Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Prose Poem

The prose poem is a hybrid creature, not accepted by many as poetry at all, but not taken seriously as prose fiction or essay by others. It seems to like that questionable status, however, and generally lives near the border with uncertainty or doubt.

What is a prose poem? It is generally short, a few lines to a few pages. It does not have lines in verse, or broken lines, and when there is a break we call the parts “paragraphs” rather than “stanzas.” But at the same time, the prose poem aims for compression like a lyric poem; it might feature more repetition or other linguistic effects; it might focus on a particular image, or gesture, or scene, although it might also tell a story.

Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference, if it matters, between a prose poem and a piece of flash fiction. If the author is someone mainly known as a fiction writer, then it will often be seen as short-short fiction; if the author is generally a poet, it will be a prose poem.

The prose poem might have begun, a couple of centuries ago, as a way for poets to escape the constrictions of poetic form. French poets especially liked the prose poem, as traditional prosody in French is very rule-bound; so the prose poem offered escape from those constrictions.

The prose poem is a modern creature, and modernity is all about revolution, breaking rules, trying new things just for the sake of newness. On the other hand, the breaking of lines on the page to show that a poem is a poem is not such a very ancient convention; much of the Old Testament (Job, or the Song of Solomon, for example) could be thought of as prose poetry.

Some prose poems insist on staying inside a kind of box, like the sonnet; they like that square, almost-rectangular shape of the single paragraph, which I think of as a kind of box, or perhaps a stage with proscenium arch: some strange specimen is intimately framed for our amusement.

Many prose poems partake of the absurd, the surreal, or the merely strange or droll. We read, we enjoy or wonder at the strange sight or action, the funny conflation of words or things, and then, as with any tightly-bound work of art, we take a moment to wonder at what we just read. The brevity of lyric poems and of many prose poems tempts us to read again, to see if what we saw is still there.

Te prose poem is not a song, usually; sometimes it’s a snapshot, a post card, a brief note (as in a diary or a field journal), an anecdote, a cameo, or a moment.

Smetimes when we can’t quite say what a thing is, we call it everything else, searching for similitudes; moving backward in order to go forward. “Prose poem” puts together two things that are considered opposites; they cancel each other out, and what’s left is defined by negation as much as presence.

One way to approach poetry, or anything that is sought after, is by continually redefining it. A poem is its own definition. Here are two operative definitions from David Lehman, in the introduction to his anthology Great American Prose Poems:

The prose poem is…poetry that disguises its true nature.


Just as free verse did away with meter and rhyme, the prose poem does away with the line as the unit of composition. It uses the means of prose toward the ends of poetry.

Both these definitions, it seems to me, accentuate the tension between absence and presence. That tension or counterpoint might itself be a key to the modality of the prose poem; but one way to approach the task of finding one’s voice or style or theme in art is to seek after one’s own definitions.

There are many anthologies devoted to the prose poem. Here are a few:

Among those poets who have excelled at the form are: Charles Baudeliare, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Simic, Russell Edson, Harryette Mullen, Mary Oliver, James Wright, Ray Gonzalez, and Mark Strand.

Here are several prose poems to study – all at the Poetry Foundation Web site:

Russell Edson, “Antimatter”
Matthea Harvey, “Wack-A-Mole Realism”
Ray Gonzalez, “And There Were Swallows”
Carolyn Forche, “The Colonel”
Lydia Davis, "A Position at the University"
Gabriela Mistral, "The Lark"
Charles Simic, from "The World Doesn't End"
...and an interesting analysis of a prose poem by James Wright by the poet Robert Peake, at his blog site.


  1. Another English teacher of mine just let me borrow Models of the Universe. It is such a wonderful concept, the prose poem. I accidently starting writing it and thought for the longest time that they were just scenes waiting to be put into longer stories, or maybe poems and I just couldn't get the line breaks right. Neither one of those options ever felt quite right, but I didn't know about prose poetry. Once it was explained to me, it made so much sense. I wish I had learned about it before I got to college. I think a lot of young writers would benefit from being eased into poetry through this medium

  2. This is my first time ever hearing of a prose poem. It's really interesting. When reading the definitions it was somewhat questionable but I after reading a couple of examples from Russel Edison and Matthea Harvey. I now understand it. It's like taking a picture of watch you see

  3. After reading this article we can have a glimpse of Prose poetry. Nowadays, there are a lots of arguments about the existence of Prose poetry. Many believe it is not poetry because it doesn't follow any rules of poetry. Its characteristics are broken lines, no verse etc ... But we cannot deny that prose poetry contributes a certain amount of poet to the modern poetry.

  4. Prose poetry is one of my favorites. I have often tried to write a prose and often end up with some kind of rhyming scheme instead. Very disappointing. I've had one or two come my way and prose poems are very liberating to write. I encourage anyone to write one. Thanks for clarifying the definition for me. It answered a lot of questions I have had in the past about what is and what isn't prose poetry.

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  6. It doesn't have to be long lines to be an impressed writing. In fact, I favor short poems, as well as I prefer the short quotations. For it's even harder to express yourself in just a few lines.
    Thanks for introducing prose poems, this is great.

  7. Personally, I have never been into prose poems. Yet I agree that most prose poems normally break away from tradition of following rhyme or even reason....well at least to me. Anyways this was a great blog, and it taught me a lot of things about Prose poems that I didn't know.

  8. This style of writing seems to be more intriguing to me because there is so much left unknown. The shorter the story , the more that is left to the imagination. I see it like having a conversation and someone telling you to stick to the facts and nothing else. I've tried writing short poems and it doesn't work for me but I admire this style. I love that the rules of rhyme are broken.

  9. I think I'm more of a pros-er myself. I really liked "And There Were Swallows." I have never been able to stay within the lines of more structured writing so prose is a good thing for me to experiment.

  10. I’ve always come across a few very short poems and always fell in love with them. I think it’s much harder to get a person to read a few words and by the end of the poem feel connected some way somehow to the story. I never knew there was a difference between short poems and long poems. I always thought a poem is a poem, long or short. Happy to say I learned something new today.

  11. This is my first time hearing of the prose poem and I like it. I like the fact that it does not have to follow the tradition of poetry. I like that it breaks away from what people thinks poetry should look like or sound like. These type of poems are short but sweet.