Poetic Form: Prose Poem


September 21, 2004


Poetic Terms/Forms
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Though the name of the form may appear to be a contradiction, the prose poem essentially appears as prose, but reads like poetry. In the first issue of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, editor Peter Johnson explained, "Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels."

While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. The prose poem can range in length from a few lines to several pages long, and it may explore a limitless array of styles and subjects.

Though examples of prose passages in poetic texts can be found in early Bible translations and the Lyrical Ballads of William Wordsworth, the form is most often traced to nineteenth-century French symbolists writers. The advent of the form in the work of Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire marked a significant departure from the strict separation between the genres of prose and poetry at the time. A fine example of the form is Baudelaire's "Be Drunk," which concludes:

     And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green
     grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room,
     you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or
     gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the
     clock, everything that is flying, everything that is
     groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that
     is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what
     time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will
     answer you: "It is time to be drunk! So as not to be
     the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually
     drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish."

The form quickly spread to innovative literary circles in other coutries: Rainer Maria Rilke and Franz Kafka in Germany; Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz in Latin America; and William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein in the United States. Each group of writers adapted the form and developed their own rules and restrictions, ultimately expanding the definitions of the prose poem.

Among contemporary American writers, the form is widely popular and can be found in work by poets from a diverse range of movements and styles, including James Wright, Russell Edson, and Charles Simic. Campbell McGrath’s winding and descriptive "The Prose Poem" is a recent example of the form; it begins:

     On the map it is precise and rectilinear as a chessboard,
     though driving past you would hardly notice it, this
     boundary line or ragged margin, a shallow swale that
     cups a simple trickle of water, less rill than rivulet,
     more gully than dell, a tangled ditch grown up
     throughout with a fearsome assortment of wildflowers
     and bracken. There is no fence, though here and there
     a weathered post asserts a former claim, strands of
     fallen wire taken by the dust. To the left a cornfield
     carries into the distance, dips and rises to the blue
     sky, a rolling plain of green and healthy plants
     aligned in close order, row upon row upon row.

There are several anthologies devoted to the prose poem, including Traffic: New and Selected Prose Poems and Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present, as well as the study of the form in The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundries of Genre.

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