The Bookseller – Comment – Poetry is invading the fiction shelves – and we should celebrate

“Prose goes scchhpludd scchhpludd clomp clomp clomp”, according to Scottish poet Tom Leonard, while “poetry is all the juicy bits in the juiciest order”. But does this dichotomy truly hold? Looking at the Ancients the answer is unassailably not; the world’s most famous story is the odyssey, written in dactylic hexameters, a rigorous poetic form using musical “feet” of one stressed, followed by two unstressed syllables. “Feet” add propulsion to storytelling. Poetic technique is designed to always move forward, taking the reader with it, making it the ultimate machine for a compelling narrative.

Today’s canniest publishers know this already. Max Porter, one of the most talented writers of his generation and winner of the International Dylan Thomas Prize, Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award and the Balcones Fiction Prize, draws on a cornucopia of poetic techniques to give his books an excitingly indefinable quality that readers love. Grief is the Thing with Feathers draws on the stature of Ted Hughes and his Crow mythos. Porter’s book contains dozens of poetic devices: erasure poetry, sound and list poems, as well as formal and lineated free verse. Many of the prose sections draw on the potential of the open space of the page, allowing words to step forward, into the unknown, like

Este.

Lanny contains more than 20 pages of lovingly crafted visual poetry, in which words swirl about, floating in space like dandelion pappi, catching the wind of the reader’s imagination. The Death of Francis Bacon continues with this experimentation, edging towards the poem-as-novel that James Joyce paved the way for. Porter pushes language until it begins to disintegrate, capturing the mind of the artist in drunkeness: “and don’t you?rattdpissed as aft.”

A few weeks back I was looking in the poetry section of Foyles and discovered that this novella had been placed there, artfully dodging the fiction shelves. This act of bibliographical larceny may have been from a member of staff who mistook it for a slim collection, or from a savvy reader who’d read it and intuitively knew its rightful place. “Fuzz. Fuss. Fizz you say. Lust.” These words are Porter’s, not Joyce’s.

Poetry is a powerfully binding glue that can bridge other literary and artforms, creating a sum of parts that is neither one thing nor another. This is an incredibly exciting thing for a reader.

Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is written in a hybrid form that merges poetry and prose. Whilst never condensing language to the extent a poem might go to, the style involves uncapitalised beginnings to sentences and an absence of full stops. Evaristo uses these devices to propel her narrative forward, drawing on the rhythms of thought, speech and patois. At moments in the text, she introduces lineation, breaking the prose into poetic lines which draw the reader to a shift in a character’s consciousness, and focus the eye on individual words which are seen to be more fully loaded than they could ever be when they are interlinked inside conventional sentences:

self swaying

Just one leap away
desde
the amassed crowds on the platforms who carry
enough hope in the hearts to stay alive
swaying
just one leap away from
eternal
peace

Evaristo has fun with this inventive disruption and interplay between forms, which creates the same feeling of joy in the reader.

Poetry publishing is enjoying this celebration of the poem as a device for narrative, this return to ancient roots. The winners of the last TS Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize – Joelle Taylor and Luke Kennard respectively – are both poets with books which ask us to step inside the fictional landscape of their invented worlds. Both books are stories told in poetry. Given the ancient roots of this form, the question is not to ask what poetry is doing with narrative but perhaps to ask why conventional prose seems obsessed with filling up an entire page, running like treacle into the gutter, and oppressing the margins. Doesn’t it want to lighten up and enjoy the space?

The point is that the “problem” that publishers lose sleep over – where will their book be pitched for the book market? – is not a problem in the mind of the reader. Poetry is a powerfully binding glue that can bridge other literary and artforms, creating a sum of parts that is neither one thing nor another. This is an incredibly exciting thing for a reader. The problem becomes a provocation, a source of excitement, a reason to pick a book up and commit to it.

On 18th May Southbank Center hosts the next Out-Spoken in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, an event which includes Max Porter on stage with a dynamic and various range of poets, including Poet Laureate Simon Armitage and Joelle Taylor. There will also be music from Kay Young and bshp. This event provides the perfect opportunity to enter into the wild and verdant hinterlands of poetry and to discover just how expansive the artform is. With the Booker Prize being co-won by a poetical novel and both major poetry prizes being won by novelized poems, what are you publishers waiting for? Take your scchhpludd scchhpludd for a macarana.

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