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If you just stared at the title of this article in complete confusion, you are not alone. At first glance, prose and poetry seem like opposites, things that just can’t go together. In fact, prose poetry is its own form of poetry and perhaps a special form of prose. So what is prose poetry?
In the most basic sense, prose poetry is poetry without line breaks. That is, each line ends when it touches the right margin of the page, naturally descending to the next line. This might sound like the poet decided to ignore the many uses of line breaks such as end stops and enjambment. It’s poetry, though, so every decision has a purpose.
Line breaks are used to create emphasis. A word that ends a line or stands on its own line will inevitably have more emphasis. There’s a moment when the eye moves down and to the left, to the next line, where that last word lives in your mind a bit longer. Prose poetry avoids this, flattening the stress of every word and line.
Why do this? Imagine the difference between a person recounting a tragic event with all sorts of hand gestures, whispers, screams and general drama. Now imagine that same narrative told in a monotonous voice, staring into a fire with barely suppressed grief tinting every word. This last example is something prose poetry can do, delivering even the most impassioned words with an unbiased disconnect.
Choosing the form of prose poetry makes deliberate ambiguity a more unwieldy tool. With line breaks, a line can seem to mean one thing based on the ending word, and then the next line can recontextualize it.
Now that you’re reading prose poetry, you might be thinking, “I still see line breaks. Can’t the poet play with these to create ambiguity? My answer is: maybe. If you read a book of poetry by a particular poet, he has more freedom to play with margins and fonts. In a book like Tyehimba Jess’ Olio, the influence of the poet on the exact size and shape of the book is evident. Others are less so. However, poets often have their works published in literary journals long before they collect them into books. As a poet, you have no control over margins, page size, font, or font size. So when a prose poem is published in one of these journals, it will likely be different from your word processing document.
It’s also not really prose poetry if there is a check on line length. It’s just a concrete poem, a poem made to be a particular form.
Tempo and energy
The length of lines, final stops, and enjambments have a strong effect on the tempo and energy of a poem. Lots of short lines with no final stops feel quick, peppy, as if the poet is rushing you from thought to thought with all the haste required. Or as with Ginsberg’s”To scream”, these long lines, too long for any page, are not fast, but they have a relentless character.
Prose poetry comes at a prose-like reading pace, however, giving the reader some control of tempo and energy. Not all control, though. In fact, consistent, uncontrolled line lengths actually give spacing, punctuation, and word choice more power in terms of tempo and energy.
Is it really poetry?
There are debates in some academic circles about the overlap between prose poetry and microfiction. Microfiction is generally defined as a story told in 1,000 words or less. It’s just four standard 12-point, double-spaced entry pages.
But one is a poem and the other a fiction? How can they be the same?
In order to tell an effective story in less than 1,000 words, every sentence and every word must be examined. Compression must win the day when crafting a story with a beginning, middle, and end, full of great character and dramatic tension, in just four pages. Compression should always prevail in poetry. Poets are always looking for the most effective noun or verb to do as much work as possible with each syllable, whether in prose poetry or sonnets or no form at all.
Recently, prose poems and microfiction have shared the time of panel discussions at literary conferences. Fiction and poetry teachers have worked together on courses that combine these two forms, seeing the benefits that poets and fiction writers can learn from each other. The combination is quite remarkable.
The next time you read a book of poetry and find something that sounds like prose, maybe it is. It is also poetry. Read it as such and know that yes, there is a reason the poet chose this form.