Prose Poety – The Ultimate Oxymoron?

Is there anything more oxymoronic than the term prose poem?

When I entered my MFA program in 2007, I was bombarded with prose poetry.  I felt fairly well read before I started the program given that I have been reading since I was three. I was even an English major as an undergrad. But somehow, even in a course titled “Modern Poetry,” I was never exposed to the prose poem.

Learning about prose poetry in my 30’s, however, was worth the wait.  I’m not even sure I would have appreciated the form when I was younger.  I would have said, what a lot of people still say, “That doesn’t look like a poem.”

There are so many definitions of what a prose poem is (you can see a very detailed entry with several defintions here) and, of course, there is always the ubiquitous Wikipedia article that has certainly replaced the time students used to spend flipping through heavy Encyclopedias in the library.

The definition I find most useful is paraphrased from Russell Edson “A prose poem is freed from the requirements of poetry and doesn’t have the constraints of fiction.” A prose poem, therefore equals Freedom.  Freedom is where, I believe, prose poetry began.  Leave it to the French to start a new revolution in poetry, to find that even free verse was not free enough, to inevitably create the prose poem in the 1800’s.

I will include quite a few links below for those of you who want to look (and I hope you will) more into the history of the prose poem and for examples of the form.

I am also including a prose poem that I wrote and a few topics for possible discussion in regards to the prose poem.  I hope you will join the conversation.

Here is one of my prose poems:

Family Night at the County Fair

Cotton candy like a pink dervish looms on the cone presented to me, by a hand that is pale like popcorn. Everyone is concave, wobbling while they walk the midway. Little girls in blue ribbons clutch the fingers of fathers in loosened ties. Big boys ride the spinning cars, catching their mother’s eyes as they whip by like the insides of cracked eggs. Whisked into dough boys. I take the Super Slide. The attendant calls, “Single Rider!” At the bottom, damp dark grass clips onto my bare shins. When I stand the pieces drop into the cuffs of my white socks. I can’t find the cotton candy cone but the sugar melted into red on my palm.

Commentary:

Now why did I make this a prose poem?  I tried it in lines in earlier versions but I wasn’t finding line breaks that worked well. The lines would become uneven and the flow of the poem wasn’t working when I tried to put it into lines. Once I moved the lines into “block” form, the logic of the poem became cleaner. I found myself moving from image to image rather than focusing on how the poem looked on the page.  I ended up, I feel, with a much stronger poem.

I have included an earlier draft of the poem below with de-lineation.  Perhaps before you read it you might want to print the poem above and/or mental try to make line breaks, just to see what you come up with.

Here is an earlier version of the poem with lines. Try reading each version out loud and, I hope, you will see the difference in how the poem flows.

County Fair

Cotton candy like a pink dervish
looms on the cone presented to me
by a hand that is pale like popcorn.

Everyone is concave, wobbling
while they walk the midway.
Little girls in blue ribbons
clutch the fingers of fathers
in loosened ties.
Big boys ride the spinning
cars catching their mother’s eyes
as they whip by like whisked eggs,
whisked into dough boys.

I prepare to slide, the attendant calls,
“Single Rider!” I ride my potato
sack down, unable to gauge success
with no one to race.

At the bottom, damp dark grass clips
onto my bare shins and when I stand
the pieces drop into the cuffs of my white socks.

The candy in my hand has melted
into red on my palm
as the sky above grays into black.

Here are some general notes about prose poetry that I have collected and which I hope will start some conversation:

  • Line break is the easiest way to define the difference
  • What happens when there are no constraints?
  • More reliance in prose poetry on contrast because there are no line breaks
  • More stream of consciousness
  • Stanza in Italian means little room – what do you think of with a prose poem essentially looking like a single stanza? A little room? A paragraph.
  • Poetry is the sound of language into lines. Prose is language into sentences. This minor difference meant that the prose poem had to be invented (my notes from lecture given by James Logenbach at Warren Wilson MFA program)
  • Prose poetry must hold our attention with syntax and diction without the assistance (necessarily) of the line, rhyme etc
  • By creating prose poetry we need to understand what we are generating, why we are writing in that form, as well as what we are rejecting by writing in it.
  • Poetry develops its own system. Its own logic. That is how you develop form. Form should inform the subject matter.
  • A good prose poem is working if you feel it is poetry.
  • The idea of folding back, in prose poetry, in order to move forward.
  • Want to stir the waters some more? How about Flash Fiction?

Additional Links

Sentence Magazine

The Prose Poem: An International Journal

An ongoing discussion with history, bibliography etc

Anthology: Great American Prose Poems

No Boundaries: Prose Poems by 24 American Poets, Edited by Ray Gonzalez

The World Doesn’t End by Charles Simic

The Death of the Poem by Justin Courter

New Zealand Poet Vivian Plumb reads her Prose Poems

Ron Silliman reads from “The Alphabet”

Jessie Carty is the Editor of Shape of a Box, YouTube’s First Literary Magazine. Her poems have appeared in publications such as MARGIE, Iodine Poetry Journal and The Northville Review. Her non-fiction works have appeared in publications such as The Main Street Rag and TheExaminer.com. She received her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. Her first chapbook “At the A & P Meridiem” was released by Puddinghouse Publications in 2009. She can find her lurking on the web, but mostly at her BLOG

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