was a privilege it was to be in a small room at the Premises Arts Centre in Norwich, listening to all this work. (It was also a great music venue).

 

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I began writing poetry in earnest at UEA but did not really get much published until I turned forty and started an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. I had a pamphlet out with Happenstance called Slug Language and then won the first prize for a full-length collection with Cinnamon Press, Talking with the Dead, back in 2008. I also edited and wrote for a collection of stories on the theme of mothers and daughters (Some Girls’ Mothers) published by Route and featuring Clare Shaw, River Walton, Nell Farrell, Suzanne Batty and Char March. After publishing a limited-edition book of poems and photographs, called ‘After Image’ with artist, Jack Wright, my most recent book of poetry was also published by Cinnamon in 2016 – Painting the Spiral Staircase.

Until recently, I also programmed live literature events for the University of Bolton, whilst working there as a lecturer. I had a great experience meeting the region’s rich and diverse writers and poets and I have been blown away by hearing people read their work, such as Kim Moore, David Gaffney and novelist Robert Williams. Long may this continue. Thanks to poet, Paul Munden, I have also been introduced to a great bunch of Australian writers in an international email prose poetry project. I have been reading work by Paul Hetherington, Dominique Hecq (Hush: A Fugue) and prose poetry by Cassandra Atherton. The project is hosted by the University of Canberra and includes over 25 international writers. It has produced three volumes of prose poetry so far, so it has been a great experience to be published in Australia as well as the U.K.

Currently I am writing a lot of prose poetry on the theme of the north of England.  It is a difficult form to define, but here are a couple of great quotes:

‘Which of us, in his ambitious moments, has not dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical, without rhyme and without rhythm, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of the psyche, the prickings of consciousness?’
Charles Baudelaire (Little Poems in Prose, 1869)

‘So, what is prose poetry? To me, it has affinities with black humour. Just as black humour straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels. Prose poets, no matter how different in sensibilities, wander on this uncertain terrain. It’s a land of paradoxes and oxy-morons, welcoming the sleight of word artist.’

Peter Johnson, (editor of The Prose Poem: An International Journal)

I love writing in this form! It has been a liberation for me because I have used it as a container for improvisation, for play and as a way of bypassing the critics in my head. (And there are many – believe me.) I think prose poetry can be very hard to pin down, and the minute you try to define it as a form, you come across a prose poetry writer who breaks whatever rules you may seem to have discovered. However, I love the work of Canadian poet, Anne Carson, whose first book of prose poems was called ‘Short Talks’. These poems are small, rectangular blocks of writing, full of humour, insight and philosophy. I can highly recommend her work. I used this form recently in my own draft collection, Alice and the North, which was shortlisted for the Rialto Poetry Pamphlet competition this year.

Here are a couple of examples:

 

Nidderdale

 

Alice made a nest of coats in the caravan she borrowed from a friend. She was off grid. It rained all night, Nidderdale rain, heavy and persistent, drumming on the metal roof of her box-shaped room, with the sound of the river like a bass note in the music of water. Her father would have remarked, it’s raining stair rods, lass or raining cats and dogs. She thought of Escher’s stairways leading nowhere, the Bourgeois print of a woman cradling an angry baby at the bottom of a flight of steps. At night, she dreamt of stray terriers falling from the sky. Would she be furred-in, rather than snowed in? Limp, sodden bodies piled up against the cinder blocks of the caravan? Waking to sunshine was a relief. She parted the yellow beaded curtain and looked up to the grit-stone moors, birch trees shimmering like unspoken words.

[Published in The Valley Press of Yorkshire Poetry, Ed Miles Salter and Oz Hardwick, 2017.]

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The Gate-Opener

Alice tramps along the Pennine Way all summer and remote, Cumbrian sheep farms in the winter; lying in wait for ramblers, vagabonds, genuine Romanies, long distance walkers, locals out for a stroll and fair-weather campers. She loves them all in different ways. Legendary throughout the north, she can negotiate any kind of five bar, kissing or latch-key gate; unlocks padlocks with a hairpin that she keeps in her knickers; always shuts and secures each field after strangers.

 

She collects all the smiles, nods, pecks on the cheek and cheery thanks like bunches of wild flowers. One bright evening, Alice meets a man who has walked in solitude for miles and wants to tell another human being of the boggy moors, sodden clothes, the way the mist came down, his pedometer readings.  The exact number of miles traversed.

[Published in the Australian Journal, Rabbit no.19, 2016. www.rabbitpoetry.com]

 

Writing about the north is taking me into new territory as a writer, as I have been reading about cartography, combining prose poems with maps, and thinking about how the two activities interrelate. I was brought up with a strong tradition of fiction writers who have used the imaginative power of maps to create a sense of place in their writing, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island to A.A. Milne and E.H Shepard’s ‘Hundred Acre Wood’. However, I have become aware of a body of work that explores how mapping can be used to illuminate the writing process itself. For example, Peter Turchi’s fascinating book, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer takes the idea of mapping as a ‘potent metaphor’ for writing. The book explores how cartography can shed light on the ways in which writers might approach the blank page, select and omit material to create an imaginative world.

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The Scottish writer Malachy Tallack wrote The Undiscovered Islands in 2016 illustrated by artist Katie Scott. The book investigates islands that are figments of imagination. Tallack writes: ‘The science of navigation has worked towards the eradication of uncertainty and the end of mystery, and to an astonishing degree it has succeeded… and though that technology brings its own kind of wonder, part of us mourns what has been lost’. Writing in The Scotsman, the reviewer Roger Cox commented: ‘never mind the sterile certainty of Google Earth, here’s Onaseuse, an island in the South Pacific “discovered” in 1825 by one Captain Hunter and the crew of his ship the Donna Carmelita.

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With Onaseuse, as with many islands in this book, the charm lies in trying to separate the facts from the fiction’.  I am finding that cartography is a more imaginative activity that you might at first think, and that prose poetry is a perfect form in which to explore the north of England, with its porous, hard to define edges and rich diversity of cultures. The only problem I have discovered recently is that using mapping as a metaphor for writing misses out the messy stage, the playfulness and the chaos of creativity that I am working hard to preserve in my work. Writing is a process that explores the art of getting lost as well as finding the right pathway to explore an imaginative terrain.

I am finding that cartography is a more imaginative activity that you might at first think, and that prose poetry is a perfect form in which to explore the north of England, with its porous, hard to define edges and rich diversity of cultures.

What a point to end at……. opening out, widening, full of possibility and promise. Better than labels and definitions any day. Thank you, Anne Caldwell, for being our guest, and for your generosity on a bright November day

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