The Poet’s Revolt: A Brief Guide to the Prose Poem

by Danielle Mitchell
published in Writing

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, here’s a closer look at a special form of poem that can be useful for poets and prose writers. A prose poem is a poem written in sentences. It appears as a block of text without line breaks. You could think of a prose poem as a bowl or a box with poetry inside. Despite the look of the prose poem its ultimate goal is to retain its poetic qualities.

Prose poems first appeared in 19th Century France as an act of rebellion. Poets like Charles Baudelaire and Aloysius Bertrand wanted to protest the predominance of the Alexandrine metered line and the typical content that followed it. Breaking out of metered form, they wrote in a block of text that resembled prose, but behaved like poetry.

Over the past hundred or so years, the prose poem has been used as an alternative to lineate verse by poets like Charles Simic and Lyn Hejinian. While the basic definition of a prose poem remains the same, poets have used this form to mine a special territory between prose writing and poetry. Prose poems belong to neither side. As Charles Simic famously said, “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.” This could be because the prose poem incorporates the best of prose and poetry. As its creators intended, the prose poem is the ultimate act of rebellion.

In the time I’ve spent reading about and studying the prose poem I’ve come across a multitude of definitions for it, each as contradictory and eloquent as the prose poems themselves. Here are a few of my favorites.

A prose poem is not:

  • a failed verse poem
  • lackadaisical
  • a short-short story
  • a consolation prize
  • from a poet who is questioning their genre-orientation
  • a bagel

A prose poem is:

  • a small justified block of text wherein “weird shit happens”
  • a jazz solo
  • a poem in a box
  • capacious and interior
  • a paradox
  • born out of annoyance
  • a revolt
  • a nonsense
  • an opportunity for something different
  • miles and miles and miles

From its rebellious roots to now, the prose poem has been loved by writers like Walt Whitman and Franz Kafka, Naomi Shihab Nye and Anne Carson. It is constantly re-imagining itself. Russell Edson said, “A good prose poem is a statement that seeks sanity whilst its author teeters on the edge of the abyss.” If that’s not a good enough reason to try to write one, I don’t know what is!

There is no definitive teaching on the prose poem, but there are several sources that have helped me learn. Books on craft and essay collections are one great resource. The Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice is a favorite of mine because like any good mix tape it incorporates different rhythms and moods from unique voices. Each essay is written by a poet sampling his or her experience with the form and providing two original poems.

Another resource for prose poems is the poems themselves. I’ve learned from example by reading, questioning, and admiring the poems of others. Though it is hard to categorize things with such ferocity as prose poems, here are a few different kinds of prose poems that I’ve observed from by reading. I by no means wish to define or as Howard Nemerov would say “put an end to” these poems, but in examining how they’re made we might be better able to attempt to build one ourselves.

Kinds of prose poems

Postcard

A poem that captures a moment in time with a strong sense of place. As postcards often are, it is a short letter addressed to someone specific.

Example: Cecilia Woloch’s “Postcard to I. Kaminsky from a Dream at the Edge of the Sea

Factoid

A poem that incorporates at least one piece of factual information. It can be a scientific fact, or an emotional fact. A good factoid often has a weaving of information and image which rub against each other to create friction. Keep in mind it is as Mallarme said “the intersections, the crossing of the unexpected with the known” are what causes meaning and not just the facts on their own.

Example: David Ignatow’s “Information

This might be my favorite kind of prose poem. Here is one of my factoid poems:

Danielle Mitchell’s “Year of the Dig

Deadpan Narrative

Often a funny poem or poem in which funny things are happening, but it’s hard to tell if the speaker is really laughing. The deadpan narrative has story-like elements, but is also prone to leaps in time and reason, as well as sarcastic realizations.

Example: Daniel Romo’s “Attention

Surreal Narrative

The surreal narrative, as I like to call it, is especially amiable when caged in the prose poem and no one really knows why. Going back to that definition of the prose poem as a block of text where “weird shit happens,” it just somehow works. Surrealism is meant to produce the function of thought, outside of reason and outside of precaution. It just goes and goes and arrives at a shopping mall surrounded by wild goats.

Example: Zachary Schomburg’s “The Fire Cycle

A prose poem defies the nature of formal poetry. Instead of being restrictive, the prose poem is permissive. Perhaps Arielle Goldberg summed it best when she wrote, “Prose poems, for me, are the best of many worlds. They are…solid blocks of text—dependable, accessible-looking little bricks—in which I am set free to be as fanciful as I like: My prose poems tend to be the ones that most heavily rely on folktale and dream imagery…They give me permission to be narrative or autobiographical…non-narrative and inventive. They let me make poems that look like traditional prose, and they let me make poems with weird margins and blanks and other assorted surface oddities. They allow me to tell lies, to be abrupt, to be glib, to be wholly sincere.”

Writing Exercise

Write a postcard. As I suggested earlier, a postcard is a prose poem that captures 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. As a letter would be, the postcard is addressed to another person, or features another person. The postcard poem is of the image on the front of the card as well as the note on the back; it is of the sender and recipient. It is a remnant of time.

To start, imagine the first postcard you ever received. You were probably quite young. What was the image on the front of the postcard? Who was it from? Why was it sent?

If you can’t remember the first postcard you ever received, remember that the prose poem is an invitation to experiment and that Arielle Goldberg has already given you the permission to lie!

Remember that a prose poem doesn’t have line breaks, but it does have the qualities of a poem: Image, emotional tension, sound, use of the senses, a good handle of syntax and diction, and so on. Variations in rhythm can be made by sentences and sentence fragments. The sentence helps moderate speed in a prose poem, think of it as your “gait.”

Good luck!

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photo-11-3-e1383542140611Danielle Mitchell graduated cum laude from the University of Redlands with a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing in 2008 and now lives in Long Beach, California. She is featured in the book Pop Art: Anthology of Southern California Poetry and her prose poems have recently appeared in Connotation Press, Cease, Cows, Four Chambers Press, & the East Jasmine Review. In 2013, Danielle founded The Poetry Lab, a monthly writing group that builds community among writers through workshops, readings, craft seminars, and networking events. She is currently completing work on a full length collection of prose poems, catch up with her at poetryofdanielle.com

  • Rebecca Ann Jordan

    Yes!

    I don’t always write poetry, but when I do, I write prose poetry.

    Thanks so much for reminding me to write more poetry like this, and illuminating the elusive prose poem.

  • Thanks, Becca! It’s even helpful for me, putting these thoughts down on paper. I wrote a new postcard yesterday!

  • Nice read.

  • William Wittmann

    Thanks Danielle. I appreciate this. I’m venturing on a book of exactly-50-word stories. I would love to make some of them prose poems.

  • Nazar Kazmi

    I think, ” A man or woman who could not write poetry , he or she presents prose poems as it is very easy way to express his/her feelings and sentiments but he or she has full command over poetry, he or she never likes to write prose poem. Do you agree?” Regards.

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