In recent weeks, we’ve been backing and filling on topics in the area of the sound and sonority of the language, including a couple ideas, neologism and tumbling verse, which we hope encouraged you to think about sonority and rhythm in new ways. Another way of sharpening your acuity on such considerations is to deprive yourself of the benefit of line breaks. When you do that, you end up with a
Seemingly a contradiction in terms, the phrase may refer to
- a passage, usually short, of non-discursive* prose, the poetic quality of which is self-evident, or to
- a long work, which, although printed as prose, because of the prominence of the rhythms, the rich connotations of the language, the scope and significance of the whole, can properly be called a poem.**
Babette Deutsch, Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms [NY, NY: HarperResource 2002 reprint].
*i.e. not didactic, not arguing a point from logic and reason, as an essay
**Examples of type #2 include James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and E.A. Poe’s “Eleanora.” We are going to ignore definition #2 for obvious reasons and focus on definition #1.
Here’s another, quite beautiful, definition of prose poem:
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.*
“Poetic Form: Prose Poem” from poets.org
*That is to say, internal rhyme. I would also add: alliteration and metaphor.
Here are some examples:
Being Beauteous (Illuminations #VI)
By Arthur Rimbaud
Against the snowfall, a tall Being of Beauty. Whistling of death and the circling of faint music make this adored body rise, expand and quiver like a spectre; wounds of scarlet and black burst from superb flesh. The colours proper to life deepen, dance and detach themselves around this Vision in the making. Shudders rise and groan and the frenetic flavour of these effects fills with that mortal whistling and raucous music that the world, far behind, hurls at our mother of beauty – she recoils, she rears. Oh, our bones are clothed with a new amorous body! Oh, the ashen face; the escutcheon of horsehair, the crystal arms! The cannon I must assault through the melee of trees and the weightless air!
Mystery and Solitude in Topeka
By Mark Strand
This is the first of a set of five Strand prose poems which appeared in Poetry Magazine, January 2011. I urge you to follow the link and read all five.
By James Tate
Jesus got up one day a little later than usual. He had been dreaming so deep there was nothing left in his head. What was it? A nightmare, dead bodies walking all around him, eyes rolled back, skin falling off. But he wasn’t afraid of that. It was a beautiful day. How ’bout some coffee? Don’t mind if I do. Take a little ride on my donkey, I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody.
© 1979 James Tate
The prolific and accessible Robert Bly has written several volumes of prose poems. Here is one: A Caterpillar on the Desk . His volume of collected prose poems is entitled What Have I Ever Lost by Dying? [NY, NY: HarperCollins, 1992]
Finally, I found the aforementioned The Best of the Prose Poem: An International Journal on line, so there is yet another rich source of examples.
Read the examples–not just the ones typed here. Follow the links to the additional examples as well.
Write a prose poem. Keep it to drabble length (~100 words.) Pay attention to the flow and the musicality of the language, using the devices of alliteration, internal rhyme, repetition, etc. Subject can be anything that strikes your fancy. Read the examples for inspiration.
Choose a poem you’ve already written. Delete all the line breaks, so it looks like one or more ordinary paragraphs. If it isn’t already, punctuate/capitalize it as one would ordinary prose, in normal sentence (or sentence fragment) structure. Is it still poetry?
If the answer is “no,” polish it into a prose poem, paying attention to
- compression and economy
- consistency of tone and sonority
- alliteration and assonance
- internal rhyme
- repetitive figures (e.g. in the Rimbaud above, “she recoils, she rears…”)
- replacing abstractions and vague generalities with concrete objects and images.
This is largely a reprint of my September 15, 2012 column for Gather.com with a few additions and modifications.
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© 2015 Douglas J. Westberg. All Rights Reserved. Please share, reblog, link to, but do not copy or alter.
Reblogged this on Irina's Poetry Corner and commented:
What a marvellous tutorial! Poets, come along, compose a Prose Poem!
Here’s my belated response:
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