(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)