‘In an age of mass literacy’, Jeremy Noel-Tod writes in the introduction to The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem (2018),
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.
Somewhere between the prose poem and the novel, Max Porter’s first book, Grief is the Thing with Feathers (2015), was about the intrusion of the wild into the civilized: a giant, phantasmagoric crow explodes into the life of a Ted Hughes scholar who is mourning the sudden death of his wife, and mother of his two children, in their small South London flat. Porter’s second, Lanny (Faber, 2019), is its mirror image: a young boy called Lanny Greentree, his actor-turned-crime-novelist mother Jolie and her city-worker husband Robert move to London’s Metropolitan Green Belt, only to suffer a comparable trauma.
Part One moves between the perspectives of Lanny, ‘Lanny’s Mum’, ‘Lanny’s Dad’ and Pete, an elderly, once-successful artist who lives in the same village and gives Lanny drawing lessons. Each monologue is signposted as if in a script. We see through the speakers’ eyes and listen to them talk in the first person. The sections headed ‘Dead Papa Toothwort’ are voiced by a more mysterious ‘he’, a shapeshifting, Green Man spirit of Englishness and place who combines aspects of Crow with the other related characters in Hughes’s imagination: the wild man of the woods, from the 1967 collection Wodwo, or the channeling of Dylan Thomas in Gaudete (1977). The result is reflective of the polluted landscapes and Brexit-inflected, xenophobic discourse of 2019. (Lanny himself seems related to Hogarth from The Iron Man, 1968, whom Hughes himself described as ‘the child’s nature – the child’s sense of himself’.)
Just as Toothwort’s body is at one moment ‘a suit of bark-armour with the initials of long-dead teenage lovers’ and the next that of ‘an engineer in a Day-Glo vest’, his sections of the book include the collaged sound of the village into the straight description in bold type, like shiny plastic litter inlaid in the mud of a path. Toothwort’s ‘listenings’ break free of the lines of the page, the book’s text designer Kate Ward looping them over each other in italics. His name is said to appear in the Domesday Book and his sonic memory stretches from Roman soldiers to locals complaining about the prospect of ‘Polish adverts in the parish mag’ and ‘Trappy beats’. As the plot reaches a crisis in Part Two, the sections collapse into one another, punctuated by scattered crosses. This is more the visual world of Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts, and it makes the reader wonder what Porter’s look like.
Porter is a funny writer who indulges his characters’ cynicism. It’s easy to imagine them pointing out that his work won’t have been harmed by being set in the very same landscapes most of the UK’s publishing, theatre, film and art world live in, or by absorbing the mythos of Hughes, a man Seamus Heaney called ‘a guardian spirit of the land and language’. Grief is the Thing with Feathers has been successfully adapted for the stage in Ireland and England by the British theatre company Complicite. Rachel Weisz – whom it’s easy to imagine in the role of Jolie – recently announced that she will work on a film of Lanny. But as much as the momentum of the market, these various adaptations seem driven by the sense that Porter’s stories cannot quite be contained by the forms in which they present themselves.
For their US publication, with Graywolf Press, both Grief is the Thing with Feathers and Lanny have been given the explanatory subtitle ‘A Novel’. It is a category that, as the critic Adam Mars-Jones pointed out in a review of the former for the London Review of Books, gathers texts ‘by the familiar logic of [them] not fitting any other category’. Porter’s UK publisher, Faber, felt confident enough to use the term only in the blurb. Do they fit better into the category of prose poem? Porter’s work, in the sparseness of its references, its eschewing of the description expected of the realist novel and its subject matter, corresponds to Nikki Santilli’s idea that the form ‘resonates with “the absences that it accommodates”’. But neither Lanny nor Grief is the Thing with Feathers fit well with Noel-Tod’s basic definition that a prose poem is poetry without line-breaks, nor Baudelaire’s dream that it could be a form ‘musical without rhythm or rhyme’. Rather, Lanny is as visual an experience as it is aural, a book that likens walking in the village at night to inhabiting the cut block of a woodcut print.
Pete and Lanny’s drawing lessons are the heart of the story, a rapturous pleasure bubbling into a moment of rhyme and a fresh myth of creativity and hope:
Ah, Lanny, my friend, look at these blank pages.
Don’t you feel like God at the start of the ages?
You could do anything.