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:
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.