Thursday, 10 June 2010

Simon Armitage at UEA: poetry as prose

A near capacity hall for Simon Armitage reading from Seeing Stars last night. The book is as good as anything he has done, more adventurous, sharper, darker, bleaker and a lot funnier. It has been enthusiastically reviewed in The Observer, The Guardian and other places. Some refer to the poems in it as prose poems, but he wants to keep the term at bay. Too many associations perhaps. But he talks about James Tate and about Charles Simic. What joins him to them is partly prose, but partly the urge to tell a story that is funny in some parts and grotesque or unsettling on the other.

In fact the poems often start in a humorous key, inevitably naming one or other well known public figure as a fantasy character, drawing on some aspects of the real figure's real life but setting them in an unlikely situation, then suddenly twisting into a different mode and register. It is a little like hearing Eddie Izzard setting off into the arctic wastes accompanied by Alan Ayckbourn in a dark mood, but the result is oddly human and properly poetic.

It would be much harder to do this in verse and it is interesting to think why.

The poems on the page are justified left, not right, so sometimes there is an illusion (another illusion) of lines of verse, but the line break could come anywhere, and has come in different places in different publications. It is not so much prose poetry then, more poetry as prose.

Poetry as prose is counter-intuitive. We expect prose to inform us, to proceed down its syntactic route with just the odd glance to left and right. It is there to answer the question: what next? That is what syntax means. And what comes next has, by definition, to be consecutive. Reading prose is, intuitively, a reasoning, logical process springing out of a logical system.

Reading poetry is less a logical affair. You are looking left and right and every which way all the time. You don't necessarily expect a rational tour. Language simply behaves differently, distrusting itself, absorbing everything. As I have written before, no one reads a poem to find out what happens in the last line. We know intuitively that the point of the journey is not to get to the far shore but to experience the sensation of travelling while being: it is travel as dance. It's not difficult really: there is nothing easier in fact, but reading left to right while accompanied by the police force of syntax and the gendarmerie of literalism, means we keep trying to explain the poem as though it were a journey from A to B. As evidence. Bad mistake.

And that is precisely the role of prose as poetry. It offers not only counter-intuition but counterpoint. If offers one expectation to deliver another. The sense of disorientation is humorous at first, but disorientating and potentially terrifying. Logic seems to be driving us on: but if that is where logic leads us (in one Armitage poem it leads us to the discovery that all our assumed nearest and dearest are in fact the agents of the state, without a shred of affection for us, but simply doing their jobs) - then logic too is absurd.

Absurd yet worrying, because nothing need be as it seems. The logic is not logic as we know it: its inevitability comes to us like night falling.

Having said that the poems make comic entrances that remain with us and Armitage reads them mostly as comedy, with comic timing, downbeat, lethal - in fact prosaic. The comedy appears to comfort, but you'd better laugh before the ribs break.

It only hurts when I laugh, went the joke. I met with one such last week who had met with an accident. She smiled but stopped herself laughing. Seeing Stars is full of accidents like that. His best book for a long time. Maybe the best, full stop.


Tim Love said...

Yes, I think the term "prose poem" has too many associations, too much history. Poetry can exploit many effects, and he's chosen not to have active line-breaks - he's written "poetry in a prose format". He could have all left the line-breaks out, he could have used 3-line (or 4-line, or 5-line who cares?) box-shaped stanzas, or used ragged-right. To me, it has all the features of Flash Fiction. Rosemary Waldrop wrote "Perhaps the greatest challenge of the prose poem (as opposed to 'flash fiction') is to compensate for the absence of the margin. I try to place the margin, the emptiness inside the text." I don't see Armitage compensating in that way. He's merely doing what prose writers do when compensating for length. He may not want to call it Flash, but Margaret Atwood doesn't like her science fiction to be called science fiction. Perhaps it was thought that the UK public aren't ready to pay so much per-page for Fiction.

George S said...

Good point about flash fiction, but I am still not sure it is doing the same thing. A lot of flash fiction is quite comfortable in its own terms - I don't pretend to be any expert on it, it just seems that way from the small sample I know - so the reader's fairly clear expectations are satisfied. But that may be just my sample.

There are two questions really. One is simply a question of narrative - the what happens next question. In these terms the question is partly semantic. Does what happens possess the qualities we associate with poetry, or rather - starting at the other end - is the effect it produces identifiable with poetry to the extent that we can apply the term poetry to it?

The other is the question that has been preoccupying me for some time simply because it is a more concrete question. Is the form verse or prose? Verse is lineated, implies some regularity, or expectation of regularity in its rhythm, and employs a number of devices that are associated with verse, the most conspicuous of which (having already allowed for line and metre as above) is rhyme, rhyme being not a figure of speech but a measurable structural device. Line, metre and rhyme are not a matter of interpretation: they can be measured, evaluated and validated by instruments.

Having said that, because they are structural they must - and do - inform the making of the poem, in that they must be taken into account in the act of composition.

That is primarily what interests me about verse (form as process), but it is also why poetry as prose is fascinating and difficult to define.

It is not even so much a matter of defining as rejecting certain definitions because of the baggage those definitions carry. That still begs the question of definition, of course, because simply saying what a thing is not is not the same as telling us what it is. (There is no such difficulty with rhyme, metre and line).

If what Armitage is doing is writing flash fiction it might expand the notion of flash fiction.

And there may lie the clue. What is interesting about line-metre-rhyme is not entirely what such structure produces but how the raw, unstructured, potentially overwhelming sense of absurdity-acting-upon-desire strains at the definition supplied by line-metre-rhyme.

It is, perhaps, what lies behind, beyond expectation, continually pressing on it that produces the effect we call poetry. In that respect Armitage's work in Seeing Stars -something exerting an extra pressure of flash fiction - seems poetry to me.

Tim Love said...

"If what Armitage is doing is writing flash fiction it might expand the notion of flash fiction" - only in the sense that he's bringing Flash to a wider audience. To me (but my Flash reading is partial and biased) Armitage is not only writing Flash but he's writing Mainstream Flash - try comparing it with some pieces in the The Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions lists, or the pieces in Neon.

George S said...

I am reading those, Tim. What none of them has done so far is to make me laugh then lead me somewhere else through laughter. They seem highly conscious of the enigmatic status - and, as I said, comfortable with it.

But I'll keep looking - unless you point me to one.

Tim Love said...

"What none of them has done so far is to make me laugh then lead me somewhere else through laughter.". Agreed - Flash can take itself too seriously. But there's always Luke Kennard - Todd Swift mentions him and Armitage on Best American Poetry

irishpoetry said...

I was very encouraged to find this site. I wanted to thank you for this informative and useful read on Simon
Armitage's "Seeing Stars". Haven't seen this book yet, but will sure be looking out for it, as I have long been an admirer of this poet's work. Prose poetry - hmm, maybe. Thanks for sharing.