Merryn Williams gets an insight into the craft of the prose poem by reading John Freeman’s new collection
White Wings: New and Selected Prose Poems
What, exactly, is a prose poem? Wikipedia defines it as a short piece of prose which preserves ‘poetic qualities such as heightened imagery and emotional effects’. Or you could call it ‘flash fiction’, that is a very short story. But to my mind it isn’t poetry unless it provides what Hardy called a ‘moment of vision’.
I have never written one, and wouldn’t know how. But I was impressed by some of the things which John Freeman’s does with the form, notably one called ‘The Case’. Read it and see how it sounds like a routine account of an ordinary day and then, at the end, you suddenly get it:
It was supposed to be a through train that would take me from the
airport to the station nearest the hospital. I had a half hour’s journey
before me and I allowed my mind to wander. I can’t remember what
I was thinking about but it wasn’t where I was going and why: I was
taking a break from that. We stopped as usual at the Gare du Nord
but as the carriage emptied and the doors stayed open I suddenly
realised we weren’t going any further. There was a strike on. I picked
up my shoulder-bag and a plastic carrier and hurried out onto the
platform. I went up and down stopped escalators looking for a notice
that would indicate my destination, and then looking for someone
to ask. There were crowds of silent people and it seemed that all of
them were morose black men in dark clothes, each one alone and
withdrawn. Not a single member of the railway staff anywhere. Even
the booking office was closed. I stood still, wondering what to do.
Then it hit me that I’d left my suit-case on the luggage rack. I hurried
back to the platform I’d arrived at but the train was gone. In the
case was a week’s supply of clothes and the black tie and dark suit I
would need in a few days’ time. I had to clear it out of my mind, but
before I did so I took a bearing from the fact of its loss, concrete and
comprehensible and at this moment utterly unimportant. A lesson
in perspective. What mattered was to get to the hospital. I left the
platform and passed through barriers and passageways to the Metro
and caught a tube train and, yes, I did arrive in time.
So my conclusion is that prose poems are not so different from poems (the majority, these days) which don’t rhyme. What matters is whether or not the shaping hand is skilled, and Freeman’s is. He writes about parenthood, memories of childhood, the sea. Buying meringues, which he dislikes, for a hospital patient, is inevitably associated with depression. Visiting a friend with Alzheimer’s, or browsing in a second-hand bookshop, are experiences vividly conveyed. In all these pieces, the placing of words matters, and rhyme seems inappropriate.
Merryn Williams is a committee member of the Wilfred Owen Association, now preparing for the centenary of World War 1. She is the author of Wilfred Owen (Seren) and editor of The Georgians 1900-31 (Shoestring) and In the Spirit of Wilfred Owen (Wilfred Owen Association).