The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem
Penguin Classics, $69.99 hb, 480 pp, 9780241285794
In his infamous 1955 review of Patrick White’s The Tree of Man, A.D. Hope’s dismissal of the book as ‘illiterate verbal sludge’ focuses on a perceived confusion between the categories of poetry and prose. White ‘tries to write a novel as if he were writing poetry, and lyric poetry at that’, writes Hope; however, ‘the imagery, the devices of poetry are effective because they are wedded to metre. Practised in prose they look absurd and pretentious.’ Hope’s rigid alignment of poetry with metrical verse typifies the view of many Anglo-American critics in the middle of the twentieth century, a time when, in critic David Antin’s words, ‘the blight of Auden lay heavy on the land’.
This was especially the case in English poetry circles, where the anti-Modernist trajectory of Hardy–Yeats–Auden dominated poetry anthologies until only recently. Yet this conservative interregnum now seems anomalous within the history of twentieth-century poetry, subsumed by two great waves of experimentation: the first emerging from Paris and spreading through European languages from the pre-World War II period; the second extending through US and other English-language poetries from the 1950s onwards. Jeremy Noel-Tod’s important collection of international prose poetry acknowledges this history in relation to currents within contemporary English poetry in an unprecedented manner: as he states in his introduction, the anthology foregrounds ‘an alternative history of modern poetry and an experimental tradition that is shaping its future’.