What Is Prose Poetry?

Image Credit: Agricultural Research Service, US Dept of Agriculture.

The name itself is surely a contradiction in terms — how can a poem be ‘prose’, when ‘prose’ is the very word used to describe writing that’s not poetry?

The simplest way to define prose poetry is to say it’s poetry written without line breaks. Many prose poems look like short paragraphs, so some writers have suggested that prose poetry is essentially the same form as flash fiction (which I blogged about here). I’m not convinced the two forms are exactly the same, but I admit the difference can be difficult to pin down.

The form is thought to originate (in the Western tradition, at least) with the nineteenth century French poets, Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire. Two of the better known books of prose poetry are Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) and Francis Ponge’s Le parti pris des choses (The Voice of Things) (1942). Both writers use the form to focus on small, everyday objects, including oranges, snails and cigarettes. Perhaps the compactness of the form suits a narrow focus — there’s certainly a humility to the form which attracts some writers.

‘But it’s not poetry!’ I hear you say, and you’d not be the first to voice this view. In 1978, the prestigious American prize, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, was going to be awarded to Mark Strand for his book of prose poems, The Monument, but the decision was overturned because prose poems weren’t thought to be poetry. However, things change fast and in 1990 the Pulitzer was awarded to Charles Simic for his book of (mostly) prose poems, The World Doesn’t End.

Now many poets are writing prose poems, sometimes publishing collections entirely written in the form, sometimes using prose poetry as one of many forms, for example the poet Claudia Rankine in her much acclaimed Citizen: An American Lyric (Penguin UK, 2015).

But why would a poet want to ignore one of the most important tools in their toolkit — the line break? After all, writing in lines opens up many possibilities: it allows the poet to separate ideas and structure their work. Varying line length offers a way of controlling the pace of a poem. Using lines means a poet can write in particular rhythmical forms such as iambic pentameter, and lines also mean that fixed rhyme schemes are an option. Further, since the word at the end of each line is given more attention by the reader, writing in lines gives the poet greater control about where a reader places emphasis when reading a poem.

A prose poem removes these possibilities, so why write one? Poets are rebellious creatures (so they like to think!) and I wonder if there’s a feeling of ‘Why not?’

Some argue that a prose poem is still a poem because it makes use of other poetic techniques, including imagery, metaphor, alliteration and assonance, compression and rhythm. But many prose writers use these techniques too, they’re not unique to poetry.

Perhaps it’s a matter of the writer’s intention — did she set out to write a piece of flash fiction or a prose poem? I’d like to suggest that a prose poem is written with the awareness of what a poem is, and this idea of the poem is held in tension in the writer’s mind. This is what distinguishes prose poetry from flash fiction for me, but I admit it’s not something that’s necessarily apparent in the work itself. If the reader can’t tell, then perhaps the difference is relevant only to the writer.

If you’d like to try writing a prose poem yourself, read a few examples online and then choose a subject — it can be as epic or as modest as you like (fruit seems to be popular!) and sketch out a few notes. If you decide the piece wants to be a lineated poem, then follow your instinct — but hopefully you’ll return to writing poetry with a better sense of what a line break can offer.

There are now many anthologies of prose poetry available, and acceptance of the form is growing. Perhaps not everybody will be convinced by it, but I’m never sorry when writers explore the boundaries of literary form and try something new. After all, why not?

This Line is Not for Turning (ed.) Jane Monson (Cinnamon Press, 2015)

Great American Prose Poems (ed.) David Lehman (Simon & Schuster, 2003)

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry (eds) Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek (Rose Metal Press, 2010)

Originally published at WeAreOCA.