This essay was first published in Byline in April, 2008 and later reprinted in The Just Poets
Newsletter this year.
What Makes A Prose Poem, A Prose Poem?
A prose poem uses a combination of idea, image, and narrative patterns in its form. It creates a narrative grounded in a particular time and place and, like fiction, there is a “turn” where readers recognize a significant change or outcome based on the narrative’s events. It is a “compressed” narrative, one which creates a scene through meditation or dialogue in a limited word count. However, in the past twenty years, the prose poem’s form has become elusive because the margins between poetry and prose have blurred due to poets’ experimentation. With the invention of “sudden” or “flash” fiction and short creative nonfiction essays, writers are now trying to name the defining features of each. So, for the purpose of this essay, I will share my thoughts on defining what I believe makes a prose poem, a prose poem.
Most poets agree that the prose poem’s stanzas can be one to several terse paragraphs that create a ‘visual narrative block,’ like a snapshot, held in time. The strength of the narrative depends on the cumulative effect of its images. Since images are concrete, they engage readers’ five senses (see, hear, taste, touch, smell), and build the narrative’s extended metaphor, which is a defining feature of the prose poem. I believe the images in the prose poem are elliptical– they hook readers’ attention implicitly and explicitly, and line by line gain meaning.
For example, here’s one of my prose poems. It was first published in Blueline, Spring 2002.
The boy is looking hard at the word STAR printed in block letters
on the yellow flash card. He is standing on one foot, poised like
a heron fishing. Dark hair falling into his eyes, he squints. The teacher
is barely breathing, waiting on his one word. He says, “Stare.” And
I am, staring at them; then at a loose note in my hand that’s rumpled
with a message scrawled in black ink, Don’t worry.
“Don’t worry,” she says, “Try again.” I look up. He says, “Star.”
As you can see, my title “Star(e)” is an indirect lead into the poem. Its meaning is both star and stare. I am fascinated by words that contain more than one word within its context. I like juggling the meaning of both words in the prose poem.
I think that this prose poem is deceptive in its simplicity. It reads effortlessly. The scene reveals a young boy working with flash cards with his reading teacher. The boy poised as the heron fishing for the right word and the teacher patiently waiting is a balance that’s hard to achieve. I am peripheral to this scene, watching (staring at) their exchange that connects with my own flash card, which is a note telling me not to worry. In that instant of my reading the note, I hear the teacher’s reassuring voice. I look up to witness the boy’s success. In this breakdown of the poem’s action and primary images, flash card and note, you can see how the poem’s metaphor gains meaning, line by line, and ties back to its title. The greater meaning of this poem’s metaphor hinges on star. For me, it’s the North star, that heavenly guide. I think both the young boy and I were lost in that particular moment. Both of us needed to get our bearings and look hard at our flash card and note, before we could move forward and get it right. Some may say the last word, “Star” is the gold star, the success we all want to achieve, no matter how difficult it is.
I became interested in writing prose poems while I was completing my M.A. at SUNY Brockport in 1999. During that time, my ambition and desire was “to slam” the lyrical line into the narrative. I wanted to see how far I could push the music of the line to its point of breaking breath– much like the cresting of a wave. Mind you, “to slam” isn’t a literary term and my professors, in particular, poet Stan Sanvel Rubin, who loves and reveres the lyric poem, was truly skeptical of my choice of terms or collision tactics to create the combination of lines that would become my version of a prose poem. Fortunately, he recognized that I was challenging myself to create a poem that was pushing the limits of an extended metaphor, and supportive with both praise and suggestions. Consequently, over the years, I’ve enjoyed the ‘elasticity’ of the prose poem. How it invites poets to manipulate whole lines by using repetition, alliteration, a convincing rhythm, and narrative to create a poignant lyric moment.