Saturday, May 16, 2020

Prompt #352 – Writing Prose Poems

Although we’ve explored the subject of prose poems in the past, I thought this might be a good time to revisit the subject as we struggle with a “new normal” (that isn’t limited to any specific geography and applies to all of us). I’ll begin with a reprint of an article I wrote for the most recent issue of Tiferet Journal (Spring/summer 2020). 

For this prompt, imagine that you’re not writing prose, and you’re not writing poetry. You’re writing neither and both at the same time! It's a little like two wings that work together to make a prose poem "fly." So ... relax, let the words flow, and go wherever your prose poem leads you. (If the spirit moves you to write about the current Covid situation then, by all means, "fly" with it.) Once you’ve edited and refined your work, you might even find an online journal, print journal, or anthology for your poem.


Prose Poems: One Foot in Prose, the Other in Poetry
By Adele Kenny

Reprinted by Permission from Tiferet Spring/Summer 2020.
Copyright © 2020 by Tiferet Press. All rights reserved.

In recent years, prose poems have appeared more and more often in mainstream journals, anthologies, and books. There is justifiable fascination with a form that challenges readers with a name that seems contradictory if not downright oxymoronic. How can a piece of writing be both poetry and prose at the same time?

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.” A fusion of poetry and prose, the prose poem commits completely to neither.

While prose poems are not defined by the line breaks (lineation) typically associated with poetry, they maintain a poetic quality and necessarily use techniques common to verse. A standard 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. Prose poems may vary in length from a single paragraph to more than a page. Their lines break with the margins and, significantly, their margins are justified (left and right whenever possible). Thus, they appear in blocks of language (or as “language in a box”).  

The prose poem’s allegiance to poetry is unmistakable in sonic impression, compression, internal rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and figures of speech. Although prose poems appear as paragraphs, they lack the narrative structure of prose. Characterized by complete sentences and deliberate fragments, they are often driven by metaphor and imagery, and they sometimes speak the dialect of dreams. Prose poems generally include unexpected juxtapositions and startling twists of language. Based in reality, they often give a nod to the surreal.

Importantly, prose poems should make sense despite the fact that they are often presented through highly poetic language and 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 much more than a narrative story told in a generic way; there is always a strong element of surprise in the language, always something unpredictable. Too often, inexperienced poets assume that a prose poem simply tells a story, and many amateur prose poems read like diary entries or travel journals. Often confused with flash fiction and mini-memoirs, they are distinctively neither.

Historically, the prose poem is not a new concept. There are, arguably, prose poems contained in such ancient texts as the Bible, but prose poetry is most recently related to the haibun, a Japanese literary genre that became popular during the 17thcentury. In most haibun, short poetic prose passages (paragraphs) are followed by haiku. Haibun are not exactly prose poem prototypes, but there is a relationship in the blending of prose and poetry, as well as a similar affective sensibility.

Western prose poetry emerged in the early 19th century as a rebellion against traditional poetic structures. Symbolist poet 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).

Throughout the 19th century, poets continued to experiment with prose poems, which remained popular into the 20th century and enjoyed a mid-century renaissance of interest during the 1950s and 1960s. Several distinguished American poets of that era wrote prose poems, including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Robert Bly, to name a few. In 1989, Charles Simic won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection of prose poems, The World Doesn’t End.

Over time, individuals and groups of writers have adapted the form and developed their own rules and restrictions, ultimately widening the parameters of prose poem form.  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 contested the form and argued that it lacked the rhythm and musical patterns of verse; he did, however, write one published prose poem called “Hysteria.”

It may be said that the prose poem is not yet, and likely never will be, defined by a specific “method.” That is, a “prescription” for writing prose poems is elusive at best. Prose poet Russell Edson stated in his essay “The Prose Poem in America” (published by Parnassus in 1976), “… for all the interesting poets who have written them, the prose poem has yet to yield up a method.”

Today, prose poetry is developing a 21st century character. It remains uniquely neither poetry nor prose but is fundamentally a hybrid of the two, and is widely considered its own genre. Because prose poems do not function in a linear, logical manner, some may seem, at first blush, to be rather “odd.” They frequently require considerable thought and, more often than not, they mean much more than the words they contain. For poets who embrace the form, prose poetry is both a challenge and a delight that takes poetic art into a singular area of aesthetic expression.


From the Semi-Annual Cross-Stitch Conference, Savvy Stitch
By Rogan Kelly

The bird died on a Thursday. She held it all night like an egg. Next morning, she packs the car with the bird in a cooler, wedges it in the middle console and drives to a conference in Jersey. Others went to dinner. She returns to the room where the winged body rests by the window: a grey vase of tulips on the sill beside. She pulls strips of lettuce from a turkey sandwich, collects part of the crust from the bread. And when she speaks to the empty room, her voice is the faint rusted creak of a half-hinged storm door before the wind picks up.

Wisdom in a Crayon

By Gary Szelc

                    (for Eleanor)

          My daughter, my daughter, did you leave me a page in my notebook?

At last, I find an empty sheet, and begin to write. But then, when I turn the page on my written thoughts, a childish scrawl reveals indigo streaks of a magic universe where the curve of an angel’s wing unfurls to one side and flutters in a breeze. On the page before my discourse, a rainbow horse swirls over a fuchsia tinted sea. Elsewhere, a purple forest and orange fruit surround a curious red spider (or octopus) or perhaps a swinging orangutan. There is marvel after marvel in this museum-quality exhibit of imagination—so much wisdom in crayon. So much that I tear out the page with my once pithy words.

By Ray Cicetti

I watch it fly across the yard, carrying sunrise on its back, then land upside down on the sugar maple, wings tucked in like a teaching, only to disappear into the dark woods, like a small blue god's visitation. How I want to follow it, praise it, cup its soft fierceness in my hands.
I step into the moment, arms outstretched, and secretly become a bird. I breathe in autumn's fullness and turn in the crisp air.
The morning lifts me like wings over charcoal roofs. I warm my lined face with my hands, far away from the poverty of knowing. Awake as I will ever be.

Where He Hangs My Hat
By Bob Rosenbloom

If I begin to wear a hat, it could mean that an old Jew—not just any old Jew, but my father, a sweet, old Jew—has gained ground and overtaken my body. He’s begun to enter my soul. His hand has entered my hand through a gaping hole at the wrist and begun to write the rough draft of this poem under another title. We had so many heated arguments across the kitchen table. Only the food cooled off. I defended Al Sharpton. Dad kept the right wing flapping. We were pig-headed, stubborn. Mom refereed and sent us to our rooms when she had enough. Maybe my father has forgiven everything: dropping out of school, smoking pot, being named in a Brooklyn College lawsuit against SDS members. I did nothing wrong. It’s been decades. All the witnesses are gone.

Waiting for Ed McMahon
By Laura Boss

Ed McMahon, today is January 24th and I am sitting here waiting for you.  I am waiting for you to bring me ten million dollars. You sent me a letter two months ago with my name on the envelope in two-inch letters saying I was a winner—or at least that's the way it looked until I read it a second time. But then it seemed that I still had a really good chance of your giving me ten million dollars if I would just get my envelope back to you on time—especially if I affixed the gold sticker with the number 10 million correctly though it was hidden among all the magazine subscription stickers and to even further my chances I took a subscription to a magazine I didn't especially want, and Ed McMahon, I stuck that sticker on so carefully and even checked that I wanted my payment in one lump sum rather than monthly installments, and yes, I checked that I'm willing to be televised when you hand me that check for ten million dollars.  And because I was getting my letter back to you so fast, Ed McMahon, I stuck the bonus Jaguar sticker on its special card in my choice of green though I hesitated for a few seconds over the red one. And I left my calendar free for today—no free lance workshops (not that I have them everyday though I wish I did so I wouldn't be waiting so desperately for you today, Ed McMahon). Ed McMahon, I am sitting here waiting for you. I am waiting for you to bring me my ten million dollars.

The Beef Epitaph
Michael Benedikt

This is what it was: Sometime in the recent but until now unrecorded past, it was decided by certain ingenious and commercially forward-looking cattle-ranchers in a certain large, modern Western nation which prides itself on being nutritionally forward-looking, that since people are increasingly nutrition-conscious, and increasingly insistent that “you are what you eat,” all cattle on the way to market were to be marked with brief descriptive tags noting the favorite food of each animal; and also stating approximately how much each ate of it. This, it was felt, would both delight the diner and comfort the nutrition-conscious consumer: people would be able to tell exactly what kind of flavor and texture of beef they were purchasing beforehand, and always be able to secure exactly the kind of product most likely to delight their taste, since they would know a whole lot more than ever before about the quality and kind of nourishment which the animal had received (it was a little like our own, well-established, present-day modern American system of catering to preferences for light and dark meat in chicken—by supplying each part shrink-wrapped in a separate bag in the supermarkets). The system set up by those ingenious and commercially forward-looking cattle-ranchers was remarkably efficient; and seemed—at least at first—to be destined for success. This is how it worked: First, on each animal’s last day on the ranch, they attached the main, or so-called “parent” tag—made out according to information provided by each rancher, or their hired hands, or even (in some cases) their immediate family—to each head of livestock. The information contained on each tag would be of course be definitive, since it was compiled just before the two or three days required for shipment of the animal to the slaughterhouse—during which travel time, of course, the animal customarily doesn’t eat anything, anyway.... Once at the slaughterhouse, they carefully removed the “parent tags”; and during the slaughtering, mechanically duplicated them numerous times, preparing perhaps hundreds of tiny labels for each animal. Immediately afterwards, at the packing plant, these miniature, or “baby” tags were affixed, respectively to the proper bodily parts—each section of each animal being separately and appropriately tagged, each as if with an epitaph. But then something went wrong with this means of delighting the diner, and of comforting the nutrition-conscious consumer. At first, quite predictably, the tags came out reading things like “Much grass, a little moss, medium grain” and “Much grass, much grain, generally ate a lot.” And this, as one might expect, proved (at least at first), a great pleasure to purchasers! But then tags began coming through reading things like “A little grass, a little grain, many diverse scraps from our table”; and “She was our favorite pet—gave her all we had to give”; and there was even one (featured at dinnertime one evening on network television news) which was tear-stained and which said, in a child’s handwriting, “Good-bye, Little Blackie Lamb, sorry you had to grow up—I’ll sure miss you!” And so, gradually, despite its efficiency, this system somehow ceased to delight the diner, and comfort the nutrition-conscious consumer. And this is how the practise of The Beef Epitaph became generally neglected over the course of time; and how the members of a large, nutrition-conscious, and otherwise generally quite sophisticated modern nation very much like our own, came to eat their beef—as indeed they still do today—partially or even totally blindfolded.

From Night Cries, published by Wesleyan University Press, 1976. 
Copyright ©1976 and Copyright © 1999 by Michael Benedikt. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Laura Boss, Executor of Michael Benedikt’s literary estate.

Writing Prose Poems

First Try:

1. Go for a walk or find a quiet place to think and ponder some memories or experiences. Free-write for a couple of pages. Follow leaps of thought that catch your attention.

2. Read through what you wrote and highlight a few phrases that have special meaning for you (not too many).

3. Think about the emotional center of what you’ve written—this will become the emotional center of your poem.

4. Use selected portions of your free-write as the basis for a one-paragraph prose poem (be sure to vary your sentence length and structure).

5. Incorporate at least two striking images.

6. Include internal rhymes and slant rhymes, alliteration, or other poetry devices. Be sure to work on these as you write, or during the early stages of revision.

7. Cut out anything that is not essential. Do this increasingly strongly as your revision progresses.

8. When you feel you’re close to a final draft, read your prose poem aloud to yourself. What do you hear? Is there a definite “sound quality” to your poem? Does your imagery strike and stun? Have you nodded to the surreal? Have you incorporated both complete sentences and deliberate fragments?

Second Try:

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 (think “box,” and be sure to justify both the left and right margins when you type your poem). Remember to include 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 images and your feelings.

6. You may tell a story, but remember that the storyline is second to the language you use to tell it. There are two caveats.

     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.


Stay safe and well, my dear blog friends!

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