By the end, my copy of the book was bristling with bookmarks. I loved Turgenev’s On the Sea (1879), about what it is to be a living creature, about a man’s encounter with a pet monkey on a steamer – he holds her “little, black, cold hand”. Emily Berry’s Some Fears (2013) escalates – thrillingly gets its wind up. And Margaret Atwood’s In Love with Raymond Chandler (1992) is an entertaining, fully furnished must read.
Fortunately for readers of this superb anthology, Noel-Tod has as good a reader's eye as you could hope for. In putting together The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, he has trawled 175 years of texts to give not just a survey of the prose poem, but "an alternative history of modern poetry" itself. As a collection, the 200 prose poems gathered here fulfil the various tasks of the literary anthology – as history lesson, exercise in critical and political theory, vade mecum and florilegium – with such apparent ease that you could almost forget the vast amount of work and thought that must have gone into it. It is hard to know how it could possibly be bettered.
The prose poem has been said to plant “one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels”. That sense of instability and unpredictability pulses through this anthology: many works capture moments of sudden horror or oddity, including Baudelaire’s 1869 poem The Bad Glazier, in which the speaker finds “instant infinite satisfaction” in lobbing a pot of flowers at a man carrying a sheet of glass. But as Noel-Tod shows, perhaps the prose poem’s ultimate subject is the prosaic.