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The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, edited by Jeremy Noel-Tod – review

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An essential collection of prose poems from across the globe, by old masters and new, reveals the form’s astonishing range

You might think of a prose poem as a bastardised form – neither one thing nor another; a modernist mongrel. But this anthology is an invitation to rethink its place in literature (mongrels are, after all, prized for their intelligence). It is a wonderful book – an invigorating revelation. Jeremy Noel-Tod has done a stupendous job in corralling 200 poems from around the world. His definition of the prose poem boils down to “the simplest common denominator… a poem without line breaks”. Not a single piece here is unworthy of notice and the excitement is that, alongside indispensable familiars – Turgenev, Oscar Wilde, Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, Czeslaw Milosz – there are many unusual suspects. Noel-Tod maintains that the prose poem “drives the reading mind beyond the city limits”. It does – and its suburbs are extraordinary.

Baudelaire is usually hailed as the originator of the prose poem with his Petits poèmes en prose (1869), followed by Rimbaud with Les Illuminations (1886), but Noel-Tod reveals that Edgar Allan Poe got there first with Eureka: A Prose Poem (1848), an “unclassifiable essay, both mystical and scientific”. This anthology, which contains its own share of the unclassifiable, is published in reverse chronological order: contemporary, postmodern and modern. To qualify for inclusion, prose poems needed to have been previously published as poetry. And what emerges is that the prose poem has always been a liberating space and that being “neither one thing nor another” is its power: it lends itself to the liminal, experimental, to dreams and in-between feelings – especially about writing itself.

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