“Which of us, in his ambitious moments, has not dreamed
of the miracle of a poetic prose,
musical, without rhyme and without rhythm,
supple enough and rugged enough to
adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul,
the undulations of the psyche,
the prickings of consciousness?”
(from Petits Poèmes en Prose by Charles Baudelaire)
I recently conducted an all-day poetry prose poetry retreat for Tiferet Journal and prepared materials for the participants. I thought it might be interesting to share some of those materials with you here on the blog. There's a prompt for you at the end. Enjoy!
Although the term may appear contradictory (or an oxymoron), prose poem form is one that’s been around for a long time and is currently enjoying a renaissance of attention. A prose poem has one foot in prose and the other in poetry, but it commits completely to neither. In the first issue of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, editor Peter Johnson explained, “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.”
While prose poems are not defined by the line breaks (lineation) associated with poetry, they maintain a poetic quality and necessarily use techniques common to poetry. A typical prose poem is one that resembles prose in structure (paragraph form), but moves away from customary prose techniques in favor of poetry-like imagery and/or emotional effect. The prose poem’s allegiance to poetry is unmistakable in sonic impression, compression, internal rhyme, assonance, alliteration, figures of speech, and imagery. Prose poems may vary in length from a single paragraph to more than a page. All prose poems are presented in paragraphs with lines that break with the margins. Importantly, prose poem margins are justified (left and right whenever possible), and prose poems appear in blocks of language (or as “language in a box”). I like to think that prose poems exist in space in much the same way that sculpture does.
Prose poems may appear as paragraphs, but they lack the narrative structure of prose. Characterized by complete sentences and deliberate fragments, they are often metaphor and imagery driven, and they speak the dialect of dreams. Based in reality, they often give a nod to the surreal.
Prose poems should make sense, though they are often presented through highly poetic language, and they almost always stretch the boundaries of poetry and prose. A confusing mishmash of words, however, is not a prose poem (at least not what might be termed a good one).
By the same token, a prose poem is more than a narrative story told in a generic way; there is always a strong element of surprise in the language, always the unexpected. Prose poems are never ordinary pieces of writing.
Prose poetry can be traced back to the haibun , a Japanese form of prose poetry that became popular during the 17th century. Western prose poetry emerged in the early 19th century as a rebellion against traditional poetic structures. Poets such as Aloysious Bertrand, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé used prose poetry as a way to defy the literary conventions of their day. Throughout the 19th century, poets continued to embrace the form.
Though examples of prose passages in poetic texts can be found in early Bible translations, in 17th century haibun, and other early writings, the advent of the form in the work of Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire marked the most significant departure from the strict separation between the genres of prose and poetry. A particularly good example of the form is Baudelaire’s “Be Drunk,” which is included in the “Examples” section.
In terms of specific works, Louis-Jacques-Napoléon “Aloysius” Bertrand is credited with introducing prose poetry into French literature in 1842 with Gaspard de la Nuit. In 1869, Charles Baudelaire published Petits Poèmes en Prose (Little Poems in Prose) and gave prose poetry its name. The form was firmly established in France by Arthur Rimbaud (Illuminations, 1886) and Stéphane Mallarmé (Divagations, 1897), and interest spread throughout the literary world.
The new form carried into the 20th century, with American poets writing prose poetry in the 1950s and ‘60s, including Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Robert Bly, to name a few. Charles Simic won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1989 collection of prose poems, The World Doesn’t End.
Each group of writers adapted the form and developed their own rules and restrictions, ultimately expanding the definition of prose poems. Other prose poets involved include (among many others) Paul Fort, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Patchen, John Ashbery, and Mark Strand. However, prose poetry was not embraced by all. T.S. Eliot opposed prose poetry, arguing that it lacked the rhythm and musical patterns of verse.
Although most poems are written in verse, structure alone does not define poetry. When we take other elements of poetry and then reshape the writing into sentences and paragraphs, that’s how we get prose poetry.
According to Wikipedia, “a prose poem appears as prose, reads as poetry, yet lacks line breaks associated with poetry but uses … fragmentation, compression, repetition and rhyme and…poetry symbols, metaphor, and figures of speech.
The prose poem takes advantage of its hybrid nature — it avails itself of the elements of prose (what Dryden called “the other harmony of prose”) while foregrounding the devices of poetry. Prose poetry may best be considered as neither primarily poetry nor prose but essentially a fusion of the two, and is considered a separate genre.
Why Write Prose Poems?
Why would a poet choose sentences and paragraphs over the traditional structure of verses and stanzas?
Maybe the poet doesn’t want to be bound by lineation or traditional poetic forms. Maybe the spontaneity and drive of the sentence appeals to him or her. Maybe the clearly delineated boundaries of poetic form have become restrictive, but the poet loves poetic language and various poetic techniques. Or, maybe the poet is just plain tired of writing in the same format and wishes to try something different—a change of pace.
Why any poet writes prose poems depends on what their poems need to say, as well as on the poet’s personal creative vision. Such vision might involve a block of text that is dense rather than the wispier structure of lines and stanzas. A poem might tell an abstract story that the poet feels is better presented in paragraphs as opposed to verse because paragraphs result in a different flow than lines and stanzas, and the prose structure might provide the reader with a better feel for the rhythm of a poem. But who needs reasons, right?
Things to Keep in Mind
A prose poem is a poem that:
1. resembles prose—a type of open-form poem presented in paragraphs with lines that break with the margins creating a box-like appearance (they have been called “poems in a box”),
2. is presented in prose form but is much more then mere prose—it should never be flat, didactic, or preachy,
3. contains both complete sentences and intentional fragments,
4. is strongly image-based,
5. is rooted in reality, but often gives a nod to the surreal,
6. uses sonic impression, internal rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and figures of speech,
7. sometimes uses paragraphs in place of stanzas (more than one paragraph in much the same way that a lined poem has more than one stanza).
8. appears as a small justified block of text in which poetic (and sometimes weird) “things” happen—there is always something of the unexpected in a prose poem,
9. formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm
10. varies sentence length and construction.
Prose poems are not:
1. simple narratives,
2. flash fiction (or any kind of short story poems),
3. to be taken only at face value,
4. prose without poetic sensibilities,
5. poems without obvious poetic qualities, including intensity, compactness, prominent rhythms, and imagery,
6. preachy or didactic,
7. a mishmash of rambling words,
8. beyond understanding—they may require considerable thought, they may be “odd,” but they have meaning and often mean more than the words they contain,
9. defined by lineation,
10. ordinary in any sense of the word.
Prose Poem Examples
By Charles Baudelaire
You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.
But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.
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.”
From Modern Poets of France: A Bilingual Anthology, translated and edited by Louis Simpson, published by Story Line Press, Inc.
Copyright © 1997 by Louis Simpson.
Warning to the Reader
By Robert Bly
Sometimes farm granaries become especially beautiful when all the oats or wheat are gone, and wind has swept the rough floor clean. Standing inside, we see around us, coming in through the cracks between shrunken wall boards, bands or strips of sunlight. So in a poem about imprisonment, one sees a little light.
But how many birds have died trapped in these granaries. The bird, seeing the bands of light, flutters up the walls and falls back again and again. The way out is where the rats enter and leave; but the rat’s hole is low to the floor. Writers, be careful then by showing the sunlight on the walls not to promise the anxious and panicky blackbirds a way out!
I say to the reader, beware. Readers who love poems of light may sit hunched in the corner with nothing in their gizzards for four days, light failing, the eyes glazed. . . . They may end as a mound of feathers and a skull on the open boardwood floor . . .
From What Have I Ever Lost by Dying? Harper Collins, 1992
[my father is ashes]
By Renée Ashley
We are electric I know our conductor He is a very sad man We are not in a field of cosmos We are not is a field I’m only telling you that when the message leaves the body I do not know what to make of the world I make you up from the little I know with almost with soon Is it possible the thing I love most is guilt or that you are gone? We are such pain and we are utterance We are a strange thing in the air You are so imperfectly dead
From Because I Am the Shore, I Want to Be the Sea, Subito Press, 2013, all rights reserved.
Three Prose Poems
By Charles Simic
The city had fallen. We came to the window of a house drawn by a madman. The setting sun shone on a few abandoned machines of futility. "I remember," someone said, "how in ancient times one could turn a wolf into a human and then lecture it to one's heart's content."
He had mixed up the characters in the long novel he was writing. He forgot who they were and what they did. A dead woman reappeared when it was time for dinner. A door-to-door salesman emerged out of a backwoods trailer wearing Chinese robes. The day the murderer was supposed to be electrocuted, he was buying flowers for a certain Rita, who turned out to be a ten-year-old girl with thick glasses and braids. . . . And so it went.
He never did anything for me, though. I kept growing older and grumpier, as I was supposed to, in a ratty little town which he always described as "dead" and "near nothing."
My father loved the strange books of André Breton. He'd raise the wine glass and toast those far-off evenings "when butterflies formed a single uncut ribbon." Or we'd go out for a piss in the back alley and he'd say: "Here are some binoculars for blindfolded eyes." We lived in a rundown tenement that smelled of old people and their pets.
"Hovering on the edge of the abyss, permeated with the perfume of the forbidden," we'd take turns cutting the smoked sausage on the table. "I love America," he'd tell us. We were going to make a million dollars manufacturing objects we had seen in dreams that night.
These three poems originally appeared in The Western Humanities Review (vol. 42, #1) and The World Doesn’t End: Prose Poems (Harcourt, 1990).
By Mercedes Lawry
Only wings remain, no birdsong. The choked river is a psalm of sludge. The moon is but scuffed glass. Gone are stanzas, equations, instinct. Like any apocalypse, there were warnings, tiny threads and filigree, dismissive, derisive, lies laced with pomp and bluster. Poppies burst into red splatter, trees of aching brown, the charcoal stink of the yellowed creek. Cacophony in dialect. Elemental, the last sounds, the final hush of a gutted earth.
From Eastern Iowa Review, Issue 6
By Travis Truax
You live on the edges of learning, of gaining, of leaving. You live on the fringes, the fabric of life-gone-by. And what do you get? You get the ruddy distances in the desert west, you get memory. You get your mother picking you up from school. You get your grandmother’s tea. You get the crude, rock-drawn novel of where you’ve been. It all returns on the coattails of going, of coming. A carapace of what lasts. The ecotone, the place between. Transition. An estuary, a reed bed, the space between biomes. A blend. You feel, always, the tension of what you walk away from long after it’s gone. That lag in time. The river, trying to understand salt. The salmon somehow understanding both.
From Eastern Iowa Review, Issue 6
By Naomi Shihab Nye
Here comes the woman who never looks up with one little girl riding her hip in a shawl and one slinking alongside. The man who fathered these babies is hard to find. He is usually sleeping with the woman he loved before this one who doesn t feel bad about it because she had him first. He is ugly but creative. He has designed buildings in town no one wants to enter because they feel heavy. The first woman says he will marry the second one sooner or later and that will be fine with her. If he says it is time. When the little girls ride a carnival car at La Feria they grip the steering wheel tightly and don t wave. All the other children circle round and round, smiling as the tiny breeze ruffles their hair. They are going on long trips, they say. But these two look grim as if they are staying in one place.
From The Prose Poem: An International Journal
Are you ready to try writing a prose poem?
1. For starters, think in terms of a single paragraph as your goal for this prose poem. Approach your subject knowing that you won’t be concerned with meter, stanzas, or line breaks. Your prose poem will take the shape of a paragraph (be sure to justify both the left and right margins when you type your poem), and it will contain complete sentences and sentence fragments.
2. For content: think about a particular image that remains clear in your memory.
3. Now think about how that image entered your memory. Where were you? Was anyone with you? What happened? How did you feel?
4. Write a paragraph based on the image and about the experience. Bear in mind that your poem’s “muscle” will lie in the strength of your sentences. You will need to express thoughts and subtleties in ways that might be hampered by line breaks.
5. Pay particular attention to poetic devices (simile, metaphor, alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, repetition, onomatopoeia, symbolism). Focus on describing the image and your feelings.
A. Your prose poem shouldn’t read like a diary entry.
B. Be careful not to go over the top with poetic devices and poetic language.
Use poetic elements of imagery, meter, alliteration and metaphor to create pictures in your reader’s mind.
Read what you write out loud to see if it appeals to your internal reader’s sense of hearing
Remember that prose poems don’t function in a linear, logical manner, and write accordingly.
Almost all written language has some form of rhythm. As you read your prose poems aloud to yourself, try to “hear” their lyrical flow.
Poetry requires compressed use of language. You must get to the point to hook your reader. Include only those details that are most important. Use your prose poem’s space carefully.
Metaphors (and similes) can power your poem and buttress meaning. Remember that metaphor enhances meaning in a concise way, so exercise restraint in using them. Too many metaphors, like too many obscurities, can spoil a poem.
Make your language remarkable—that doesn’t mean that you should use a lot of words or lofty (academic) diction. Simply use the best, most accessible, and most evocative words you can.
Ten Prose Poem Books that You Might Enjoy
· The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem: From Baudelaire to Anne Carson
By Jeremy Noel-Tod
· Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present
By David Lehman
· An Introduction to the Prose Poem
By Brian Clements and Jamey Dunham
· The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre
By Michel Delville
· The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice
By Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek
· Models of the Universe: An Anthology of the Prose Poem (1842 – 1995 / 1995, Field)
Edited by Stuart Friebert
· The Illuminations
By Arthur Rumbaud (Translation by John Ashbury)
· The World Doesn't End
By Charles Simic
· Because I Am the Shore I Want to Be the Sea
By Renee Ashley
· A Lightness, A Thirst, or Nothing at All
By Adele Kenny