Mole Valley Poets, January 2009: Prose Poetry

What is prose poetry?

The prose poem is characterized by its lack of line breaks. With a resemblance to a short piece of prose, it has an allegiance to poetry in the use of rhythms, figures of speech, rhyme, internal rhyme, assonance, consonance and images.

Prose poetry is a genre of poetry, self-consciously written in prose, and characterized by the intense use of virtually all the devices of poetry, which includes the intense use of devices of verse, except for the line break. Special characteristics include: its attention to the unconscious, and to its particular logic; an accelerated use of colloquial and everyday speech patterns; a visionary thrust; a reliance on humour and wit; and an enlightened doubtfulness, or hopeful scepticism (From Michael Benedikt)

The prose poem focuses on one particular thing (object or subject) from a variety of angles; compass-like, it does not stray from whatever it decides upon from the outset, so the end result is a dense and thought-provoking 'story', often of an ordinary object, image or line of speech. Every word, sound and image serves the central focus with complete fidelity, and the prose poem as a result reads either like an intimate conversation between two people, or between the poet and the subject or object. (From Jane Monson review of Inventory by Linda Black)

Mind me. I am the keeper of cracks, the server of thin air. I note how the dust sits, how breath creases, folds inwards. I log the spaces, the bounty of nothing.... I heed where a lip leaves its mark, a footprint crosses an empty table, a hollow where a head once lay and then I wipe it away. Dents do not escape me, nor welts, straps, ridges. I record it all. Punctiliously, for all my wayward ways. Linda Black, 2008

Poems may have relatively many line breaks or relatively few line breaks - or, in the case of some poems, no line breaks at all. (Sarah Manguso)

Opinions and arguments about prose poetry

And so, blockhead, what were you saying about rules? Are there actually do's and don'ts for writing prose poems? Or even more aggressively: Is there even such a genre as prose poetry?
... no such genre as prose poetry. Furthermore ... even if there is such a genre called prose poetry, it still isn't real poetry. "That's why we call it prose poetry," I responded, arguing that he wouldn't criticize a sonnet for not being a villanelle ... (Peter Johnson)

Writing a prose poem is a bit like trying to catch a fly in a dark room. The fly probably isn't even there, the fly is inside your head, still, you keep tripping over and bumping into things in hot pursuit. The prose poem is a burst of language following a collision with a large piece of furniture. ... an impossible amalgamation of lyric poetry, anecdote, fairy tale, allegory, joke, journal entry, and many other kinds of prose. Prose poems are the culinary equivalent of peasant dishes, like paella and gumbo, which bring together a great variety of ingredients and flavors, and which in the end, thanks to the art of the cook, somehow blend. Except, the parallel is not exact. Prose poetry does not follow a recipe. The dishes it concocts are unpredictable and often vary from poem to poem. (Charles Simic)

The city had fallen. We came to the window of a house drawn by a madman. The setting sun shone on a few abandoned machines of futility. "I remember," someone said, "how in ancient times one could turn a wolf into a human and then lecture it to one's heart's content". Charles Simic

The history and geography of prose poetry

Early poetry, such Homer's Iliad and the Odyssey, lacked conventional line breaks for the simple fact that these works were not written down for hundreds of years, instead being passed along (and presumably embellished) in the oral tradition. Once poetry began to be written down, poets began to consider line breaks as another important element to the art. With the exception of slight pauses and inherent rhyme schemes, it's very hard for a listener of poetry to tell where a line actually breaks.

The first prose poems appeared in France during the 18th Century as writers turned to prose in reaction to the strict rules of versification by the Academy. Aloysius Bertrand, published Gaspard de la nuit in 1842, is considered the father of the prose poem as a deliberate form. With Baudelaire (1855) the prose poem gained wide recognition.

"Which one of us, in his moments of ambition, has not dreamed of a miracle of poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience?" (Charles Baudelaire)

The Port
A Port is a delightful place of rest for a soul weary of life's battles. The vastness of the sky, the mobile architecture of the clouds, the changing coloration of the sea, the twinkling of the lights, are a prism marvellously fit to amuse the eyes without ever tiring them. The slender shapes of the ships with their complicated rigging, to which the surge lends harmonious oscillations, serve to sustain within the soul the taste for rhythm and beauty. Also, and above all, for the man who of mysterious and aristocratic pleasure in contemplating, while lying on the belvedere or resting his elbows on the jetty-head, all these movements of men who are leaving and men who are returning, of those who still have the strength to will, the desire to travel or to enrich themselves. Charles Baudelaire

Rimbaus's (1886) book of prose poetry Illuminations, stands as his greatest work, and among the best examples of the prose poem. The genre which began in France reached around the world to include poets from South America such as Pablo Neruda and Borges, from Russia, the poet, Turgeynev, Italy has Marinetti, and Denmark, J.B. Jacobsen. Additional practitioners of the prose poem (or a close relative) include Edgar Allen Poe, Max Jacob, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Amy Lowell, Gertrude Stein & T.S. Eliot.

Colored hats are necessary to show that curls are worn by an addition of blank spaces, this makes the difference between single lines and broad stomachs, the least thing is lightening, the least thing means a little flower and a big delay a big delay that makes more nurses than little women really little women. So clean is a light that nearly all of it shows pearls and little ways. A large hat is tall and me and all custard whole. From Gertrude Stein Tender Buttons

Contemporary practitioners of prose poetry

All roads lead, but how does a sentence do it? Nothing seems hidden, but it goes by so fast when I should like to see it laid open to view whether the engine resembles combustion so that form becomes its own explanation. We've been taught to apply solar principles, but must find on our own where to look for Rome the way words rally to the blanks between them and thus augment the volume of their resonance.

Excerpt from Lawn of Excluded Middle by Rosmarie Waldrop was originally published in 1993 by Tender Buttons books, edited and published by Lee Ann Brown
Counting sheep
  A scientist has a test tube full of sheep. He
wonders if he should try to shrink a pasture
for them.
  They are like grains of rice.
  He wonders if it is possible to shrink something
out of existence.
  He wonders if the sheep are aware of their tininess,
if they have any sense of scale. Perhaps they think
the test tube is a glass barn ...
  He wonders what he should do with them; they
certainly have less meat and wool than ordinary
sheep. Has he reduced their commercial value?
  He wonders if they could be used as a substitute
for rice, a sort of wolly rice . . .
  He wonders if he shouldn't rub them into a red paste
between his fingers.
  He wonders if they are breeding, or if any of them
have died.
He puts them under a microscope, and falls asleep
counting them . . .

Russell Edson
A sparrow has found a crust and a crow is after it, harrying the smaller bird which dodges neatly, until the larger bird gives up or appears to, perching on a branch, pretending it doesn't care, far enough away to hope to persuade the sparrow to relax but still near enough to pounce, while the sparrow takes its time, enjoying the crust, fluffing its feathers, flicking its tail, making a show, also pretending, as if the crow weren't there.
It's a stubborn beast, crouches, shows a yellow tooth, won't be hurried, shies at sudden approach, poking with a stick is no good, a titbit in front of its nose may help, other ploys but it's mostly patience, expectation, sometimes pretending to turn your back, for the mind has its own necessities, and above all: will start when it's ready. Gael Turnbull 1997
Stephen Sundin 1998

A boy found an abalone shell on the beach, its soft insides washed away by the sea. He put it on his dresser, where it grew heavy with pennies and baseball cards, a small flashlight, and a knife he cleaned fish with. Once, he was sent home from school to wash the fish oil from his hands. Raindrops trembled like cells on his windowpane. He pulled the covers over his head, making a lighted cave, shining his flashlight to find the mother-of-pearl in his skin. He saw a woman swim against the sunset, heard the slap of water. Her salty breast against his tongue, she cried like a gull.
Cal Kinnear 1998

When she thought no one was watching she sat at the kitchen table staring into her hands as if they held an enigmatic and prophetic constellation of black tea leaves. That was when the other women came to commiserate. Not the ones in the pastel frocks with the voices of caged birds, who perched on the edge of their seats and sipped milky coffee from bone china cups. The dim colorless ones who thickened the air like a mist and hovered with the stillness of curtains, whose faces were eroded from the endlessness of grief and whose only names were the names of loss. She was ashamed of them. She hid them among the dust rags in the closet and in the cardboard carton by the washtub reserved for worn-out clothes. They were the secret companions of the life she never led.

Sources used in this paper
Benedikt, Michael. The Prose Poem: An International Anthology. New York: Dell, 1976. Bly, Robert. Selected Poems. New York: Harper Collins, 1986.
Johnson, Peter. "Introduction." The Prose Poem: An International Journal. Vol. 1. Providence: Providence College Press, 1992. (see also )
Simic, Charles. "The Poetry of Village Idiots." Verse, Vol. 13, No. 1. (1996): 7-8.
Simic, Charles "A Long Course in Miracles." In Peter Johnson. Pretty Happy! Fredonia: White Pine Press, 1997: 15-17.


Linda Black is an artist and poet who lives in London. She won the 2006 New Writing Ventures Poetry Award, and has a pamphlet titled the beating of wings (Hearing Eye, London, 2006). Her first collection, Inventory was published by Shearsman Books in 2008.
Sarah Manguso is the author of two poetry collections: The Captain Lands in Paradise (2002) and the forthcoming Siste Viator (2006). She teaches in the MFA program at the New School and lives in Brooklyn.
Charles Simic was born on May 9, 1938, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. His first poems were published in 1959, after his family had immigrated to the United States, and he has since published more than sixty books in the U.S. and abroad. He is a past recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the MacArthur Fellowship.
Rosmarie Waldrop (born August 24, 1935) is a contemporary American poet, translator and publisher. Born in Germany, she has lived in the United States since 1958. Waldrop is Coeditor and Publisher of Burning Deck Press, as well as the author or coauthor (as of 2006) of 17 books of poetry, two novels, and three books of criticism.

The Prose Poem: An International Journal

Marilyn Hammick Jan 2009 for Mole Valley Poets