Poetry is important to me. When readers ask about my background in writing, they are almost always curious about my education regarding writing. More often than not, readers aren’t surprised to hear I studied creative writing in college, but they are surprised when I clarify I spent most of my time studying poetry. In fact, my poetry professor was one of the most influential people on my life and writing. So, when poet Ann Howells queried me about the importance of the prose poem, I was estatic to share her piece today.
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The Prose Poem by Ann Howells
As a form, the prose poem tests boundaries. It upsets award givers: a singing pig or tap dancing chicken. It defies categories and exists for those fascinated by enigmas. When poetry subverts its dependence on the line of verse for identity it opens new possibilities. Once the amazement of even having a prose poem is past, the poem can be appreciated for its uniqueness and the way in it combines suggestiveness and completeness.
History—Prose poems go back to poetry’s beginnings. Neither the ancient Greeks nor the Anglo-Saxons required line breaks, nor did Old Testament parables which concentrated imagery, symbol and allusion much more than prose. Early traces also appear in the Chinese Fu form, a prose form that includes rhythm and meter. In Fu, word association allows the writer to leap from one word to another, referred to as riding on dragons. This same associative leap is common in prose poems. The poet explores an experience through metaphor, through multiple levels of consciousness, leaping from conscious to unconscious and maintaining a sense of surprise.
The modern day prose poetry began with Symbolists in France and Belgium in the 19th century. The first were by Baudelaire, who praised it, saying, 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. These prose poems are rich in suggestion and metaphor and tend to have strong lyrical qualities. Other French Symbolists who wrote in his form include Rimbaud, Mallarme, and Valery. From there the prose poem spread in all directions through all major languages of the planet.
It was slowest to catch on in the United States where the first prose poems were journal entries of Hawthorne and Thoreau and newspaper articles by Whitman (under a pseudonym) for the New York Leader (early 1860s). Later, his Specimen Days, built on those articles, became the first book of prose poems published in America. He called for poets to break down the barriers of form between poetry and prose. Few listened.
William Carlos Williams claimed that, while blank verse and free verse were perfect vehicles for English voices with different tones and patterns of stressed syllables, the rhythm and intonations of prose poems were in tune with speech patterns of everyday Americans—a vehicle made for their voices. And, in the first decades of the 20th century, a bunch of little journals began to publish prose poems. (One of these was Poetry.) Yet, critics were hostile. After the publication of Russell Edson’s The Very Thing That Happens in 1964, small journals again began publishing a few prose poems. Robert Alexander (a well-known contemporary prose poet) compares the controversy over the prose poem to the controversy over free verse at the turn of the century. Free verse has dominated for years in this country (though not necessarily elsewhere). It marginalizes the prose poem, as well as formal forms like sonnets and villanelles, even though many, including editors, still think it an inferior prose with no place at all among poetry. The proponents are the poets themselves. Even then, consider the brouhaha surrounding the Pulitzer Prize (1990) given to The World Doesn’t End, a book of prose poems by Charles Simic. It drew an avalanche of protest from poets and reviewers.
What exactly is a prose poem?— Prose poems (sometimes incorrectly called proems, which is not a literary term) are poetry contained in a prose format that utilizes all the devices of poetry except the line break. While the distinction between verse (a poem containing regular meter and formal attributes) and prose is clear, that between poetry (a highly organized, artistic genre that produces a discrete object d’art) and prose is obscure.
Prose poetry can be divided roughly, by subject, into seven categories:
- The object poem—about an ordinary object seen in a new way—like a mop or a shoe. These poems are usually quite short. See “Shoes” by Warren Lang.
- The surreal narrative—popular in the 1960s, these often presented a metaphysical conceit, yoking together unexpected elements. They have a dream-like quality. Read Russell Edson’s work; you’ll either love or hate it. Or see “Un Bruit Qui Court” by Maureen Gibbon.
- The straight narrative—different than prose in that they emphasize feeling rather than plot. See “Translations” by Michael Carey.
- The character poem—fleeting impressions rather than fleshed-out descriptions. See “How Grandma and Grandpa Met” by Michael Carey.
- The landscape or place poem—often arising from journal entries or letters. They tend to be more impression than physical description. See “Icebergs” by Roger K. Blakely.
- The meditative poem—self-descriptive, but tending to be metaphysical and abstract. See “My Name” by Jack Minezeski.
- The hyperbolic poem—consists almost entirely of verbal play. See “The Voyage of Self-Discovery” by Michael Benedikt.
Some volumes of prose poetry contain mainly poems written in prose style with regular punctuation and capitalization. Some have paragraphs to parallel the verse structure of lineated poetry, some are written as a single paragraph or verse with regular punctuation and capitalization and some as a single paragraph without any punctuation or capitalization. Some poets have pushed this even further by beginning the poem and sometimes ending it in the middle of a sentence. One rule of poetry has always been, begin in the middle, though perhaps not so conspicuously. It simply means to begin at the heart and eliminate introductory lines giving background or setting up the situation. This is even more so with prose poetry which captures a moment, facet or fleeting emotion. Also, without punctuation, one word can modify the meaning of both the phrase preceding it and the one following it. It works much the same as judicious line breaks which leave a word that belongs with the thought in the following line at the end of the previous line to color its meaning also.
What some poets have to say about Prose Poems:
It explores the ways a story and a poem can spring from the same source. An open and associative form to reach half buried thoughts. (Mark Vinz)
A poem is language presented as an art object—meant to be viewed as a work of art. Prose says: ‘Come listen. I alone have survived to tell this tale.’ But a poem entices us. ‘Come listen. No one else can tell this tale as artfully as I.’ (Robert Alexander)
Prose poems distill and mimic prose. They offer ‘life histories reduced to paragraphs, essays the size of postcards, novels in nutshells, maps on postage stamps, mind-bending laundry lists, theologies scribbled on napkins.’ (David Young)
While poetic prose may use some rhetorical and poetic devices and elements of aesthetic texture (sound, rhythm, imagery, etc.), it does not do so as consistently or as intensely as the prose poem because it is intended to be prose. The prose poem depends upon all the devices of poetry except line break, with no single element being essential. It uses heightened language; metaphorical expression; musical form; structural repetitiveness; prosodic features like meter, alliteration, etc.; and brevity. It has a great deal of internal movement in the rhythm and syntax that replaces the tension otherwise created by contrived line endings, (though in a prose poem the phrase is the smallest unit of rhythm, rather than the syllable or foot of lined poetry). Prose poems often give more significance to the final lines than other poems, which helps add closure. Sometimes merely that can turn a journal entry into a prose poem, i.e. an observation followed by a line or two that adds universality. Voice dominates. Prose poems are trickier to bring off successfully than lineated poems.
Ann Howells’s poetry appears in Borderlands, Concho River Review, Crannog (Ire), RiverSedge, Rockhurst Review, San Pedro River Review and Spillway among others. She serves on the board of Dallas Poets Community, 501-c-3 non-profit, and has edited Illya’s Honey Literary Journal, since 1999, recently taking it digital (www.IllyasHoney.com) and taking on a co-editor with whom she alternates issues. Her chapbooks are, Black Crow in Flight, (Main Street Rag Publishing, 2007) and the Rosebud Diaries (Willet Press, 2012). She has been read on NPR, interviewed on Writers Around Annapolis television, and been four times nominated for a Pushcart, twice in 2014.
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