The Prose Poem

(This entry is a short part of a lecture in The Anatomy of Poetry course series…to whet your appetite!)

The prose poem might look like prose, but it isn’t. In a traditional or modern poem, the major structural element is the line, which is arranged in stanzas or verses. In a prose poem, it is the sentence and paragraph. But it must transcend what prose does. I admit, the lines are very blurred when I read some of the prose poetry published today.

Personally, I embrace the definition of former Minnesota State Poet Laureate, Robert Bly (2008-2011). A prose poem is a poem, but without the use of line breaks:

Robert Bly’s “Looking for Dragon Smoke”… essay explaining the new direction in which American poetry was moving during the 60s and 70s. Then he gives a “working definition” of the prose poem, arguing that it “is a genre of poetry, self-consciously written in prose, and characterized by the intense use of virtually all the devices of poetry, which includes the intense use of devices of verse,” except for the line break. Finally, he lists what he calls the “special properties” of the prose poem: its “attention to the unconscious, and to its particular logic”; “an accelerated use of colloquial and everyday speech patterns”; “a visionary thrust”; a reliance on humor and wit; and an “enlightened doubtfulness, or hopeful skepticism”. (Cited from Web del Sol)

Here is the link to one of Bly’s prose poems, “Warning to the Reader.”

I had written my first prose poem, “Pearls in Galactic Oysters,” in a writer’s guild workshop. Of course, my first reaction in the spring 2005 was that “prose poem” was an oxymoron. Well, as you can see from above, it is indeed a poem. After receiving good reviews from the late Texas poet laureate, Jack Meyers, I submitted the poem and it was published (Astropoetica, Spring/Summer 2007) along with other luminaries in speculative fiction poetry. It is one of those nature poems discussed earlier, but of course, has much more to say between the lines that a poetic description of galaxies and what they do.

Some say it’s the music in the words that makes what otherwise looks like a piece of prose, a prose poem. Perhaps, but I’m not convinced this is enough. Regardless, the prose poem is a lovely form and has much to offer because of it’s fluid lines—at least the kinds that appeal to me.

After I wrote the above, I discovered, bought and read The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice (I knew about their excellent publication on Flash Fiction… I got that one, too). It’s available from several places, like Amazon.

Among the things I learned/deduced, and embrace, the prose poem uses juxtaposition to create tension, sort of like a line break does. But the unusual associations often lead to a surreal poem. Many of the examples in the book seem to me to have this feel. I don’t think you need that to make the prose poem work, but the use of other poetic devices can lift the apparent prose into poetry. For example, here is a short one (my micro fiction is usually a prose poem) that doesn’t use juxtaposition, yet is surreal: “Subterranean Poetics” (Subprimal Poetry Art, Issue 3, December 2014)

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15 Responses to The Prose Poem

  1. gay degani says:

    John I love your oyster galaxies and with that picture –my thought when the screen came on –was pearls, so I was delighted that was how you ended the poem. Excellent.

    • Thank you, Gay. Yes, those pearls are a two-edged sword (okay, wrong metaphor, but you get what I mean). Te beauty of those galaxies (ours included), host such violence. There are supermassive black holes in the center of galaxies. The galaxy needs them for coexistence. In fact, the prevailing theory now is that the black hole might be the progenitur of galaxies instead of co-evolving.

      John

  2. Sue Babcock says:

    I, too, find the line between prose poetry and prose to be rather blurry sometimes, so I appreciate your efforts to make the distinction clearer. My poetry teacher once said that if the poet says it is prose poetry, then it is – it is whatever the author says it is. I don’t agree. I cannot call snakeweed sunflowers and expect anyone to believe me – and it diminishes my credibility. Thanks, John, for an informative article!

    • I really do like (and live by) Robert Bly’s paradigm for the prose poem, but there are many others that do the snake oil thing with them. I discuss the extreme examples in my course, too. We should always ask ourselves, “Why should a particular writing that looks like prose be called a poem?” I strongly believe in the preservation of the literary genre of poetry.

      Thanks for posting, Sue

  3. Linda says:

    Thank you for “Pearls in Galactic Oysters.” The heavens always seem too far away, too scientific, to grasp, but your poetic voice–prosy or non–makes its beauty accessible to all.

    Beautiful work~

  4. Thanks for posting this, John, it is fascinating. I enjoyed your poem very much – beautiful images and thought-provoking. And ‘Warning to the Reader’ is quite spectacular in its simplicity. Thank you again.

  5. Len Hazell says:

    Dear John,

    I actually love this form and have dabbled in it a few time, the problem is I find, that unless you upfront admit what you are doing readers (especially on sites like Zoetrope) get confused and angry about it.
    Personally I do not like to spoon feed the reader and explain as I go along exactly what it is they are reading, to do so is insulting to their intelligence.
    However put such a pice on a poetry page and people will scream, “Not Proper Poetry”, put it up as flash fiction or a short story and people start using phrases like “Pretentious”, “Flowery” and generally get annoyed by it though more often than not they can not say why it annoys them.

    I wonder if you have found the same thing.

    Len

    • Hi Len,

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Yes, the prose poem is a lovely form, and under appreciated (mainly because it has been grossly abused). It was a 74-word prose poem, “Layers of Man,” that earned the 2010 nomination for the prestigious Rhysling Poetry Award.

      I have encountered similar attitudes, especially from some fiction folks, who often expect dialog and a story arc.

      On occasion, I will stretch the difference between a flash and a prose poem and rely on those blurred lines as I submit it as flash. An editor with poetic appreciation will look at it more favorably. I recently submitted a piece I had written as flash, “History Lesson,” to SmokeLong Quarterly, but for intents and purposes is arguably a prose poem with heavy imagery. It was nearly accepted, but its rejection was not because it was too poetic, it simply didn’t fit. (Soon I will submit another flash, very poetic, but unquestionably flash).

      But I’ve also encountered many short story writers that have the same attitudes toward flash fiction (especially when it’s a dialog-free vignette) as flash writers might have toward prose poetry.

      In poetry circles, I might have a few words prefacing the poem, an interesting tidbit, like how it was inspired, but nothing that explains the poem. In that preface, I might casually mention the word prose poem, etc.

      John

  6. David Woodruff says:

    Excellent discussion without being pedantic.

  7. david coyote says:

    Brother John,

    That sums it up for me! Pearls and shells and solar breeze in galactic seas mirror the sights of earthly seas and wave washed shores where my feet wander on occasion. Your prose poem did for my mind what the beaches do for my toes.

    You seem to write the overflow of heart and soul.

    david

  8. Hobie Anthony says:

    John,

    Very nice! I’m revisiting my Field Guide to Prose Poetry for further study!

    Cheers!

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