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Monday, April 18, 2011

Asking the Prose Pros

So I've been trying for months and months to write a prose poem. Why? Because I like reading prose poems, and because I wanted to write something that felt as modern as the prose poem (though yes, the form goes back as far as the Bible, but still its resurgence makes it feel modern). And because I wanted to do something I'd never done. And so, a prose poem.

But every time I wrote a few lines of what was meant to be a prose poem, I would see a place a linebreak would add a double meaning or increase tension or serve some other function particular to the linebreak, and I would end up lineating what I was working on.

I felt about prose poems like that famous quote about pornography: I can't exactly say what it is, but I know it when I see it. Well, it turns out I was wrong. Because in desperation at failing once again at writing a prose poem, I decided to gather some information about them in order to focus my thinking.

Searching around online, here are a few things I read about prose poems that I ALREADY knew, but which are stated interestingly enough to catch my attention:

As quoted on the website, here is Peter Johnson's explanation of a prose poem (Johnson is editor of The Prose Poem: An International Journal), "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."

Here's what Robert Hass, in an interview with the Iowa Review, had to say: "I was working in these forms because they had a certain outwardness that verse didn’t have."

Anya Groner's review of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice edited by Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek on Bookslut contained the following paragraph:

The power of the prose poem, many of the contributors suggest, comes from the tension inherent to concision. Tung-Hui Hu comments that “Nothing stops a lyric poem from going on indefinitely… But a prose poem has to stop; too long and it turns into a short story.” As Carol Guess points out, in prose poetry “what’s unsaid matter as much as what’s said.”  It’s precisely the constraints of size that, like a reduction in cooking, produce the prose poem’s zany power, the pull between urgency and irreverence (Keplinger) or “the impulse to make meaning and the impulse to focus on sound alone, on letters as musical notation” (Guess). Writers need not choose between narrative and lyric. The sentence is the drum, and the subject matter is limitless, as long as it fits in the box. It’s like Pandora’s box, but in reverse.

Yes, yes, yes, I could recognize a prose poem. The problem was I couldn't write one. And then I came across something I DIDN'T already know in this almost prosaic description by J. Zimmerman at

Prose is the ordinary language that people use in speaking or writing. It does not treat the line as a formal unit. It has no repetitive pattern of rhythm or meter.
In a prose poem:

  • The writing is continuous and without line breaks.
  • The piece may be of any length and may be divided into paragraphs. A single sentence or sentence fragment can be a prose poem, as can multiple paragraphs.
  • The natural rhythm of thought can lead to rhythmical cadences in a prose poem.
  • Internal rhyme and alliteration and repetition can be used. Some such trait of poetry must be present. Otherwise it is prose, not a prose poem.
  • It lies between free verse and prose.
  • Usually has compressed thought and intensity.

Wait a minute, what is the 2nd bullet point? A prose poem can be divided into paragraphs? It doesn't have to be a single Russell Edson-style block? But I've written four or five of those. Pieces that started out as poems but in which it became clear linebreaks added nothing, despite the poetic devices otherwise used. Short paragraphs of 2 or 3 lines each, which organically wrapped around at the end of the line to the next line, so that stanzas ended up looking more like.....really short paragraphs.

So I've written prose poems? I've actually published some, not knowing it?

It turns out that despite my previous confidence, I couldn't recognize prose poems, or not all prose poems, because I was stuck on the blocky single-paragraph form as an identifying feature. Which it isn't necessarily.

And even better, I didn't even know a prose poem when I'd  written one, not out of a concerted effort to do so, but because the poem took on the form that naturally suited it as it developed. Which is the best way for a form to turn up in a poem. For me anyway.

I'll never be a prose poem pro myself, but I'm glad I've got a few prose poems in my repertoire, however unwittingly they came to be there. And now I can stop trying so hard.


Mari said...

Great post, Jessica. I've written (and published) exactly *one* prose poem. I think at times of writing more, but so far have not felt compelled, as I'm too attached to fixed line breaks (likely a limitation on my part). But I, too, enjoy reading prose poems and admire the form very much.

I'm looking forward to receiving my copy of P + W magazine so I can see the feature on your book!

Jessica Goodfellow said...

I don't think it's a limitation, Mari, so much as a sensibility. I'm also attached to line breaks.
As far as P&W, what I think Drew was referring to was that Beloit mentions me as a representative writer on that website. There's nothing in the P&W magazine this month, I'm fairly certain!

Mari said...

Line and stanza breaks, as you've said in so many words, inform the poem's energetic life on the page; that's often important to me. There's something akin to being immersed in a "language bath" when reading a prose poem; it washes over and through me in a very pleasing way that's also quite different from the experience of reading a lineated poem. I just had a thought: the prose poem might represent a more structurally "feminine" form, as it does away with the traditionally "masculine" directives and containers provided by line breaks and stanzas. Perhaps the rising popularity of the prose poem form speaks to some kind of integrative process. Must think on this. I'll look for you at BPJ's web site...

Jessica Goodfellow said...

I love your image of a prose poem as a "language bath" washing over you. YOU should be the one blogging about this! I'm interested too in your idea of prose poems and lineated poems on a "feminine"/"masculine" continuum. I'd never thought about them in those diametric terms (though I'm not a fan of the terms, as your quotation marks indicate might be true for you as well. Doing research about Japanese gardens, I learned that red pine is considered feminine, as are mountains, while black pine and the sea are said to be masculine. I'd line those to be the endpoints of the continuum, either the red pine/black pine, or the mountains/sea. But I digress.)
Thanks, Mari, for your always thoughtful comments.

Mari said...

Crap, I just wrote a response and Blogger ate it... Here goes again!

I'd likely be a haphazard blogger, Jessica, and prefer for now to read yours!

Yes, the terms are limited (as are terms/labels in general). But the properties of the terms themselves hold great value for me in many areas (I'm a big fan of Jungian/archetypal psychology). Interestingly, and perhaps you already know this, the properties are reversed in Japanese culture: i. e. in the west the moon is considered "feminine," while in Japan it's considered "masculine". Likewise, mountains in the west are considered "masculine" (upward thrusting, authority, permanence, etc.), while the all-encompossing sea (representative of the Great Mother/psyche/collective unconscious) is considered "feminine".

New terms are in order. But what...?

Thank you for providing such a diverse, imaginative blog. It's not just about poetry (which I love to read about), but also offers a variety of interconnected ideas and impulses to riff upon. I'm invited to think, feel, and imagine. I love to visit and I'm almost always given something meaningful to chew on.

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Mari, I did not know the mountains/ocean assignments were opposite in the West, but I'm not surprised given the immediate resistance I felt upon reading about the assignments in Japanese gardening.

Interestingly, one of my sons has the kanji for ocean in his name, and that never bothered me one way or the other. (Of course, his name was selected after the Pacific Ocean, the body of water joining or connecting the home countries of his parents, so perhaps that focus distracted me from that.)

Hmmmm, so much to learn. I think eventually I'm going to have to blog about gender continuums, but I've got a lot to study in the meantime.

If you ever do start blogging, let me know. You have a follower-in-waiting!

Mari said...

If you're interested, I'd like to recommend a book: _Masculine and Feminine: The Natural Flow of Opposites in the Psyche_ by Gareth S. Hill.

Yes, so much to learn. Isn't life wonderful in this regard?

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Thank you! I'm putting it on my to-read list right now!