Prose poetry may be the most misunderstood of all the mainstream poetic genres. It doesn't typically rhyme, it doesn't take on the familiar form, and even though it looks like the kind of prose you might see in a novel, it just doesn't work quite the same way. Prose poetry is a kind of hybrid verse that is quite striking on the page – to my eye anyway – and kind of fun to read aloud. Anne Carson's 1992 collection Short Talks is a book of prose poems, and each one is presented as a rumination – or short talk – on topics varying from trout to walking backwards to disappointments in music.
As a book, Short Talks is kind of contradiction; rather than being a squat little book, it is tall and narrow, with a long cover illustration. Inside, the poems typically occupy only the top third or so of the page, leaving the bottoms long and empty. And although this seems strangely contrary, it works really well. Anne Carson packs a lot into her writing, and the space left at the bottom of the page seems to remind you that taking time to reflect and consider is built into the book; that Anne Carson has presented you with her short talk on the matter at hand (whatever it may be), and that the remainder of the page is for you. Short Talks is not a collection that is in a hurry and the very design of the book seems to remind you that although the poems may be short, they are not necessarily quick.
Anne Carson is known for her interesting subject matter – I've written about her novel-in-verse Autobiography of Red already – and Short Talks is almost like taking a stroll inside her mind. What does Anne Carson (who is, for some reason, a full-name sort of poet) think about hedonism? Well here, let her tell you:
Short Talk on Hedonism
In nine lines, Anne Carson can just blow you out of the water with her strangely enticing visuals. If this weren't a prose poem (or were written by another poet) each of those sentences would be given a verse unto itself where its image could be parsed out and developed. Here, though, on first read the images crash out at you like staccato notes in music – they're sharp, individual points, distinct from the rest of the score. But the beauty of these pieces is that they're short, which makes rereading almost inevitable. And, upon revisiting a short talk, the images seem somehow calmer, smoother, an impression that helps them come together to give you the story behind them.Beauty makes me hopeless. I don't care
why anymore I just want to get away.
When I look at the city of Paris I long
to wrap my legs around it. When I
watch you dancing there is a heartless
immensity like a sailor in a dead calm
sea. Desires as round as peaches
bloom in me all night, I no longer
gather what falls.
Short Talks is a beautiful collection not only because of the incredible array of images and emotions that it elicits – not to mention the breadth of topics it covers – but because it makes you want to come back to it to suss out something new, one short prose poem at a time.
by Anne Carson
First published in 1992 (cover image shown from Brick Books edition)