prose poetry

4 posts

That Ugly Duckling We Call “Prose Poetry”


To some people, the term “prose poetry” is like fingernails on a blackboard. Painful to hear. If it’s poetry, how is it prose? And if it’s prose, how is it poetry?

Beats me. I had a sum total of zero “prose poems” in my first book. Then I read Zbigniew Herbert, Poland’s wonderful poet. He sold me on the style with poems like “The History of the Minotaur” and “Old Prometheus.” Whatever you choose to call them, four of these “prose poems” wound up in my recent Lost Sherpa of Happiness collection, and I kinda like them.

In A Little Book on Form, Robert Hass has a few funny lines about this form. You should know, in advance, that he himself wrote prose poems. He provides a little history in his little book on this little form, too. If you thought this ugly duckling came of age in the rocking 60s, think again. It’s old. Older than me, even! We’re talking century comma 19th!

  • “In 1802 Coleridge contributed a few of his journal entries to a miscellany edited by his friend Robert Southey. He gave one of them a title:

December Morning

The giant shadows sleeping amid the wan yellow light of the December morning, looked like wrecks and scattered ruins of the long, long night.

“It did not start a stampede toward a new poetic form, so prose did not get annexed to the formal possibilities of poetry until August 26,1862, when a Paris daily newspaper La presse published a few of Baudelaire’s Petits poemes en prose (Le spleen de Paris). The entire collection of fifty prose pieces was published in 1869 two years after Baudelaire’s death….”

  • “The term ‘prose poem’: it had the force at one time of contradiction, of breaking down categories. And there may still be great value in a term impossible to define. All you have to do is read the scholars to see that it is impossible to define. Prose using all the techniques of poetry except meter, lineation, and rhyme? But there are no techniques special to poetry except meter, lineation, and rhyme. Short prose written by poets? Then their letters are prose poems. Short prose that avoids the usual discursive uses of prose? A proscription, not a definition. Writing that the authors call ‘prose poems’? Short pieces of prose organized in books like poems?”
  • Conversation About the Definition of a Prose Poem on Woodpecker Trail at Coralville Lake at the End of March, the Wind Rising:

B: The thing is it doesn’t have a definition.

B: Sure it does. A poem without lines.

B: Well, that includes prose.

B: Right.”

Of all the chapters in Hass’s book, I found this one of the more enlightening–and amusing–ones. For the purposes of today’s entry, know this: If you hate prose poems, blame Baudelaire. And if you love them? Blame Baudelaire.


Warming Up to Tarjei Vesaas’s Ice Palace

ice palace

On the back of Tarjei Vesaas’s book, The Ice Palace, is a blurb by Nova that reads, “Believable and haunting…this beautiful neo-prose poem is as sombre and Scandinavian as a Bergman film.”

I can’t vouch for the Bergman film bit (I think I’ve seen all of one), but I’m all in on the “haunting” and the “beautiful” and the “sombre” parts. As for “neo-prose poem,” I guess that is because it is a novel, not a prose poem, so the prefix gives Nova poetic license to call it such.

Shall we put it to the prose poem test? Here’s a paragraph describing the ice palace itself–a structure which is a collaboration between winter and a waterfall in Norway–to consider. Put your neo- goggles on and see what you think:

“The sun had suddenly disappeared. There was a ravine with steep sides; the sun would perhaps reach into it later, but now it was in ice-cold shadow. Unn looked down into an enchanted world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes, soft curves, and confused tracery. All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually. Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms. Everything shone. The sun had not yet come, but it shone ice-blue and green of itself, and deathly cold. The waterfall plunged into the middle of it as if diving into a black cellar. Up on the edge of the rock the water spread out in stripes, the color changing from black to green, from green to yellow and white, as the fall became wilder. A booming came from the cellar-hole where the water dashed itself into white foam against the stones on the bottom. Huge puffs of mist rose into the air.”

Such description could easily become a found poem of the neo-lyric variety, no? Heck with the 500-piece puzzle. Try your hand at a found poem using the above paragraph as an exercise.

Me? I’m off to work, but look forward to some of your efforts. And no, it won’t be graded. Make your found grade an “A” why don’t you? You’ll see that poetic license melts icy grading systems every time….

Prose Poem: Hero in Minotaur’s Clothing?


One poet Robert Hass mentioned as a periodic practitioner of the “prose poem” was Zbigniew Herbert, who offers “an example of the way it appropriates fable.” For today’s discussion purposes, below is a copy of Herbert’s prose poem “The History of the Minotaur” as translated into English by Alissa Valles.

As you read, ask yourself this: Does it look like poetry or prose to you? Is it “poetry” only because it is, like the ugly duckling (read: quacking swan) walking with ducks, that is, a poem only because it is in a book surrounded by other poems?

And this: Is it rife with poetic devices? Does the humor work to its poetic advantage? The snappy ending, maybe?

Me? I have no horse in this race and couldn’t tell you if I did. The good news is, I’m not sure the established poet and professor and winner of the Pulitzer Prize–Mr. Hass–could, either. If ever a man needed his poetic license to get out of a difficult spot, this is it!

The History of the Minotaur

by Zbigniew Herbert

The true history of the prince Minotaur is told in the yet undeciphered script Linear A. He was–despite later rumors–the authentic son of King Minos and Pasiphaë. The little boy was born healthy, but with an abnormally large head–which fortune-tellers read as a sign of his future wisdom. In fact with the years the Minotaur grew into a robust, slightly melancholy idiot. The king decided to give him up to be educated as a priest. But the priests explained that they couldn’t accept the feeble-minded prince, for that might diminish the authority of religion, already undermined by the invention of the wheel.

Minos then brought in the engineer Daedalus, who was fashionable in Greece at the time as the creator of a popular branch of pedagogical architecture. And so the labyrinth arose. Within its system of pathways from elementary to more and more complicated, its variations in levels and rungs of abstraction, it was supposed to train the Minotaur prince in the principles of correct thinking.

So the unhappy prince wandered along the pathways of induction and deduction, prodded by his preceptors, gazing blankly at ideological frescos. He didn’t get them at all.
Having exhausted all his resources, King Minos resolved to get rid of this disgrace to the royal line. He brought in (again from Greece, which was known for its able men) the ace assassin Theseus. And Theseus killed the Minotaur. On this point myth and history agree.

Through the labyrinth–now a useless primer–Theseus makes his way back carrying the big, bloody head of the Minotaur with its goggling eyes, in which for the first time wisdom had begun to sprout–of a kind ordinarily attributed to experience.


There you go! One of the prose poems touted by Mr. Hass himself. Is it my favorite in my much-esteemed Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert 1956-1998? Not hardly, but that matters not and is not pertinent to our exploration of the form.

In our next post, more Robert Hass debating with himself over the stormy marriage of prose and poetry. It’s like reality TV. Only in a book. Tune in tomorrow!


Publicity Hounds from Hell


Note: The following is written for hounds trying not to bay like the Baskervilles. It explores Aristotle’s philosophical conundrum: Can you self-promote your work without looking like you’re self-promoting your work? Heed, then, the “sound” of trees falling in the wilderness….

I’ve written before that a part-time poet (full-time poets, like unicorns, are rare beasts indeed) needs to be talented in more ways than one–chiefly as a marketer/business person in addition to the obvious as a writer/artistic person. I always considered “marketing” to be a matter of just sending out poems to journals and presses, but it’s more complicated than that. Marketing also means being a publicity hound, an aspect of writing that makes me a little queasy as a necessary evil.

An example is in order. Before my poetry manuscript was accepted by a publisher, I was just another humble reader (without an author page) on Goodreads. As a GR participant in those days, I was often annoyed by authors seeking to promote themselves and their books in hamfisted ways.

Sometimes they would barge into groups with spam-posts to promote their books. Sometimes they would try to friend every warm body in sight NOT because they shared reading tastes and/or had any interest in readers’ reviews, but to (surprise!) promote their own book. And sometimes they would point-blank message you privately or publicly to request that you (surprise!) read and review their book.

In the immortal words of Daffy, all of these come-ons led to a single recourse: “Duck!”

Like others, I learned to avoid these (mostly self-published) author requests and demands at all costs. Thus, when authors sent friend requests, I usually demurred on the assumption that another shoe would drop if I dared to say yes.

Still, I was conflicted. And in many cases I said “yes” anyway, especially if I had some interaction previously with the author as a fellow reader and book-lover.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. Now I am probably viewed in the same manner by some GR reader/posters wary of all authors due to a few overzealous ones. Now I am the one with books in need of publicity but in a classy way.

The question, though, is this: Do “classy” and “publicity” mix?

The answer depends on who you talk to, I’m guessing. I learn from other authors in situations like mine. Some are cool about it, and I seek to emulate their subtle self-promotional ways.

Many use blogs, where readers are welcome to visit, read, and follow links or not (as opposed to charging like bulls into Goodreads china shops shouting, in so many words, “Me! Me! Me!”). And, most importantly, some remain as much fellow readers as self-promoting authors, thus presenting their Goodreads biblio-social graces in the best light.

As for Facebook and Twitter, I still haven’t figured out a classy way to self-promote in those venues. All the experts say they are a must, but experiences in both places were negative for me, so I’m on the sideline contemplating, leaving that turf to the Russians, who are much better at it than me.

Meantime, the blog and the links leading to my books. If you’ve come this far, you probably have a genuine interest in my work and will read a new poem that recently hit the web (warning: self-promotion ahead!). Called “It’s the Fourth of July,” it can be found in an e-zine that deserves promotion for its support of prose poetry (or poetic prose, or however you want to call it), Unbroken Journal.

Bottom line? The best promotion–for authors and journals alike–comes in the form of promotions from others as opposed to ourselves. That much is obvious and goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway.

Still, “self-” comes before “from other sources.” It is a necessary part of the game. Why? Because, in poetry, where the field is so crowded and the general readership so low, you could grow old and die before promotions come in from other sources.

Better to keep writing. The more there is to publicize, the better the odds of something taking.