A Night at Five Leaves: Prose Poetry with Jeremy Noel-Tod & co.

When at one point during the Q&A somebody in the audience asked, ‘What do you say to people that call prose poetry just cut up prose?’, after some thought, Jeremy Noel-Tol responded, ‘Well, I could say to them prose is just stuck-together verse.’

Before the readings started, though Noel-Tod shared some useful insight into what may constitute a prose poem, mentioning the idea of a prose poem gradually expanding out of its initial immediate image. While a large portion of a prose poem will focus on a vivid environment – be it a diner, a back garden, a moment shared across the street – these vignettes elevate out of their environments and tease the world lying beyond them. Noel-Tod used Ron Padgett’s ‘Prose Poem’ to illuminate this idea.

We begin in a domestic setting, at the start of the day:

The morning coffee. I’m not sure why I drink it. Maybe it’s the ritual
of the cup, the spoon, the hot water, the milk, and the little heap of
brown grit, the way they come together to form a nail I can hang the
day on.

Then we have further details, and the poem takes on a narrative akin to that seen in fictional poetry:

A cup of coffee whose first drink is too hot and whose last drink
is too cool, but whose many in-between drinks are, like Baby Bear’s por-
ridge, just right. Papa Bear looks disgruntled. He removes his spectacles
and swivels his eyes onto the cup that sits before Baby Bear, and then,
after a discrete cough, reaches over and picks it up.

So far there is a sustained sense of immediacy, but wait: there is something much bigger looming over the poem, waiting to sneak into our understanding of Padgett’s little universe he’s made for us. The poem ends with a sudden development of events that drastically changes the lines that precede it:

The cup shatters in his paw, explodes actually, sending fragments and brown liquid all over the room. In a way it’s good that Mama Bear isn’t there. Better that she rest
in her grave beyond the garden, unaware of what has happened to the world.

Out of everything Noel-Tod covered, the temporal and spatial consciousness of prose poetry was something that stood out as being unique and playful. Sam Buchan-Watts, who also read a series of poems, noted the sense of eternity possible in a line of verse in comparison to the finite, temporal nature a lot of prose poetry tends to restrict itself to.

I have always found poetry operates almost in the form of vignettes, particularly when looking at movements like Imagism. But there is something in particular about prose poetry – its habit of creating vivid, fleeting worlds – that made Noel-Tod’s adoption of the word at one point in the evening stick with me. It is a form has a long history and growing authorship, which is excellently displayed in Noel-Tod’s anthology, The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem: From Baudelaire to Anne Carson, currently available to purchase in stores and online.

Many thanks to Five Leaves for hosting this event, and many thanks to Matthew Welton, Lila Matsumoto, Sam Buchan-Watts, Vicky Sparrow, and, of course, Jeremy Noel-Tod, for reading the poems.


by Ted Carolan

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