Lesson No. 4: Untangling the Prose Poem with John Sibley Williams

This lesson involves one of the most rebellious and controversial of poetic forms: the prose poem. Following information about this structure like common kinds, pros and cons, and tips for its composition, I have included five unique examples to study.

Simply defined, a prose poem is a poem written in (complete or fragmented) sentences, appearing as a block of text without line breaks. This structure first appeared in 19th Century France as an act of rebellion against the typical metered form. Feeling meter contained too many linguistic constraints, poets like Charles Baudelaire and Aloysius Bertrand began composing block text pieces that resembled prose but behaved like poetry. Although prose poetry has expanded and redefined itself many times since then, the basic principle remains: it incorporates the best elements of prose and poetry, and in so doing becomes the ultimate act of poetic rebellion. No doubt this is why, as Charles Simic has put it, “The prose poem has the unusual distinction of being regarded with suspicion not only by the usual haters of poetry, but also by many poets themselves.”

Reasons to Write Prose Poems

1) Flow: As one line pours into the next, prose poems create a uniquely fluid rhythm. Instead of the tension and staccato sound caused by line breaks, long lines flow together into a (hopefully) seamless whole. This can also affect how the poem is read aloud.
2) Story: By its nature the prose poem can be the perfect form to tell a story in verse, be it straight narrative or surrealist or somewhere in between. Without line breaks or the full expectation of standard poetry, you can build a singular story that the reader knows is supposed to be read as a cohesive whole.
3) Expectations: A poet may want to subvert reader expectations by creating a disorienting experience. A prose poem can be an excellent way of building a paradoxical reader experience, as they ask themselves, “how am I supposed to read and experience this text?” Try to change their relationship to the written word!
4) White Space: All forms of poetry manipulate the page’s white space for certain effects. Oddly structured, experimental poems often provide vast gaps between words or lines, which separates key ideas or images from each other and fosters a sense of distance. The prose poem does the opposite. Readers will react differently to this spatial oddity, as the compact, close-knit images provide no breathing room or safe, eye-friendly white space.
5) Comfort Zone: Readers are usually quite comfortable with both traditional poetic and traditional prose styles. They have been trained how to read both. A prose poem defies both conventions but does so in a way that is actually comforting. Prose poems include a vibrant mix of the bizarre and conventional that’s carefully packaged in its own tidy little self-contained universe.

In other words, you still employ most of the poetic tools in your toolbox: image, emotional tension, heightened language, sound, rhythm, use of the senses, syntax, diction, and so on. The prose poem simply provides another structure to employ if the thrust of your poem calls for it.


Common Kinds of Prose Poems

1) Postcard: A poem that captures a moment in time with a strong sense of place.
2) Factoid: A poem that incorporates at least one piece of factual information, be it a scientific, historical, or emotional fact. Often this fact frames the chosen images and gives context to the thrust of the poem.
3) Straight Narrative: A poem that explores in a fairly linear form a specific narrative. This form would most closely resemble traditional prose.
4) Surreal Narrative: Surrealism exists outside traditional logic, where images break from reality and find grounding in the dreamt as much as real world. For some reason, surrealism lends itself quite well to the prose poem structure.


Notes on Structure

1) Though one stanza poems can adopt any number of forms, most include an awe-inspiring moment (usually at the end) where the entire poem is put into context, where the complexities of the situation are revealed, and where you (as both reader and writer) realize you have learned something significant.
2) This mysterious moment can be open-ended and ambiguous or can leave the poem on a hard stop, but either way it should be revelatory.
3) Concentrate on tension. Each line counts so make them play with and struggle against the next; let them build upon and almost dismantle each other.


Narrative Prose Poem Examples

CK Williams Repression

More and more lately, as, not even minding the slippages yet, the aches and sad softenings, I settle into my other years, I notice how many of what I once thought were evidences of repression, sexual or otherwise, now seem, in other people anyway, to be varieties of dignity, withholding, tact, and sometimes even in myself, certain patiences I would have once called lassitude indifference, now seem possibly to be if not the rewards then at least the unsuspected, undreamed-of conclusions to many of the even-then-preposterous self-evolved disciplines, rigors, almost mortifications I inflicted on myself in my starting-out days, improvement days, days when the idea alone of psychic peace, of intellectual, of emotional quiet, the merest hint, would have meant inconceivable capitulation.


Mark Strand
Mystery and Solitude in Topeka

Afternoon darkens into evening. A man falls deeper and deeper into the slow spiral of sleep, into the drift of it, the length of it, through what feels like mist, and comes at last to an open door through which he passes without knowing why, then again without knowing why goes to a room where he sits and waits while the room seems to close around him and the dark is darker than any he has known, and he feels something forming within him without being sure what it is, its hold on him growing, as if a story were about to unfold, in which two characters, Pleasure and Pain, commit the same crime, the one that is his, that he will confess to again and again, until it means nothing.


Shivani Mehta
The Butterflies
You unzip my dress, a curve from the side of my left breast to the top of my hip. My body is a column of butterflies. One by one, roused by the light and cool air, they wake from sleep. One by one they open their wings, answering the instinct to be free. They scatter in all directions; I learn what it means to be in many places at once.


Conceptual/Surreal Prose Poem Examples

Franz Wright
Some fish for words from shore while others, lacking in such contemplative tact, like to go wading in up to their chins through a torrent of bone-freezing diamond, knife raised to freeze-frame incarnadine and then bid it as with hermetic wand flow on again, ferociously, transparently, name writ in river.
Franz Wright
If I stare into it long enough, the point comes when I don’t know what it’s called, a condition in which lacerations are liable to occur, like a slip of the tongue; when a drop of blood might billow in a glass of water, blooming in velvet detonation and imparting to it the colorless, tasteless and originless fear in which I wake.
Melissa Kwasny
The ribbons tap like fingernails on the glass when the wind blows. I have hung new ones, from my gifts, on the crossbars. I have packaged an interior, a valley of chimes. Unlimited, is another way to put this. The days are finished and the new ones begin. Here, perhaps, a handful that have no home. If I had wings, this is how I’d fold them, my arms wrapped around you. You, then, would be my divinity. This is how it works: they, those we love, drop off the ends of the earth. Something in our aging, which approves it. Look, I have white hair and yet my parents are still here. Does that make us less committed to each other? I think of the Hopi, the Navajo, in the Southwest, dancing so that the deer will continue. I think, as I have thought since I was young. Bestiary. Aviary. Imaginary. We overwatch the world. How many of the plum seasons we have abandoned.


“At Night”, by Lisa Cicccarello This is a full 16-poem chapbook consisting of tightly-woven poems that cohere almost like chapters in a novel. Many of the poems are quite short, so please read the entire chapbook so you can complete the below Discussion Assignment.


After reading Ciccarello’s chapbook, use the comment forum below to answer in at least 100 words any one of the following questions: 1) What linguistic and thematic threads weave through At Night and how do they work together to create a cohesive whole? 2) How does Cicccarello push the boundaries of both poetry and prose until they seem like both…and neither? 3) How does Russell Edson’s quote “A good prose poem is a statement that seeks sanity whilst its author teeters on the edge of the abyss” apply to Ciccarello’s vision and style?

Writing Exercise 

With these single stanza poems in mind, let’s use the unexpected, the unpredictable, the surreal in building your own single stanza poems that shed light on a problem, question, or situation that moves you deeply. Please compose 2 one stanza poems this week. STEPS/TIPS: As you have written narrative and conceptual poems in previous weeks, let’s focus this last writing assignment on the two so far unexplored types of prose poems. Please choose one of the following for this assignment: the postcard or factoid prose poem. If you are writing a postcard poem, start by imagining the first postcard you ever received. You were probably quite young. What was the image on the front? Who was it from? Why was it sent? How did it feel to hold that foreign image in your hand? Did it conjure up a strange new world for you or did it feel familiar, like you’d been there before? Remember that a postcard prose poem attempts to capture a moment in time with a strong sense of place. It may obsess over this place; it may make leaps in time to and from this place. Also remember that the prose poem is an invitation to experiment, to create a new world, and to inhabit that world. If you are writing a factoid poem, start with a scientific, historical, or emotional fact. It should be something that’s always intrigued you, perhaps because it feels counterintuitive. Our world (both human and natural) is filled with odd occurrences, beautiful truths, and contradictions. Choose an intriguing fact and weave your images through it. Think about how you plan on framing this factoid. What do you have to say about it? What questions emanate from it? How does it affect the rest of the world and you personally?


John Sibley Williams’ writing has appeared in American Literary Review, Third Coast, and RHINO. He is the author of eight poetry collections, most recently Controlled Hallucinations (FutureCycle Press, 2013). Four-time Pushcart nominee, he is the winner of the HEART Poetry Award and has been a finalist for the Rumi, Third Coast, Ian MacMillan, Best of the Net, and The Pinch Poetry Prizes. John serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and Board Member of the Friends of William Stafford. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rivier College and an MA in Book Publishing from Portland State University, and he currently works as Marketing Director of Inkwater Press and as a literary agent. John lives in Portland, Oregon.