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What's a Prose Poem?

The prose poem is a type of poetry characterized by its lack of line breaks. Although the prose poem resembles a short piece of prose, its allegiance to poetry can be seen in the use of rhythms, figures of speech, rhyme, internal rhyme, assonance (repetition of similar vowel sounds), consonance (repetition of similar consonant sounds), and images. Early poetry (such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, both written by Homer approximately 2,800 years ago) lacked conventional line breaks for the simple fact that these works were not written down for hundreds of years, instead being passed along (and presumably embellished) in the oral tradition. However, once poetry began to be written down, poets began to consider line breaks as another important element to the art. With the exception of slight pauses and inherent rhyme schemes, it is very hard for a listener of poetry to tell where a line actually breaks.

The length of prose poems vary, but usually range from half of a page to three or four pages (those much longer are often considered experimental prose or poetic prose). Aloysius Bertrand, who first published Gaspard de la nuit in 1842, is considered by many scholars as the father of the prose poem as a deliberate form. Despite the recognition given to Bertrand, as well as Maurice de Guerin, who wrote around 1835, the first deliberate prose poems appeared in France during the 18th Century as writers turned to prose in reaction to the strict rules of versification by the Academy.

Although dozens of French writers experimented with the prose poem in the 1700s, it was not until Baudelaire's work appeared in 1855 that the prose poem gained wide recognition. However, it was Rimbaud's book of prose poetry Illuminations, published in 1886, that would stand as his greatest work, and among the best examples of the prose poem. Additional practitioners of the prose poem (or a close relative) include Edgar Allen Poe, Max Jacob, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Amy Lowell, Gertrude Stein, and T.S. Eliot. Among contemporary practitioners of the prose poem are: Russell Edson, Robert Bly, Charles Simic, and Rosmarie Waldrop.


Poets of Interest:

Charles Baudelaire
Russell Edson
N. Scott Momaday
Arthur Rimbaud
Charles Simic
Gertrude Stein
Rosmarie Waldrop
Michael Benedikt - Highly Recommended Site!


Books of Interest:

Models of the Universe Click to Order Models of the Universe: An Anthology of the Prose Poem (soft $$)
   This book, edited by Stuart Friebert and David Young, is a welcome collection of outstanding work by many poets, ranging from Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire to Russell Edson and Robert Hass. The cover of this book features a wonderful window box-collage by Joseph Cornell, titled Soap Bubble Set (Lunar Rainbow-Space Object). Why do I point this out? Because what Cornell did by creating enclosed little worlds within a square frame is similar to what writers of the prose poem did, and are continuing to do: create a small enclosed world within the confines of four margins (top, bottom, left, and right). When I saw the image of Cornell's work on the cover, I just knew this book understood poetry's misunderstood cousin, the prose poem. The anthology brings together many accomplished writers who have only written a few, but outstanding prose poems, including Carolyn Forche, James Tate, Italo Calvino, Rita Dove, W.S. Merwin, Elizabeth Bishop, James Wright, John Ashberry, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Wright, William Stafford, William Carlos Williams, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), and many others.

Prose Poem Click to Order The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre (hard $$$$)
   This book by Michel Delville (due to be released in mid-1998) is the only one I'm familiar with about the history of the prose poem (American prose poem in this case) that is print. I haven't looked at it yet but it sounds promising, including a tracing of the prose poem's European origins. The publisher, University Press of Florida, writes:

Delville reassesses the work of established prose poets in relation to the history of modern poetry and introduces writings by some whose work in the form has so far escapes mainstream critical attention (Sherwood Anderson, Kenneth Patchen, Russell Edson). He describes the genre's European origins and the work of several early representatives of a modern tradition of the prose lyric (Charles Baudelaire, Max Jacob, Franz Kafka, and James Joyce). Delville shows that the history of the contemporary prose poem is, in many respects, the record of its efforts to question both the nature of the "poetic" or "lyric" mode and the aesthetic and ideological foundations of a variety of other genres and subgenres.

Link(s) of Interest:

Web del Sol's Prose Poem Site
Michael Benedikt's Site on the Prose Poem



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