When texts are short, the poetry and prose categories can merge. So why bother trying to categorize? Once people other than the author are involved, there are several reasons - e.g.
- Editors of anthologies and specialist magazines need to draw a line somewhere
- Writers submitting to certain magazines need to specify whether their submission is poetry or prose. What type of work does the author want the submission to be printed amongst? Magazines often demarcate, though Arts Council "New Writing" anthologies sometimes had a "Texts" section for unclassified works, and "The New Yorker" used to have "Casuals" and "Shouts and Murmers".
- Readers may benefit from knowing which reading strategies to initially adopt, and which expectations to develop.
The classifications are more fine-grained than just "Prose" and "Poetry". There are Haibun (combining prose and haiku), anecdotes, vignettes, contes, short-shorts, microfiction, Flash, ketai fiction, Twitter lit, prose poems, found poems, etc. The existence of line-breaks usually suffices as a marker of poetry, though some free verse, shorn of its line-breaks, might easily fit into these prose categories. Some forms are defined by word-count. For some others, definitions abound. Here are a few -
- Flash - The Bridport Prize's web site suggests that Flash "contains the classic story elements: protagonist, conflict, obstacles or complications and resolution. However unlike the case with a traditional short story, the word length often forces some of these elements to remain unwritten: hinted at or implied in the written storyline". They impose a 250-word limit.
- Prose poetry - In "This Line Is Not For Turning", a prose poetry anthology she edited, Jane Monson provides a description of the prose-poem "at its most disciplined" - "no more than a page, preferably half of one, focussed, dense, justified, with an intuitive grasp of a good story and narrative, a keen eye for unusual and surprising detail and images relative to that story, and a sharp ear for delivering elegant, witty, clear and subtly surreal pieces of conversation and brief occurrences, incidents or happenings". She goes on to write that her anthology "focuses and captures a particular style; which shares in tone, pithiness and brevity the best traits of 'flash fiction', 'micro fiction', 'sudden prose', and the 'short short story' rather than the strengths and weaknesses of 'free verse', 'blank verse' and 'poetic prose'"
- Prose poetry - In Summer 2012's "Poetry Review", Carrie Etter wrote "While some poets and critics insist that we must resist defining prose poetry for it to retain its subversive genre-blurring character, I find some basic distinctions crucial for its appreciation ... a prose poem develops without 'going' anywhere"
Magazines like Sudden Prose ("Prose Poetry and Short-Short Stories) and Double Room (seeks to "explore the intersection of poetry and fiction") seem to accept the overlap. The 2 denominations occupy similar terrains though they have different histories and look in different directions. Calling a piece a prose poem is still making a statement -
- "Prose Poetry is some of the funniest—and strangest—writing you’ll find anywhere. It lends itself to the comic, and the absurd. Maybe humor is easier to convey in a sentence than in a line break. … Flash Fiction is something else, as it’s about character (and change), and it’s therefore more difficult to pull off in such a short space" - Brett at Bark.
- "Flash fiction focuses on story (whether that be character or plot or place or time). Prose poetry focuses on image and/or emotion" - Chris (Bellingham Review)
- "In spite of the prose poem’s history of breaking rules and redefining itself ..." - Bruce Holland Rogers (flash fiction online).
I think the current short-text literary arena is currently dominated by 3 overlapping terms
- Poetry - the dominant term; so much so that in the late 1900s a short text had to be made into a poem to have much of a chance of publication. In the age of relaxed free verse, inserting regular line-breaks often sufficed to create a "poem". A text labelled as such carries some of the weight traditionally associated with the term, and is most likely to be read beside other poetry. It needn't have plot or character, nor need it be written in sentences, though it frequently has all of these properties.
- Flash Fiction - a fairly recent and popular term for a cluster of genres that have been around for a long time. Derived from the short story, it's expected to have plot and character (though the proportions may vary), and is likely to be read beside other (perhaps much longer) fiction. Venues now exist for such work - in dedicated magazines, but also magazines in general are more likely to accept short texts nowadays. Specialist outlets impose word-count limits (from 250 to 1000 words).
- Prose poetry - Initially a rebellion against the rhyme/meter of Formalism, then later a challenge to the one remaining obvious feature of poetry - the line-break. Shorn of its rebel image, it retains its feel of being different - though examples appear in many collections and magazines, there are rarely more than 2 or 3 examples per publication. It's likely to appear beside other poetry. Sometimes the only prose-like feature it possesses is the layout, but more often it's in sentences, and can (or even should, according to some practitioners) have narrative impetus.
The popularity and increasing acceptance of Flash (and to a lesser extent of prose poetry) should mean that fewer texts have gratuitous line-breaks nowadays, but understandably, progress is slow. Re-classification of texts previously published as poetry would help change the climate. When creating his poetry anthology, Yeats used a fragment of Pater's prose. Even pieces as long as Carolyn Forché's "The Colonel" have appeared in both poetry and Flash anthologies. In Monson's prose poetry anthology, someone contributed part of their novel. I think the distinctions between micro-fiction and prose-poetry are rather in the eye of the beholder, and the prose-poetry/free-verse distinction can be merely the result of typing habits or previous adaptions for markets.
Given these fuzzy theoretic definitions and the fluidity of the market, it's tempting for writers to add/remove line-breaks, add/remove punchlines, or add/remove connections in order to make a text more appealing to particular outlets. For some styles (those using surrealism, perhaps) I don't think any artistic integrity is lost by doing this. Given the variation in word-count limits it's also worth having more than one version of stories. When texts are adapted, more genre decision might be necessary. When line-breaks are removed from poetry, one of two effects are likely -
- More narrative might be added (i.e. more prose features added)
- The text might appear rather flat, so to compensate the content may become more surreal/imagistic, less linear (i.e. more poetry features added).
When shortening prose, several things can happen. The result might be
- A sketch - same proportions as a story
- A slice (just the sounds, maybe, or a moment in time without back-story)
- A fable (a genre that allows omissions)
- Selected extracts - an interesting set-up followed quickly by a punchline rather than by character development.
- A prose form - a shopping list, an application form, a questionnaire, etc.
- More obscurity (on the grounds that readers can re-read)
- More intensity or extremes
I think that a piece in a form is often printed in poetry sections of magazines even if its content isn't poetic - "forms" and "short texts" both tend to be associated with poetry. So shortened prose can end up in a poetry venue.
The distinction between short and long texts is challenged by series. In Time Lines: few lines and fewer George Szirtes looks at Twitter, pointing out that Jennifer Egan's novella, Black Box is told all in tweets. Similarly, microfictions can be strung into a sequence.