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1. Plum Duff

Jeremy Noel-Tod was confident in his Sunday Times predictions for 2019’s T S Eliot Prize. Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin was, he averred, ‘head if not shoulders’ above the competition. In the event, Hannah Sullivan won with Three Poems. Her book subsequently won the inaugural John Pollard International Prize (€10,000) for the best debut collection.

This is an image from one of Hayes’s sonnets: ‘You assassinate my tongue / Which is like the head of a turtle wearing my skull for a shell.’ In 2000, when Jeremy Noel-Tod was assistant editor at Areté, he offered a witty analogy for a piece the editor had written on Derek Walcott. Viz: ‘Walcott’s extended metaphors arrive, with an air of brazen, bold contrivance one associates with the cod TV host and sports commentator Alan Partridge – “the proof of the pudding is in the eating – and, in this case, the pudding is a football”. ’ Gratefully accepted. In 2000, Noel-Tod was able to recognise the duff when he saw it. Something has happened to him. Apparently, we hear, he lives in Norwich in Alan Partridge’s heritage bungalow.

 

2. A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi

Jeremy Noel-Tod’s The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem has received some abject, docile reviews. Why is that? Because most reviewers don’t have the space to engage, challenge or quote. Many reviewers are supine or lazy. Praise is the safer option. But the main reason is that Noel-Tod’s introduction is an exercise in intimidation, familiar to any examiner in finals – long on citation (46 endnotes) and short on clarity. As an exam technique, it relies on the examiner’s time-constraints and the cynical assumption that the dubious assertion will be given the benefit of the doubt, a free pass.

Areté has space to spare.

Surveying the 175 years of poetry represented here, what emerges for me is the prose poem’s wayward relationship to its own form – and it is this, I believe, that makes it the defining poetic invention of modernity. In an age of mass literacy, our daily lives are enmeshed in networks of sentences and paragraphs as extensive as any urban grid. The prose poem drives the reading mind beyond the city limits.

This isn’t an argument but a flourish of rhetoric, barely in touch with sense. Does it mean anything? ‘The prose poem’s wayward relationship to its own form.’ A translation: we don’t know what a prose poem is. And this lack of definition ‘makes it the defining poetic invention of modernity’. Apparently. We then have a motoring metaphor, which appears to mean that we are surrounded by prose, immersed in prose, in undifferentiated prose – and the prose poem, somehow, allows us to escape from prose.

Later on, Jeremy Noel-Tod returns to this ‘analysis’ – or unprovable hypothesis – when he quotes Rod Mengham:

The prose poem is modernity’s response… to our fear of the receding horizon… it is the circle we draw around our interactions with the world. [Noel-Tod’s ellipses]

Well, we know what that means. Scarcely a day goes by without experiencing this Munch-like terror, this metaphysical agoraphobia. Our fear of the receding horizon. Tell me about it.

Hang on, though. ‘The prose poem drives the reading mind beyond the city limits.’ Shouldn’t those city limits be a palliative against ‘our fear of the receding horizon’?

 

3. What the Waiter Saw

This T S Eliot’s prose poem, ‘Hysteria’:

As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty green iron table, saying: ‘If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden …’ I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.

This is Jeremy Noel-Tod on T S Eliot’s prose poem, ‘Hysteria’:

In the same year, one of the best known prose poems in English, T S Eliot’s ‘Hysteria’, made its first appearance in an anthology edited by Ezra Pound. But even Eliot had his doubts about the form as a critic, calling it ‘an aberration which is only justified by absolute success’. Inside his personal copy of Stuart Merrill’s Pastels in Prose (1890), a popular anthology of French prose poetry, he kept a clipping of a newspaper parody called ‘The Latest Form of Literary Hysterics’. The title of his poem about a man made (hysterically) anxious by a laughing woman can, therefore, be read as an ironic comment on its own ‘bad form’ (‘I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some fragments of the afternoon might be collected’). Later, Eliot privately dismissed ‘Hysteria’ as ‘a kind of note for a poem, but not […] a poem.’ // In casting doubt on the sanity of the prose poet

A fascinating paragraph, in which the sentences in bold are Noel-Tod’s contribution. All the rest is taken from the Christopher Ricks-Jim McCue edition of Eliot’s poems, obviously enough, should you follow up Noel-Tod’s reference in endnote 12.

Once you know this, it is possible to detach Noel-Tod’s ‘argument’ from the annexed authoritative scholarship. It simply does not follow from Eliot’s saved clipping of a newspaper parody that therefore Eliot’s title ‘Hysteria’ supports the tendentious, New-Man reading of the poem – that the woman is merely laughing and it is the man who is hysterical. Were that the case, the waiter would not be encouraging the couple to move outside: ‘If the lady and the gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden…’

Quite how Noel-Tod gets to the proposition that Eliot is ‘casting doubt on the sanity of the prose poet’ is an ersatz argumentative move like a conjuror producing a 50p piece from the reader’s ear. You will remember the joke about the 50p piece when it was first introduced. It was called a Wilson, after Harold Wilson, because it was two-faced and seven-sided, and therefore definitely dodgy.

 

4. Lost In Translation

This is Jeremy Noel-Tod on Seamus Heaney’s ‘Fiddleheads’ (from District and Circle):

The translation of prose into prose, however, does not so obviously require the sacrifice of formal effects, allowing the prose poem to move with relative ease between national traditions. This is its implicit role in Seamus Heaney’s ‘Fiddleheads’, a poem which offers itself to a friend from Japan as a ‘basket’ containing a delicacy common to both countries.

Ah so. Well, not quite. This is the Heaney:

Fiddlehead ferns are a delicacy where? Japan? Estonia? Ireland long ago?

I say Japan because when I think of those delicious things I think of my friend Toraiwa, and the surprise I felt when he asked me about the erotic. He said it belonged in poetry and he wanted more of it.

So here they are, Toraiwa, frilled, infolded, tenderized, in a little steaming basket, just for you.

In the Noel-Tod interpretation, the second stanza – about the erotic – is effectively redacted. And the analogy between pudenda and fern displaced in favour of a reading where the prose poem comments on its own ease of transmission from one language to another.

This inability to read poetry accounts for many – the majority – of the selections in the anthology, which is a dismally uneven gathering, demonstrating a fatal lack of taste.

 

5. Call My Bluff

Here is a selection of Noel-Tod kapok from his introduction to The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem:

the unmetrical pathways of thought’: is that what we call normal thought, as opposed to anapaestic, iambic, dactylic, and trochaic thought?

The ‘rhythms of story-telling’: what exactly are they? We think we should be told.

Distilling scenes from seventeenth-century Flemish genre painting into sentences that suspend time by omitting a main verb.

Do all sentences without a main verb suspend time? For example: ‘A troubled night of dreams’ (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). And what does it mean to suspend time?

 

6. The Outside Dope

This is Jeremy Noel-Tod on Poe and De Quincey in his introduction to The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem.

the influence of two contemporary writers of hallucinatory English prose, Edgar Allen Poe and Thomas De Quincey…

Can he have read any Poe or any De Quincey? ‘Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts’? A brilliant jeu. The mischievous, gossipy recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets? De Quincey’s anodyne attempts to describe opium-induced hallucinations occupy only the last twenty pages of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. They are more analytical than evocative and the evocation is definitely piano: ‘at night, when I lay awake in bed, vast processions moved along continually in mournful pomp; friezes of never-ending stories, that to my feelings were as sad and solemn as stories drawn from times before Oedipus or Priam, before Tyre, before Memphis.’ Hallucinatory? His dreams are more sensational: ‘Often I used to see, after painting upon the blank darkness a sort of rehearsal whilst waking, a crowd of ladies, and perhaps a festival and dances.’ [our italics] There is one cancerous crocodile kiss, but his dreams are – wait for it – ‘chiefly architectural’. Hence the half-page description of Piranesi. And De Quincey’s best shot is a quotation from Paradise Lost: ‘With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms.’

 

7. Gunny Sack

On 17 March 2019, The Sunday Times poetry critic, Jeremy Noel-Tweet, was as usual getting it reliably wrong. This time he was acclaiming Kingdomland, Rachael Allen’s debut, as ‘wonderfully musical’. The evidence? The clinching example? ‘I jumped I lit the noose / on fire, a great lemon / in place of my heart, a start.’ Eh? The late Christopher Hitchens used to call the first cigarette of the day a ‘heart-starter’ – the tight rhyme capturing the abruptness of the procedure. So Allen’s aural conclusion – ‘my heart, a start’ – might be appropriate to capture a startle, a sudden alarm. But ‘wonderfully musical’ it ain’t. Areté was reminded of an Australian expression: he couldn’t carry the tune of Waltzing Matilda in a gunny sack.

Here are some more examples of Allen’s wonderful musicality:

(they’d run out / of flesh pencil / well it is the rarest colour in / the tin).
tell me on the phone just once something that will feel like

like life is overwhelming when it’s not

like eyes on / the end of a stalk

it’s too hard not to touch someone’s arm in a way that is

We note that Rachael Allen is the first person thanked in Noel-Tod’s acknowledgments for The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem which appeared last year.

 

Jeremy Noel-Dunce: Back In The Stocks

On 16 June 2019, in The Sunday Times, Jeremy Noel-Tod was reviewing Harvest Bells: New and Uncollected Poems by John Betjeman, edited by Kevin J Gardner:

There was always a dark side to Betjeman that gave his wit and jollity shade and sharpness. In 1979, Private Eye ran a squib by ‘The Poet Laureate Sir Jawn Bawgeperson’, commenting sourly on the exposure of Betjeman’s former school friend, Sir Anthony Blunt, as a Soviet spy: ‘Was it worth it? Does it matter? / In the end we do not know.’ Readers may have assumed a parody, but it was genuinely submitted by the septuagenarian poet laureate, by then suffering with Parkinson’s. On the typescript he added a note: ‘It is not very good, is it?’ It’s not, but no one else could have written the witheringly déclassé quatrain that imagines the once high-and-mighty ‘Bluntie’ stripped of his knighthood: ‘Now the nine-day wonder’s over, / Back he goes to Maida Vale. / In his comfy little Rover, / Home to gin and ginger ale.’ ‘Bawgeperson’ fans will relish the sly choice of drink: ‘ginger ale’ was rhyming slang for ‘jail’.

Perfect pitch, eh? No one else could have written. No one else.

Alas, the poem was a parody co-written by Richard Ingrams and Barry Fantoni.

We call this a gaffe.

But what interests Areté is the selective silence of Private Eye on the subject. They covered Kevin J Gardner’s mistake (28 June – 11 July 2019) – pointing out that the poem was a spoof – but not Jeremy Noel-Tod’s contribution to the general merriment. You might have thought they would be particularly interested in Noel-Tod’s straight-forward howler. Apparently not.

Perhaps because Noel-Tod is a contributor to Private Eye’s ‘Literary Review’, penning in the same issue of Private Eye an ‘anonymous’, flimsily disguised, suspiciously well-informed, excitable piece about the seven Areté Noel-Tod Our Bolds in Issue 58.


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