Why I Don’t Quite “Get” the Prose Poem

In the last week or so, I finished two great collections of poems.  The Real Politics of Lipstick by Mary Carroll Hackett was a terrific exploration of women and their relationship to the world around them.  The other collection, Money for Sunsets by Elizabeth Colen was a great read about sexuality and danger even in the most everyday places.

So, I’ve been re-reading both books again and again, savoring specific lines and images.  For example, my favorite poem in Colen’s collection is “80 East” where the narrator states: “You’ve been sleeping since/Salt Lake — crescent lashes rimming your lids below the Ray Bans you/refused men when I took over the wheel.  I squinted from the bones of/light sliced off passing cars’ chrome.  You said you’d take the blame if/we became wreckage on the plains.”   What lyrical language used to describe a road trip!

So, what is the problem, you may ask?

No problem really, except that both of these wonderful collections are prose poems collections.  And I admit, dear reader, that I don’t quite get the prose poem.

Many times, poems are defined by the poetic line.  But the prose poem is not — in fact, my students would call a prose poem a paragraph, and yep, that’s right.  So if a prose poem isn’t really defined by the line, what is the definition?  Or does the prose poem, like so much else in literature, have only a fuzzy definition.  Perhaps the prose poem is not that concerned with the line, but wants to focus on the poetic language.  Then, where does the prose poem overlap with flash fiction?  Is it more concerned with language and less with plot and character development? 

I have too many questions, really, about prose poems. Too many questions that will not be answered today, so I guess I will go back to re-reading both of these great collections.

Or maybe, I should try writing a prose poem myself!


  1. A prose poem, unlike a short-short, doesn’t have to have a plot, or characters, or other story components.
    The important characteristics of poetry are: lyric and compressed language, imagery, poetic tools (like sonics or metaphor) and…well, an ineffable “you just know you’re reading poetry” feeling.
    The two books that most helped me with prose poetry were Lesle Lewis’ Landscapes I & II and Sandra Alcosser’s Except by Nature. Then, later, I read a lot of haibun and other poets such as Matthea Harvey that use the prose poem.
    Often I find prose poetry has more poetic language than most free verse line-broken poems, which often read like prose if you take away the line break. So, for me, writing prose poems forced me to focus on the musicality of the language.

  2. Sara Said:

    I forget who said it (either Longenbach, Fussell, or Pinsky, though), but he said prose poems work best because there is still the suggestion of the line. I liked that definition, though now it seems sort of unhelpful.

  3. Gary L. McDowell Said:

    Well, the prose poem is dear to my heart (have you checked out THE ROSE METAL PRESS FIELD GUIDE TO PROSE POETRY? I co-edited it with F. Daniel Rzicznek, and though I hate to brag too much about it, it’s a damn fine book, haha). I’ve always thought of the prose poem as a form like any other (sonnet, villanelle, pantoum, etc). The primary distinction between a verse poem and a prose poem is the unit of rhythm: in the verse poem the line controls how poetic rhythm is construed where as in the prose poem the sentence becomes the main unit of rhythm. Jeannine’s comments strike a chord with me, too: indeed the prose poem is often less concerned with character and other fictional tropes. Anyway, for me, the prose poem is simply a form. I often don’t even notice the fact that the poem’s not in lines until I realize that I’m being pulled along by the sentence rather than than the brevity of the line. Anyway, check out the Field Guide if you’d like! Good luck!

  4. Cecilia Woloch’s latest collection from BOA, “Carpathia” is full of prose poems and they are GORGEOUS. I’ve been writing more and more of them myself because I think many poems try too hard when it comes to line breaks.

  5. Carol Said:

    No Boundaries, an anthology of prose poems has a great selection of 10 poets who write prose poems. I think one of the great things about a prose poem is the compression that sort of happens when you’re writing one. That might seem counter-intuitive, but you can push something that’s happening in a prose poem quicker (if it’s a successful poem, anyways) than if you’re creating movement with line-breaks. At least it feels that way to me, sometimes.

  6. Karen Said:

    Thanks everyone for the comments (and the books — I now have more books to add to my reading list!)

    @ Gary — I do have the Rose Metal Press collection — I ordered the prose poetry and the flash fiction books this past summer. I read both, but as with all literary genres, there is fuzziness. As a writer, I understand this blurring of boundaries. But I’m always looking at different ways to define and explain literary genres and forms to my undergraduates, who are not always so willing to go along with fuzziness. (They are products of the new age of one right answer assessment in education: too long of a story and debate to go into here!)

  7. arihn Said:

    Haha, I was going to suggest the Rose Metal Guide, and also the No Boundaries collection! I liked Robert Miltner’s term in Rose Metal of the “stanzagragh.”

  8. […] prose poem — and I have enjoyed that.  Fans of the Scrapper Poet will recall that I posted a note a few weeks ago about my confusion about the prose poem.  Still, I have found that writing prose poems does give me […]

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