Prose Poetry

Tracing back all the way to seventeenth-century Japan, prose poetry has been confounding readers and critics ever since. Combining the lyricism of poetry with the structure of prose literature, prose poetry can be difficult to define. Here are some of the form's features, rules, and some well-known examples of prose poetry.

Prose Poetry Prose Poetry

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    Literature: prose and poetry

    Prose is defined as language written in its usual form, with no verse or meter. This essentially means that any form of writing that is not poetry can be considered prose. Prose writing would include novels, essays and short stories. Meanwhile, poetry is written using line breaks, verse and sometimes rhyme and meter. For many years the two forms of writing, prose and poetry, were seen as distinctly different.

    Line breaks are where the text becomes split into two lines. In poetry, the line breaks are used to define its meter, rhyme or meaning.

    However, the features of both prose and poetry can overlap. A piece of prose writing can use poetic techniques such as extended metaphor, figurative language or alliteration, and poetry can be used to tell a narrative using language in its more ordinary form. This is form of literature is known as prose poetry.

    Prose poetry is writing that uses the lyrical features of poetry, while also using the presentation found in prose writing, such as using standard punctuation and eschewing verse and line breaks.

    An extended metaphor is an analogy or metaphor that is consistently used throughout a poem.

    Figurative language is the use of similes and metaphors to describe events. figurative language does not use literal language to create a further understanding of an object.

    Alliteration is a literary technique where the initial sound of each connecting word is the same.

    Spring Day (1916) by American poet Amy Lowell (1874-1925) contains poetry that closely resembles the presentation of prose. There are no distinct verses and line breaks, and each poem seems to act as an independent short story. However, at the same time, the language has a lot of imagery, metaphor and a lyrical quality that is unique to the poetic form. Hence, her work can be considered to be prose poetry.

    Here are lines 1-4 of her poem 'Bath':

    The day is fresh-washed and fair, and there is a smell of tulips and narcissus in the air.

    The sunshine pours in at the bath-room window and bores through the water in the bath-tub in lathes and planes of greenish-white. It cleaves the water into flaws like a jewel, and cracks it to bright light.

    Prose poetry is a global form of poetry; the first known examples of the form can be traced back to seventeenth-century Japan and the poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). Prose poetry became prominent in western culture in France in the nineteenth century with poets such as Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) and Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). In the English language, early pioneers were Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allen Poe. Prose poetry had a resurgence in the twentieth century with the beat generation poets Allen Ginsburg and William Burroughs.

    Beat generation: a literary movement that came to prominence after the second world war. The movement was known for its experimental literature and association with jazz.

    ProsePoetry,Japan,StudySmarterFig 1. Prose poetry's roots can be traced back to Japan.

    Features of prose poetry

    Prose poetry is relatively loose in its form and has no strict structure other than it being written in paragraphs using standard punctuation. This section will look at some of the features more commonly found in prose poetry.

    Figurative language

    One feature that can often be found in prose poetry is the use of figurative language. This means using techniques such as metaphor, simile, and figures of speech in order to create vivid imagery.

    Metaphor: a figure of speech where an object or idea is described as something else.

    Simile: a figure of speech where an object or idea is compared with something else to aid description and understanding.

    Here is the prose poem 'Be Drunk' (1869) by French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). His work, originally in French, is considered to be one of the earliest examples of prose poetry. In this poem, the extended metaphor of being drunk is used throughout the poem, with extensive use of imagery to describe the feeling of being intoxicated. There is a lot of repetition of the word 'drunk' alongside the personification in the line 'wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you'.

    You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it—it's the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

    But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

    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.'

    Alliteration and repetition

    Prose poets will often use rhythmic tools such as alliteration and repetition for their prose poems. Alliteration is the use of several words beginning with the same initial sound. Both these techniques are often found in poetry but less so in prose writing.

    Here is 'Breakfast Table' (1916), a prose poem by Amy Lowell:

    In the fresh-washed sunlight, the breakfast table is decked and white. It offers itself in flat surrender, tendering tastes, and smells, and colors, and metals, and grains, and the white cloth falls over its side, draped and wide. Wheels of white glitter in the silver coffee-pot, hot and spinning like catherine-wheels, they whirl, and twirl—and my eyes begin to smart, the little white, dazzling wheels prick them like darts. (lines 1-4)

    Notice how the language is extremely rich in literary devices? For instance, in line 4, the 'little white, dazzling wheels prick them like darts' contain alliteration that gives this piece a lyrical poetic quality. But at the same time, it is embedded in a paragraph with punctuation that resembles prose.

    Implied meter

    Prose poetry does not contain strict meter but does often use techniques, like alliteration and repetition, to heighten a prose poem's rhythm. Poets will also sometimes use different combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables to give their prose poetry a sense of metrical structure.

    Here is the short prose poem '[Kills bugs dead.]' (2007) by Harryette Mullen (1953-Present):

    Kills bugs dead. Redundancy is syntactical overkill. A pin-prick of peace at the end of the tunnel of a nightmare night in a roach motel. Their noise infects the dream. In black kitchens they foul the food, walk on our bodies as we sleep over oceans of pirate flags. Skull and crossbones, they crunch like candy. When we die they will eat us, unless we kill them first. Invest in better mousetraps. Take no prisoners on board ship, to rock the boat, to violate our beds with pestilence. We dream the dream of extirpation. Wipe out a species, with God at our side. Annihilate the insects. Sterilize the filthy vermin.

    The use of short and almost abrupt sentences gives a sort of fast-paced urgent rhythm to this poem.

    Alternative forms of rhyme

    Although there are no line breaks in prose poetry, which makes traditional end rhymes impossible, poets do use other rhyming combinations in their writing. Sometimes poets use slant rhymes or internal rhyme.

    Slant rhymes are combinations of words that have a similar sound but often use different consonants or vowels. For example, the words swarm and worm.

    Internal rhymes: rhymes that occur in the middle of a line or sentence, instead of at the very end. An example would be: 'I drove myself to the lake and dove into the water'.

    The poem 'Stinging, or Conversation with a Pin' (2001) by Stephanie Trenchard contains a paragraph of text with a lot of internal rhyme. This gives the piece rhythm and pace, with the repetitive 'ing' and 'ight' rhymes.

    Stinging me—that pin. Caressing you—this curve. Imagine me that night forgetting you this morning. Lulling me, an oversight, goodnight. Alarming you under dark, rough morning. Reminding me of pain, forgetting you for pleasure. Shaming me for denying. Accepting you not believing. Always in a rush, never out of time. Lazy busy me. Enterprising deliberate you. Let it lay, a pin in the plush. Pick it up, this orb of concrete. Sleepy, pin pokes as pins do. Awake, orb rolls unlike orbs. Sharp unknown in the rug, smooth known under a bed, a thing that hurts remains untouched.

    Prose poetry: purpose

    In western culture, prose poetry came to prominence in nineteenth-century France with the poets Charles Baudelaire and Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841). The common form of poetry at the time often used the Alexandrine meter. Baudelaire and Bertrand rejected this form and eschewed meter and verse entirely. They instead chose to write a block of text that resembled prose more than poetry.

    Alexandrine meter: a complex line of meter that consists of twelve syllables with a pause that splits the line into two pairs of six syllables. The pause is known as a caesura.

    Prose poetry can therefore be seen as an act of rebellion against the more traditional forms of poetry at the time. Blurring the lines between prose and poetry afforded poets more freedom in both form and subject. The beat generation poets used prose poetry to experiment with a new free-form and anti-lyrical genre of poems.

    There are different types of prose poetry. Some are commonly known as 'postcard poems'. These poems attempt to create a poetic form that resembles a snapshot of an event or image like a postcard. Postcard poems specifically write about one moment in time or space.

    Another type is the factoid poem, which uses a single fact to create fiction. A factoid poem would begin with a fact and then mix information and figurative language to create a poem. The narrative type of prose poetry tells a small story, which can often be surreal or humorous.

    An example of a factoid poem is 'Information' (1993) by David Ignatow (1914-1997).

    This tree has two million and seventy-five thousand leaves. Perhaps I missed a leaf or two but I do feel triumphant at having persisted in counting by hand branch by branch and marked down on paper with pencil each total. Adding them up was a pleasure I could understand; I did something on my own that was not dependent on others, and to count leaves is not less meaningful than to count the stars, as astronomers are always doing. They want the facts to be sure they have them all. It would help them to know whether the world is finite. I discovered one tree that is finite. I must try counting the hairs on my head, and you too. We could swap information.

    Here, the writer begins with a simple fact: 'This tree has two million and seventy-five thousand leaves.' However, the piece then shifts into a humourous narrative, almost like a short autobiographical account of the writer's life.

    Prose poetry: rules

    Though there aren't any hard and fast rules for writing prose poetry, there are certain things you need to avoid to ensure that it is neither simply prose nor poetry. Below are some rules one would follow to create prose poetry.

    Structure

    Prose poetry has to be a sustained piece of writing with no use of line breaks. This means that poets will use standard punctuation and write in paragraphs. A prose poem can vary in its length. It could be a couple of sentences or multiple paragraphs. Its standard use of punctuation and paragraph provides the 'prose' element of the poetry.

    Rhythm

    Prose is often described as the written form of normal language. Normal language is considered to be what one would hear in speech or thought. Speech and thought can have a similar rhythmic cadence that is found in meter. Prose poetry does not use a meter but employs techniques that aid rhythm, such as alliteration and repetition, which can often match the sound of thought and speech.

    Free verse prose

    Prose poetry's closest poetic form is free verse.

    Free verse is poetry without the constraint of formal meter and rhyme; however, it is still written in verse form.

    Prose poetry treads the fine line between free verse and prose. Normally subjects explored in prose poetry are intense snapshots of small moments. These poems could be described as free verse written in prose form.

    ProsePoetry,Book,StudySmarterFig - 2. Unlike traditional poetry, prose poetry is structured like prose.

    Prose poetry: examples

    Due to the free-form nature of prose poetry, examples of the form include both single poems and collections.

    'Historic Evening' (1886)

    Arthur Rimbaud's (1854-1891) 'Historic Evening' is one of the many prose poems collected in his book Illuminations (1886). The book was made famous for being one of the most inspirational examples of the relatively new poetic form (in western culture).

    The poem consists of five paragraphs and begins 'In whatever evening', suggesting a non-descript everyday evening. The reader is presented with vivid everyday images of sunset in a city or town. We see those images through the eye of a 'simple tourist' and as the poem progresses the imagery becomes more abstract.

    In whatever evening, for instance, the simple tourist retiring from our economic horrors finds himself, the hand of a master wakes the harpsichord of meadows; cards are played in the depths of the pond, mirror, evoker of queens and favourites; there are saints, sails, and threads of harmony, and legendary chromaticism in the sunset. (lines 1-5)

    'Citizen: An American Lyric' (2014)

    Claudia Rankine's (1963- Present) work here can be described as both a book-length prose poem and a collection of short vignettes. Rankine used stories that were personal to her and the people she knew to create a prose poem that highlights racial intolerance in modern America. Each small incident is told in the second person and details an event where a person of colour has been treated differently because of their race.

    The second person point of view is when a narrator is presenting a story directly to the reader, using the pronoun 'you'.

    You never really speak except for the time she makes her request and later when she tells you you smell good and have features more like a white person. You assume she thinks she is thanking you for letting her cheat and feels better cheating from an almost white person.

    Prose Poetry - Key takeaways

    • Prose poetry is a poetic form which uses the lyrical language of poetry presented in prose form.
    • Prose poetry uses standard punctuation and is presented in sentences and paragraphs.
    • Prose poetry can be traced back to seventeenth-century Japan and the work of poet Matsuo Basho.
    • Prose poetry came to prominence in western literature in France with the poets Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire.
    • Prose poetry often uses poetic techniques such as figurative language, alliteration, and repetition.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Prose Poetry

    What is an example of a prose poem?

    The first known example in western literature is Aloysius Bertrand's book 'Gaspard de la Nuit' (1842).

    What is the difference between poetry and prose?

    Prose is language that is written in its normal form, poetry is written in verse and often uses rhyme and meter.

    What is a prose poem?

    A prose poem is a work of literature which uses poetic techniques presented in prose form.

    Where are the earliest examples of prose poetry found?

    The earliest know examples of prose poetry can be found in 17th century Japan.

    How do you identify a prose poem?

    A prose poem is characterized by its blending of the qualities of poetry and prose. It often has a lyrical and imaginative quality like poetry, but lacks traditional line breaks and stanzas and is written in paragraphs like prose. 

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