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.