WEEK 4 | 9.21.16 | ONLINE Introducing Prose Poetry, Short Short Forms and Magic Realism: Charles Baudelaire, Lydia Davis, Franz Kafka and The Paris Review



“Always be a poet, even in prose.” ― Charles Baudelaire 


This week, we will explore prose poems, magic realism and short short forms. We’ll take a look at each of them individually and amalgamated. You will bring hardcopies of your culminating work, enough for each student and Rae, to our next on-campus session. There is a good deal of reading this week, so make sure to start early and pace yourself. Do not leave it all for the last minute, as you’ll need a little time to marinate all you’ve explored here and then write your first submission, revise it a bit, and have it ready for this upcoming session. 


The Prose Poem

The prose poem will often appear as prose, structured in paragraphs, but read like poetry. In some cases, the prose poem may be structured with line breaks, such as a traditional poem, but the rhythm takes a narrative cadence and form that engages the reader much like prose. In the first issue of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, editor Peter Johnson explained, “Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels” (Peter Johnson, editor of The Prose Poem: An International Journal). This precarious position is a trademark of hybrid forms. The reader will often question where the work “fits.”

Within a narrative cadence, the prose poem will also use poetic techniques: fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. Narrative lengths can range from a few lines to several pages. Short short stories often combine with the prose poem form in order to create broader and deeper narratives up to 1000 words and less. Some editors and writers will allow short short forms to include up to 1500 words; however, 1000 words is the market standard and is a good word count for writers who wish to write short short stories, prose poems and essays, especially for online journals and venues from The Paris Review to The New York Times.

Prose poems can be found in early Bible translations and Lyrical Ballads of William Wordsworth. The form is most often traced to nineteenth-century French symbolists. An example is Charles Baudelaire’s “Be Drunk,” which concludes:

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking… ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

Now, let’s take a more critical look at Baudelaire’s prose poem:

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speakingask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

Notice how Baudelaire uses repetition and listing of both words and contexts, often used in traditional poetic forms, to give the prose more than mere cadence, but rather, rhythm, lyricism, more overt metaphor and cyclical contexts:

The Norton Anthology: Literary Terms 

  • alliteration: the repetition of usually initial consonant sounds through a sequence of words—for example, “While I nodded, nearly napping” in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”
  • assonance: the repetition of vowel sounds in a sequence of words with different endings—for example, “The death of the poet was kept from his poems” in W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.”
  • consonance: a poetic device characterized by the repetition of the same consonant two or more times in short succession, as in “pitter patter” or in “all mammals named Sam are clammy”.

Other writers who practiced prose poems include Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein. Listen to the below reading of Baudelaire’s “Be Drunk.”



Prose Poem Reading Assignments

The Mothers Son by Robert Bly The Prose Poem: An International Journal (1999)

The Method by Maxine Chernoff The Prose Poem: An International Journal (1999)

My Aphrodisiac by Nin Andrews The Prose Poem: An International Journal (1999)

ALREADY! by Charles Baudelaire, reprint The Paris Review (2014)

Rivers by Czeslaw Milosz, The Paris Review (1998)

OPTIONAL: Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein, Claire Marie (1914) (This is much longer and so it is recommended but not mandatory, as you have more readings below. Definitely worth reading at least a section of it.) 


Magic Realism

In the above optical illusions, notice how your mind can be so certain of its perception and then your mind can shift just as certainly to another perception. The lines are offset. No, they are parallel. It’s a wine glass. No, it’s a picture of twin profiles. It’s a head shot of a man with part of his face erased. No, it’s a side profile of a man.

It is difficult to hold two diverse perceptions at one time, though, not impossible; however, to hold two diverse perceptions requires a sort of blurring of perceptions. Neither of the individual perceptions can be held with great clarity and focus if both are simultaneous and so we accept one perception at a time as our focus and understand that another perception is equally valid. This blurring of realities, this acceptance of alternative perceptions, is the essence of magic realism. This diversity of “reality” and “truth” is also something we explored in Plato’s The Republic, Book VII: The Allegory of the Cave.

In The Age of Insight, Eric Kandel discusses the “beholder’s share” or what the reader brings to the experience of reading our works. We are not going to read The Age of Insight in this lesson, it is a tome, but we will be using some of Kandel’s above optical illusion examples as well as his explorations into the science of perception as a foundation for the affect of illusions on the reader’s mind.

patterns_textures_grid_illusions_grayscale_optical_illusion_1366x768_30074In Kandel’s explorations, he discusses how illusion can affect the nuance and understanding of an element in a story, article, painting or drawing, changing the interpretation as the element relates to its background. If we relate this to narrative, this illusionary aspect creates a secondary setting, one that is not physical, but rather contextual and relational to the background within any given scene. This background can change in the reader’s perception, even though the elements of the background may not have changed at all. The “beholder’s share.” We’re going to use this concept in our writing in order to create a richer, deeper story while incorporating elements of magic realism. Click on the image to the right. Explore how the background changes, and yet, stays very much the same, as your focus moves around the image. Our “truths” regarding this image are related to where our particular focuses are at any given time and will change within milliseconds.

Now, let’s review the basics of magic realism as a marketable form and how it fits and sometimes doesn’t fit into the spectrum of genre and style:


A Very Brief Primer on Realism Vs. Magic Realism, Fabulism & Fantasy in Genre & Style



Raymond Carver

Flannery O’Connor

Ernest Hemingway



Gabriel García Márquez

Isabelle Allende

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Toni Morrison

Kurt Vonnegut

Salman Rushdie

Angela Carter

Virginia Woolf

Nikolai Gogol

Franz Kafka




Kelly Link

Jeff VanderMeer



J. R. R. Tolkien

George R. R. Martin 



Some critics, editors and readers have determined realism and magic realism to be on the “literary” end of the genre spectrum. This is a designation that comes with a number of valid and problematic issues. For one, The Road by Cormac McCarthy is solidly claimed by the “high literary” community; however, speculative readers and critics validly claim the work as futuristic and fictional in its science. This is an example of how the “literary” and “speculative” categorizations as exclusive can be problematic. 

Most will agree that realism and magic realism value character-focused storytelling and less world-building-focused storytelling. There are more variations than what is listed on this genre and style spectrum, but this gives us a good primer for considering magic realism. 





Some critics, editors and readers have determined fabulism and fantasy to be more on the speculative end of the genre spectrum. This designation comes with a number of valid and problematic issues, too. For one, many speculative writers consider their work to be high literary as well as speculative. An example would be the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Many high literary anthologies, including Norton, will include Tolkien’s work as evidence of high literary fantasy.

Most will agree that fabulism and fantasy value world-building more so than realist or magical realist stories. Again, there are more variations than what is listed on this genre and style spectrum, but this gives us a good primer for considering magic realism.


What Separates Magic Realism and Fabulism?

Usually magical realist stories are set primarily in a real and familiar world with elements of magic realism that are fleeting, cyclical, often questionable and perception-based–i.e. is the character really experiencing this magical element or is the character’s experience merely hallucinatory brought on by drug use, alcohol, a bop on the head, etc. Magical realist stories and scenes can usually be read either way, real/hallucinatory and/or magical.


Fabulism and Fantasy

Fabulism and fantasy clearly identify the parameters of setting as being fantastical, magical and not of this world, including but not limited to character-based fantasy elements such as werewolves, vampires, etc. The werewolves and vampires clearly do not exist in reality, even if their story settings are real. Because these characters encapsulate wholly fantastical elements. These characters make the stories fabulist or fantasy.


McCarthy & Vonnegut?

Writers such as McCarthy and Vonnegut have crossed boundaries in exceptional ways with works such as The Road and Breakfast of Champions. In The Road, McCarthy’s futuristic dystopia defies categorization in many ways. In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout experiences a metafictional journey, and therefore, is aware as is the reader of the magical structure within a very real, painfully real, world. The satirical elements of both novels furthermore beg the question, can the novels truly fall into any genre or style? Have they created something completely their own? The answer to this question, one might suggest, lies individually within the reader’s “beholder’s share.”


Is Magic Realism Specific to South American Authors?

No. With Marquez, Borges, Allende and more, magic realism has certainly enjoyed a Golden Era within some Latin American countries; however, as you can see in the chart above, magic realism has classical foundations in Russia, Germany, England, Italy as well as the United States, too. Russian author, Nikolai Gogol, wrote “The Nose” c. 1835. This predates even Borges. The first mention of the term was in 1925 by Franz Roh, a German art critic. Kafka wrote “Metamorphosis” in 1915. In 1927, the notion of magic realism spread through the Latin American writers and connected the magic realism communities already in existence and practice.

Academics partial to the Latin American magical realists have been spinning this myth of magic realism beginning and focusing in South America. Borges and Marquez have put prominent faces on magic realism and so it is easy to fall into this belief, but magic realism is far more diverse in country and style than the Latin American authors. We value and pay tribute to the amazing work that has come out of Argentina and other Latin American countries but we also understand magic realism owes its beginnings to a much more diverse authorship.


Am I Supposed to Call It Magic Realism or Magical Realist?

Editors and readers use both but the way I’ve learned it and what I believe to be the proper designation is below:

Magic Realism (Nominative form)  |  Magical Realist (Adjective form)




Raymond Carver

Flannery O’Connor

Ernest Hemingway



Gabriel García Márquez

Isabelle Allende

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Kurt Vonnegut

Salmon Rushdie




Kelly Link

Jeff VanderMeer



J. R. R. Tolkien

George R. R. Martin 


Classic Magic Realism Reading Assignments

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel García Márquez

“A Little Fable” by Franz Kafka (You will read this work below.)


The Short Short Form

lydia.davis“There is some acceptance of the terms flash fictionsudden fiction, etc. But I think people may still be expecting a kind of miniature short story when they begin reading a piece of flash fiction, rather than the less usual offering that it might be—meditation, logic game, extended wordplay, diatribe—for which there is no good general name. Robert Walser was described by one critic (rather diminishingly, I think) as a ‘feuilletonist.’ He sometimes referred to his work simply as ‘short prose pieces….’ It’s a hard thing to define, but to be simple about it, I would say a story has to have a bit of narrative, if only ‘she says,’ and then enough of a creation of a different time and place to transport the reader. But, of course, it is not a narrative poem. It is flatter, rhythmically different from a poem, and less elliptical.” (Lydia Davis, The Believer, January 2008)



“A Little Fable” (1906) by Franz Kafka 

“Alas,” said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day. At first it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when at last I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.”

“You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.


Narrative Forms: The Short Short Story Vs. the Vignette Vs. the Short Story

I’ve found the most universally accepted word count for the short short story (or flash fiction) to be 1,000; however, many editors consider anything under 1,500 to be a short short story. There are variations between writers and editors regarding what is a short short and what is a microfiction, etc. I tend to think of microfictions as shorter than flash fictions or short short stories. Here is a general breakdown that I follow as do most writers and editors:

  • Novel — Over 70,000 words
  • Novella — 17,500 to 70,000 words
  • Novelette — 7,500 to 17,500 words
  • Short Story — 1,000 to 7,500 words
  • Short Short Story — Under 1,000 words
  • Microfiction — Under 500 words (Some will group micros into short shorts)
  • Vignette — Any length of narrative in which a full arc is neither present on the page nor intended to be imagined by the reader, such as in a short short arc

There is the additional question of what separates short short stories from a vignette. I like to think of short shorts as fully encapsulated narrative arcs, with all the trimmings, only many of the trimmings and details are suggested, planted between the words, encouraging the reader to work these out for him or herself, Kandel’s “beholder’s share.” Lydia Davis suggests that a short short story need not have a full arc, but I disagree. I believe the full arc is there, but instead of holding the reader’s hand through each and every important detail, the short short arc invites the reader to more fully participate in the realization of the narrative, which in a way can make a short short story more personal than a longer short story. Of course, much of this “invitation” to imagine the fuller arc is the artistry of it. There is no formula for doing this perfectly. It is each individual writer’s job to make this happen within his or her organic voice and talent, and it can take a writer a lifetime to perfect this talent.

A vignette is different than a short short story in that it leaves details out and does not invite its reader to complete them. A vignette is a part of a story. It may be a character focus or setting study, a section that would function as an aside to a fuller narrative arc. If you were to compare the short short story to the vignette in a linguistic analogy it might look like this:


The short short story is to the vignette, as the clause is to the phrase.

Using sentence patterns, we can look at the narrative structures of short short stories and vignettes as similar breakdowns. A short short story can function on its own; however, a vignette cannot in a narrative sense. Another way to look at this comparison might be mathematical/logical such as below…


Short short stories = protagonist AND/OR antagonist + conflict

Just as a clause in a sentence must have a subject and verb on the page, the short short story must have the subject and conflict on the page. The rest can be insinuated, between the lines, encouraging the reader to imagine the fuller details. I like to call this the chiaroscuro effect. Just as a painter will use both positive and negative spaces on the canvas, the dark and the light, so does the narrative writer. Of course, any great novelist or short story writer will do the same, but for the short short story writer, this chiaroscuro is even more important because the “negative spaces” of the story must function as importantly as the “positive spaces,” even though the “negative spaces might not be pointed out or written on the page, the absence of the details are apparent.

EXAMPLE: Let’s say you have a toddler at home and you walk into the kitchen to find the cookie jar open, all the cookies gone, and the toddler sitting patiently at the kitchen table, focused on a children’s book. If you were to look at only what is “on the scene” or “on the page,” you would study the behaving child, the cookie jar with it’s lid off, the book, but this wouldn’t be the extent of your study. You would also consider the “negative spaces” of the scene, what is NOT on the page–i.e. the missing cookies, the toddler’s usual running around energy.

Because we’re writing literary fiction and not crime fiction, our narrative focuses on the child’s behavior rather than solving the crime of what happened to the cookies, but we would still include the IDEA of the cookies either on the page or off the page, depending upon whether we’re writing a short story or a short short story.

If writing this as a short story, you would probably give all the details and observations of the scene, both the present and missing, both the positive and negative aspects, both the cookie jar and the detail that the cookie jar is empty. If writing this as a short short story, you would let the missing or “negative” aspects simply stay missing, off the page. You might detail the jar with its lid off but not even mention the missing cookies. Why? Because a cookie jar with it’s lid off implies that something was taken, something is missing. Any smart reader will deduce this without being told by the narrator. Mentioning the missing cookies at this point, for the smart reader, is a redundancy, wasting time. Short short story writers DO NOT write redundancies and they do not waste time. They ALWAYS write for smart readers. Just as a poet is a linguistic surgeon, so must be the short short story writer. *The interesting aspect of the short short story craft is that it not only develops short short story craft, it adds vital skills to the novelist’s and short story writer’s crafts as well. Your novels will be far better, tighter, linguistically honed, more rigorous and smarter due to your practice of the short short story craft.


Vignettes = protagonist AND/OR antagonist AND/OR conflict AND/OR climax (Never all the pieces)

Just as a phrase in a sentence needs neither the subject or the verb but rather one or the other or perhaps even neither (it could be an adverbial and adjective phrase modifying the subject or verb or many other combinations), the vignette can function the same way within a narrative or craft exercise. Vignettes are not stories. They are merely pieces of a story. There is no arc or only part of an arc and they do not utilize the chiaroscuro effect in order to invite the reader’s imagination in completing the arc. Again, finding the balance between what is a short short story and what is a vignette is an art form, and as much as we try to plot it and explain it, there are still the components that cannot be taught, but rather, the pieces each individual writer must discover within his or her own organic voice. How does a writer do this? Hours upon hours writing, writing again, revising, revising again, until days, months or years later, a short short story is born.


Short story = Exposition + Inciting Event + Rising Action + Conflict + Climax + Falling Action + Resolution + Denouement

A note on the denouement. This is important. The denouement, in modern literature, usually resides in the reader’s mind. Pre-modernist, many denouements were given on the page by the author; however, since the modernists, the author usually, arguably always in literary fiction, withholds the denouement so that the reader may imagine his or her own personal denouement and reaction to the resolution. This withholding of denouement is a technique that changed literature forever and gave its readers a more vested resonance within the narrative experience. A powerful technique and one I encourage you to always consider regardless of form or genre: novel, short story, short short story, lyric essay, etc.


The following pyramid, one you’ve likely seen repeatedly, illustrates what we consider to be a full narrative arc.




So why, you may be asking, if a novel or short story is so fully realized in detail, would someone read short short fiction? Simply put: intellectual and creative play. 

There are many answers to this question, but the one I like best is that a short short story, when written well, precisely, with brevity and virtuosity, is as resonant as a perfectly formed poem, but it is prosaic, accessible, less built on metaphor than a poem, though, perhaps more so than a short story. The narrative voice is accessible and it forms frame, mood and tone, characters and conflict, but it is doing something that a longer work does not do as well. Short Shorts allow the reader a great deal of imaginative and exploratory room within the narrative. For readers who like room to explore within a narrative, room to stretch intellect and imagination, short shorts can be a mental playground like no other prosaic form. As a writer of short shorts, the key is giving just the right amount of strategic and precise detail to form this playground for the reader. Just as a child will become bored with a playground too familiar and full of rusty old equipment, or be overwhelmed with too much equipment, so can the reader. Finding the perfect balance will let the reader play and create and then return for more because this form is less about writers showing their linguistic geniuses and more about writers who use their genius to provide structure and room for their readers to exercise their own creative intellects. 

If I still haven’t convinced you, consider this. Even if you are a diehard long form writer, and you simply thought you’d try this flash thing everyone is talking about, imagine how much richer and complete your chapters and scenes will be when you approach them as little works all their own, within the larger context of the overall narrative frame. Writing and practicing short short fiction will make you more aware of your scene and chapter work within the longer narrative.


Short Short Reading Assignments

Five Stories by Lydia Davis Conjunctions (1995)

“A Little Fable” by Franz Kafka (Above)


Writing Assignment

Now it’s your turn. Write a short short story (no more than 1000 words) that includes an element of magic realism and at least one poetry device studied in the prose poem section. You could use one of the optical illusions above as a prompt for creating a magic realism element within your story. (Remember, this is a first draft and is not expected to be perfect. You will have feedback on this draft for further revision during this semester.)

For instance, you might write a short short using the “two face” optical illusion. What would happen in a narrative where a character has only half a face? Perhaps, this character speaks in repetition, his attempt to recreate the half of him that is missing. Maybe the character has an adoration of Baudelaire.

Feel free to rewrite a work you’ve already started. For instance, you might have a novel draft with a particular section that you believe is intense and can be excerpted into its own short short story. Feel free to excerpt this section (staying within the 1000 word count), and add the additional magic realism and poetic elements. Voila! You’ve just started writing a “buzz worthy” and excerpted story you can submit as part of your upcoming novel promotions. (If you do take this route, please allow your excerpted short short to take its own direction. It’s okay for it to derivate from the original novel context and form. You can still market it as a “buzz worthy” excerpt of your novel

Insiders’ Information: When submitting novel excerpts to editors and journals, DO NOT tell them it’s an excerpt until after it has been accepted. Editors tend to groan when they read “excerpt of novel” in a submitter’s email. It gives editors an immediate impression that the work will not read as fully encapsulated, a short story, but rather a piece of a story. Unless an editor requests an excerpt specifically, let the excerpted work succeed on its own as a short story. If you’ve not already reformed the excerpt to function as a full short story arc then make sure you’ve done this before submitting. It is okay for excerpts of novels to be reformed into a short story arc. You can still call it an excerpt if the story is still predominantly related to the novel. After the excerpted short story is accepted, you can make mention of the novel in progress or novel soon to be published (if it is under contract) in your author bio.

Bring enough hardcopies to class for each student and Rae. 



  • DUE DATE: The following class session. DO NOT forget your hardcopies for class. Forgetting your hardcopies will create a serious problem and performance issues for you in class. 
  • COMMENTS: Use the below comments section as a “chat room.”
  • CONTACT: Please make sure to contact me directly with any questions regarding assignments and technology. rae@raebryant.com. The fastest way to reach me is by text at 301-514-2380. The below question/discussion area is  for student and lesson interaction. I won’t be checking it everyday.