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
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)
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
A scientist has a test tube full of sheep. He
wonders if he should try to shrink a pasture
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
He puts them under a microscope, and falls asleep
counting them . . .
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 NO ONE WAS WATCHING
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