The Prose Poem

The Prose Poem: “Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels.”

~Peter Johnson, Editor The Prose Poem: An International Journal

Prose poems lack the line breaks associated with poetry but maintain a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. The prose poem can range in length from a few lines to several pages long, and it may explore a limitless array of styles and subjects.

I attended a workshop in October 2010, Outside the Box: Memoir, the Prose Poem, and Flash Fiction led by the past Sonoma County Poet Laureate, Terry Ehret.  While I can’t reproduce this excellent workshop for you here, I’ll try to comment on what I took away with me.

Terry Ehret  tells us that there is a form of poetry that uses:

Imagery

Metaphor

Rhythmic patterns and repetition

Dream imagery—what she calls “dragon smoke”

and is written in a block of prose.

Thinking back to a discussion  on June 9, 2011 in my writing class, we determined that poetry is comprised of: imagery, metaphor including simile and comparison, rhythm, sound, emotion, message, and specific formatting. A prose poem, we determined is imagery, metaphor, rhythm, emotion, message, story arc, in prose format.

Looks like we’re right on track.  Terry suggested that when you are writing and you’ve got a poem that doesn’t have natural line breaks, try writing it as prose. Or  you might want to write only a vignette and therefore leave out the characterization and plot and turn out a prose poem.

I love Terry’s collection of quotes on “what is a prose poem,” especially the Robert Bly quote:

“Its mood is calm, more like a quiet lake than a sea. The fact that the critics have not yet laid out formal standards for the prose poem is a blessing…. When relaxed and aware of no rigid patterns, the mind sometimes gracefully allows itself to play with something equally graceful in nature, and the elegance of the prose poems appears in that play.”

History (from Poets.org)

The form is most often traced to nineteenth-century French symbolist writers. The advent of the form in the work of Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire marked a significant departure from the strict separation between the genres of prose and poetry at the time. A fine example of the form is Baudelaire’s Be Drunk which concludes:

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of  your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

The form quickly spread to innovative literary circles in other coutries: Rainer Maria Rilke and Franz Kafka in Germany; Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz in Latin America; and William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein in the United States. Each group of writers adapted the form and developed their own rules and restrictions, ultimately expanding the definitions of the prose poem.

Among contemporary American writers, the form is widely popular and can be found in work by poets from a diverse range of movements and styles, including James Wright, Russell Edson, and Charles Simic. Campbell McGrath’s winding and descriptive “The Prose Poem” is a recent example of the form; it begins:

On the map it is precise and rectilinear as a chessboard, though driving past you would hardly notice it, this boundary line or ragged margin, a shallow swale that cups a simple trickle of water, less rill than rivulet, more gully than dell, a tangled ditch grown up throughout with a fearsome assortment of wildflowers and bracken.

There are several anthologies devoted to the prose poem, including Traffic: New and Selected Prose Poems and Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present, as well as the study of the form in The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre all available on Amazon.com.

 *****

 Try it:                    Topic         As the Solstice Passes

(or pick your own topic)

Terry Ehret

Terry Ehret former Sonoma County Poet Laureate

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Prose Poem

  1. Jim March

    I have no formal training in either poetry or prose, so my opinion is either refreshingly simple or uneducated and simplistic. There are times when I want to savor a moment, a feeling, or experience. To slow down the reader into a pace that allows more careful consideration of the rich texture, the deep impact of a moment or thought, and to heighten and engage the reader’s senses in my experience, I write prose poetry. The form is condensed, often invokes an emotional reaction, and is suspended in time (the time it takes to read the poem is longer than the moment the poem describes). Unfettered from time and space, the prose poem more accurately describes the experience of my mind, the interchange and rapid firing of neurons inside my head, expressed as an attempt to share with the reader all the thoughts that are triggered inside my head. Other forms of poetry share many of these characteristics, but prose poetry involves less head and more heart.

    • Jim, I wish I could have said this as well as you have. I love the prose poem as well as prose that is lyrical and cuts to the heart of the matter.! I’ve found poetry’s influence in your prose writing, formal training or not. I’d love to read your prose poems.
      May we all learn the lesson poetry has for prose!