Monday, 12 January 2009

Prose poems

What are Prose Poems? Purple prose? Vignettes? Free verse without line-breaks? Flash Fiction? Whatever, they're staging a mini-comeback lately. Layout serves several purposes in poetry. Sometimes it merely echoes the sonic organisation (as in sonnets); sometimes (as in shape poems) the appearance has a meaning for the eye but not the ear; sometimes words are in a 2-dimensional arrangement (the white space speaks); and sometimes the text is a script for performance, the line-breaks showing where to breathe. Line-breaks are sometimes added as "speed bumps" in the hope that by slowing down reading the text will be taken more seriously, but readers can - and should - call the text's bluff if they think they're being hoaxed. With prose-poetry the appearance isn't significant, and punctuation guides the reader's breathing and rhythm.

Although dozens of French writers experimented with them in the 1700s, it was not until Baudelaire's work appeared in 1855 that prose poems gained wide recognition. Rimbaud's book of prose poetry "Illuminations", published in 1886, is one of the best examples. In the Decadent and Symbolist atmosphere of the nineteenth century fin de siècle when all things French were of interest in sophisticated circles, some English writers took up this new French form. Oscar Wilde's own "Poems in Prose" was published in 1894.

Baudelaire predicted that it would be the dominant poetic form of the 20th century. Later, Robert Bly thought that as we complete our graduation from an aristocratic to a democratic society, the sentence will surely replace the line as poetry's primary unit. "We are all secretly longing for prose", he claimed. However, in the UK/US the form faded away. Some critics claim this was because it became associated with decadence and homosexuality. Others have suggested that free verse was so free that it made prose poetry unnecessary. Ron Silliman feels that instead of being a genre with open borders (to vispo, conceptual poetry, etc), the US prose-poem in the mid-1900s was typified by "little prose vignettes with a vaguely surreal air". Then in the 1970s Scalapino, Ashbery, Creeley, et al "challenged the borders first with fiction & then with the journal or diary".

Since the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to Simic's 1989 book of prose poems, "The World Doesn't End", the number of prose poem collections published has increased again. For most of its history, the prose poem has been associated primarily with experimentalists but now it's making its way into the mainstream. It's not unusual nowadays to see a prose poem in collections. Sometimes mainstream poets write a whole book of prose poems. Here's an extract from a recent review

"High Water Mark: Prose Poems" reads like the work of a conversational free-verse poet who has decided that line breaks are a needless vestigial reflex. His funny, tender little allegories are how Carl Dennis or Billy Collins might write if the Return keys fell off their laptops

What did the reviewer mean by "vestigial reflex"? The lines of a sonnet are roughly the same length because they have roughly the same number of syllables. Stanzas of terza rima have the same number of lines because that's the form. So we've become used to seeing poetry delivered in boxes of text. But why should free verse try to copy the appearance of verse when there's no underlying formal reason?

Once a reaction to Hallmark-style love/dove doggerel, line-breaks have now become an unchallenged convention - easy to use and overuse. Woe betide you if you put an unnecessary adverb in, but you can litter a poem with junk line-breaks and people won't care. No wonder that poets scatter so many around - there's nothing to lose, and a chance that readers will sense extra meaning and

There are signs that people are bothering about line-breaks again. A recent judge's report that I read demoted a poem because of its gratuitous line-breaks. And there's renewed interest in formal verse. People used to complain that doggerel wasn't "poetic", that the only reason to call it poetry was that it rhymed. Nowadays there's too much free verse that's only poetry because it has line-breaks. Be brave. Take off your line-breaks. If what's left isn't poetic, there's a fair chance that it wasn't poetic in the first place.

Note however, that many people still view prose poems with suspicion. For example, in "The Origins of Free verse" (published 1996), H.T. Kirby-Smith says "If lack of ability safely disguises itself for a time in bad free verse, the ultimate refuge of bankrupt talent is the prose poem". He also thinks "It is unlikely that a well-established canon of prose poetry will ever be established [because] ... the common reader has not yet found it to be a memorable genre".


Some outlets are resistant to prose poems so poets tend to disguise their prose poetry. Often one sees free verse where the line-breaks seem designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, breaking only at punctuation. This is the start of David Hart's poem which came 2nd in the UK's 2002 National Poetry Competition

Then in the twentieth century they invented transparent adhesive tape,
the first record played on Radio 1 was Flowers In The Rain by the Move,
and whereas ink had previously been in pots, now it was in cartridges.

This is as close to a prose format as "free verse" can be. Recently "New Writing" anthologies published by the British Council have a section entitled "Texts" alongside "Poems" and "Stories" - a good idea. The Prose Poem: An International Journal is a specialist magazine, as is Paragraph. Several magazines accept online submission of Flash - see Submission Guidelines



  • "The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre" by Michel Delville
  • "Models of the Universe: An Anthology of the Prose Poem" by Stuart Friebert
  • "Great American Prose Poems : From Poe to the Present" by David Lehman
  • "The Party Train: A Collection of North American Prose Poetry" by Robert Alexander
  • "A Tradition of Subversion: The Prose Poem in English from Wilde to Ashbery" by Marguerite Murphy. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.
  • "Poet's Prose" by Stephen Fredman, Cambridge University Press, 1991
  • "The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry" by Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek, Rose Metal Press, 2010


Many are online. Here's one about "Mona Lisa" by Pater

She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands.

This was written as part of an essay. William Yeats included it in a poetry anthology, adding line-breaks!

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