As a poet and, hopefully, poetry lover, do you take prose poems seriously? I never did until now. Since I’m a life-long student of traditional poetry and free verse, I have read, written, and placed both types with traditional publishers, but instead of writing prose poems, I just wrote them off.
Apparently, the same can be said of other poets too, because, in all the years I’ve been critiquing poetry, I cannot recall a single poet who wanted feedback on a batch of prose poems. Like, who reads them – much less writes the things?
With their little brick-like blocks of text, prose poems offer about as much visual appeal as a business letter or block of type on a cereal box. Conversely, free verse not only provides eye-pleasing beauty in the typography but often contains exquisite images to help us better see. And, when it comes to musicality, what can possibly please the ear more than the fluidity of sounds made possible by meter and rhyme?
For years, I could not hear or see much poetic sense in reading and writing prose poems, and frankly, I’m not sure what changed. Maybe my curiosity about the form began to surface as I re-read the precedent-setting, Pulitzer Prize-winning book of prose poems by Charles Simic. Maybe I just got bored on a rainy day. Or (more likely) maybe I got frustrated with my work, stressing over where to break the lines in my free verse poems or chafing at how traditional forms confined me with their regular lines of meter that suddenly seemed to mimic the rusty bars on a jail cell.
So, for whatever reason, real or imagined, I began to surf the Internet for information about prose poetry, finally settling on three titles that floated up, then ordering, reading, and reviewing those anthologies on Amazon. I encourage you to read them, too, if for no other reason than to expand your poetry options, but here’s what I want to tell you personally:
I have fallen in love with prose poems.
Why? When it comes to writing the prose poem, I found more freedom than free verse allows. For example, you do not have to make a decision about where to break every single line to the best effect since the unadorned paragraph form of a prose poem acts like a shoe box where you can drop in almost anything.
Similarly, you do not have to count feet, syllables, or lines. Nor do you have to count on rhymes as you do in traditional patterns of English poetry.
Prose poets do, however, make a practice of using poetic device. For example:
Some prose poets sprinkle in a little alliteration.
Some add humor (drum roll, please) with a lively, rhythmic, often jazz-like beat.
Many prose poets rely on juxtaposition to startle readers, ignite thought, or create a verbal collage that utilizes almost anything from dreams and diaries to factual data to narrative episodes and incidents to poetic insight and imagery.
Generally speaking, prose poems come across as being intimate, real, fresh, lively, honest, and, sometimes, bizarre – like real people in real life, which reminds me to mention this unexpected bonus:
Because plain, old ordinary-looking prose poems depend on the same blocks of paragraph we use for regular writing, regular people come to prose poems without being scared. They just start reading, one paragraph at a time, not realizing it’s poetry until poetic aspects begin to surface, as they inevitably do. Then, they might think, “Huh?” Or they might wonder if they just read the shortest, most poetic nonfiction article they have ever encountered. Or they might start to think the paragraphs present a really short short-short until they realize the lack of story plot.
By the time non-poet readers and/or poets previously biased against prose poetry begin to realize they have just read a prose poem, they might, like me, be hooked. But wow! Wouldn’t it be wonderful for poetry to become accessible again? Wouldn’t it be wonderful for almost everyone who likes to read to fall in love with poetry?
(c) 2011, Mary Harwell Sayler