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.|
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.|
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.|
Narrative Prose Poem Examples
CK Williams Repression
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.
Conceptual/Surreal Prose Poem Examples
“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?
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.