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).
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
daughter, my daughter, did you leave me a page in my notebook?
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
Waiting for Ed McMahon
By Laura Boss
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.
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
From Night Cries, published by Wesleyan University Press, 1976.
Writing Prose Poems
Copyright ©1976 and Copyright © 1999 by Michael Benedikt. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Laura Boss, Executor of Michael Benedikt’s literary
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
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
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?
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
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
B. Be careful not to go over the top with
poetic devices and poetic language.
Stay safe and well, my dear blog friends!