What is "The Prose Poem"?

by on Jun.25, 2013

I was thinking… in my past two posts, I have referred to but not really discussed the “Prose Poem.” Does anybody talk about this form/term anymore? Is this important to anybody?

It seems like there was a lot of talk about it in the 90s and early 00s. I remember reading the journal “The Prose Poem” (edited by Peter Johnson) back in the 90s because it was engaged with a certain surrealist sensibility which I obviously also was interested in. And it provided a kind of “hybrid” space that was neither the official quietist aesthetic of MFA programs or the official/Language aesthetic of PhD study. The big influences in this journal were James Tate, Russell Edson and Charles Simic. But it would also publish, say Maxine Chernoff, who’s kind of an odd poet that doesn’t really fit in with schools and lineages.

I think it was probably very influential – and by “it” I might mean this notion of the prose poem or the official journal itself – creating not only a space where prose and poetry could interact but also a space where translation was valued. Afterall, this prose poem was largely derived from Max Jacob and other foreign writers. It seems to have generated a whole host of writers from my generation (Zach Schomburg, Mathias Svalina and others).

I occasionally read this journal back in the day but I felt put off by a certain goofiness that struck me as moderating. Edson was a big influence, but many influenced by Edson lost something really important about Edson: the utter lack of interiority, the saturating violence, the merciless absurdity. In many prose poem writers it seemed Edson’s move was coupled with an indie-rock emotional register (goofy, wistful, whimsical).

My own interest/emotional register doesn’t really fit in with that zone; and also the formal movement within the poems seemed too set. For example, I was interested/inspired by Basquiat – and I wanted to bring that mania, that horror vacui to the poems. That’s in part what drew me to the prose poem (and does still I guess on some level) – it allowed me to see the page as a near-canvas, which might consist of a discarded door or box.


It’s interesting (if only to myself) that my distinction here is what other genres/media the prose poems “bring into” poetry – indie rock vs painting.

But as far as writing goes, I first started writing poetry in large part from reading Rimbaud’s prose poems and Lautremont’s Maldoror, Burroughs and the Beats, and Genet’s baroque theatricality, and that kind of convulsiveness has always stuck with me. By the time I came across the Prose Poem journal I was also reading Aase Berg’s guinea pigs and Ann Jaderlund’s necropastorals:

The big valley is a vast mother-of-pearl mirror. There walks the large dead swan in her dead shroud. And there walks the mother-of-pearl children. Or the fragile foundling clumps. That grow out of the virgin mother’s throat. They led the swan into a forest and placed beautiful white stones of mother-of-pearl on her back. Go now and eat that which you have taken from the swans. Then one ran up and cut a branch from the tree and grabbed a burning branch and stuck it into her throat. And scrubbed her both up top and down below. Until the swan’s flesh fell off in beautiful heavy clumps. For some time the swan lay in the bushes and slept. And black merchants came riding on black mother-of-pearl horses. Then they took the swan and carried her away.

(from Jaderlund’s Soon Into the Summer I Will Walk Out, published in Typo 7)

Jaderlund’s suite is actually a kind of montage of biblical tales written down in the 15th century, a kind of proto-prose-poetry based on Swedish translations of foreign materials (Christianity being of course a foreign text itself).

Fast forward a little bit: In 2006, Peter Connors published the anthology PP/FF. The abbreviations are for Prose Poem and Flash Fiction. Peter didn’t want to come up with a term like “hybrid” to actually bring them into unison, but wanted to allow them to be unsynthesized, and I liked that. Because this anthology includes not so much “prose poetry” but poetry in prose, and poetic prose etc.

Peter writes this in his intro:

In 2006, it is fair to say that prose poetry is a vital Amreican genre: there are prose poetry journals, anthologies, university courses, and attendant experts. Perhaps classifying it as a stale genre is too harsh, however, in compiling this anthology it became obvious that many writers have felt shunned from traditional communities of poetry and prose – including prose poetry – for consciously resisting genre expectations. To wit, prose poetry should not contain too much narrative or it becomes fiction; flash fiction should follow a narrative arc or it risks fragmentation to the point of becomign prose poetry; flash fiction should stay within specific, albeit arbitrary word counts; prose poetry must not utilize line break; surrealism and humor is acceptable, but topicality is not…

Here Connor’s point is similar to my own – that a genre that was born out of dissatisfaction with genre expectations had generated its own conventions.

Before that anthology, Peter edited Double Room with Mark Tursi, which published some section of my book Dear Ra back in 2003 (I wrote the book in 2000-2001 while going crazy). In this book I used the epistolary form – which I got from letters of serial killers and crazy consumers – with a kind of surrealism and also Ted Berrigan (b/c I loved his manic energy).


It struck me that in my past two entries I dealt with “prose poetry” – but these are great examples of prose poetry that is not so much part of this convention as poems that form a space where various media and genre convulse without definitely being synthesized into Prose Poetry. For example, Joyelle’s Salamandrine is categorized as “Fiction”, but her virtuosic sentences are charged with the kind of texture one might expect from the most saturated poetry. In James’s Fassbinder Diaries, the “prose poem” seems like it is constantly being harassed not just by film but the narrative urge/push of novels. This seems true of a lot of things I’ve been reading recently: Aylin Bloch Boynukisa’s My mouth is full of teeth and time, Under Siege: Four African Cities (Documenta 11;Plathform4), Sara Shamloo’s Gloria, Emma Lundmark’s Hans Fru Judith, Uche Nduka’s Ijele, or Moldovian comic book artist Neurotrip’s work:


But at the same time, what makes Negroni’s Mouth of Hell and di Giorgio’s History of Violets so amazing is in part a kind of “return” to the prose poem at its purest form – Baudelaire, Rimbaud etc.


So to sum things up: I wonder if “prose poetry” has any value anymore – As a form? As a context? As an idea? As a lineage?

As usual I’m suddenly drawn to it because it seems dead, anachronistic – and the opposite of the notion of “American Hybrid” that is so powerful these days.

30 comments for this entry:
  1. The Modesto Kid

    Well, why not? Being divided into lines or not being seems like a fairly key attribute of a poem and I don’t see any reason to think the class “poems which are not divided into lines” would not have interesting commonalities for discussion and study.

  2. Carina

    first of all an obviously the term “American Hybrid” makes me want to puke. anyway…

    I think prose poems are relevant and important and should be discussed. certainly they are important to me because I sometimes write them and I also like to read them. like literally the very first poem I ever wrote as a sort-of adult (I was 19) that anyone liked was a prose poem consisting entirely of things my college roommate said to me, things like “next time you set a paper towel on fire, please do not spray Febreeze on it.”

    which leads me to your point about the prose poem allowing the page to be seen as a kind of canvas. I think that’s true. I find prose poems to be/feel way more “indie” than poems whose structure is defined largely by lineation or other factors that come with lineation because there is a sense that in eschewing this sort of Dictatorship of the Left Margin, there is more space of linguistic and lyric play. structure becomes less about an act of carving or whittling and closer to painting or lithography.

    I also think it’s kind of pointless though to ask whether is has “value.” no poetry has Value. it’s also essential in all of its forms. I don’t think this American Hybrid business has any power at all, especially not over something like the prose poem, which by its very nature asserts itself over institutionalized lyrics precisely because it isn’t participating in that culture — not because it’s “marginalized,” but because the prose poem has chosen to make itself distinctive.

  3. Rebecca Loudon

    Does anybody talk about this form/term anymore? Is this important to anybody?

    I talk about prose poems all the time and I write them frequently and sometimes I am on fire with them and I have definitive reasons for choosing the form when I choose it. Then again I’m not famous enough to be in your peripheral vision. But I might be.

    Rebecca Loudon, Prose Poem Writer Not Influenced By Edson

  4. Johannes

    Send some links renecca!

  5. Mark Tursi

    I think you’re right that in some ways the prose poem has become anachronistic. Proof of that perhaps is in two recent articles in the Writer’s Chronicle — both on the prose poem and both rehashing stuff that has been said for years. I don’t have the articles with me at the moment, but I recall them quoting a lot of the stuff that Conners and I used when we first started Double Room: Michel Delville, Steven Monte, Peter Johnson, Friebert & Young, and others. These are all compelling and worthwhile explorations of the prose poem, but the Chronicle articles seemed like they were written in the ’90’s, but in fact they were quite recent — earlier this year and end of 2012. Nothing really fresh about them and nothing new about the prose poem.

    At Double Room, I’ve tried to inject some fresh perspectives with guest editors — most recently G.C. Waldrep and Tan Lin. I kind of grew tired of the theorizing about the prose poem so am looking at new manifestations to see where that goes. Right now, I’m trying to find a new guest editor that leans a bit more toward the “flash fiction” end. Any takers?

    I asked Lance Olsen, and he’s interested, but overwhelmed with other projects at the moment — but he’s agreed to it at some point in the future! Looking forward to that. . . . Other ideas or suggestions are welcome…

    But, I do think the current ‘status’ of the prose poem is worth exploring, but we need to inject some fresh energy into it — beyond what people have been saying for the last several years.

  6. Johannes

    Ask james pate to edit an issue… Or rebecca loudon..

  7. Johannes

    Do you think its a matter of criticism not keeping up with the poems? And also, as noah suggests, something about the relationship between the poems and technology? Might it be that there is “too much” poetry to be a single thing? (Like everyhting else…) / johannes

  8. Guillermo Parra

    Wow, I loved the excerpt from Ann Jaderlund! Because I’ve been translating the Venezuelan poet José Antonio Ramos Sucre (1890-1930) —who wrote almost exclusively prose poems— into English for the last several years, the form is very important to me. And even though Ramos Sucre was writing in the 1910s and 1920s, the form seems completely relevant to me today.

    Three contemporary poets come to mind for me, in terms of the prose poem: Micah Ballard, Cedar Sigo and Dana Ward. I don’t write prose poems myself but, like you, Maldoror and the Illuminations were my introduction to poetry and they continue to inform my thoughts on poetry.

  9. Johannes

    Yes i loved those sucre poems in typo. I guess what they have in common with both jaderlund and negroni (and di giorgio) is a kind of decadent stylistic excess very unlike the dominant US fear of “mannerism” (prevalent in both quietism and experimentslism). I look forward to more Sucre! /johannes

  10. NEG

    Somewhere in his New Sentence book Silliman makes a case for the distinction between prose and verse being something along the lines of prose as writing that extends from margin to margin until the parameters of the page itself dictate a “break” whereas verse is writing that extends from the margin until the author decides she wants to break the line.

    Prose and verse as descriptive terms, not as genres. In this case, the genres might be “poetry” and “fiction”…anyhow, it’s been a useful distinction to me, but it already feels a few decades out of date, what with the ability we’ve all got not to wholly manipulate the size and shape of the page via Microsoft Word, to adjust margins, to left and right justify them…and that’s an interesting word when thinking about the form…”justification”…how do you justify your choices? is your form just? There’s no justice there’s just us (to quote some old hardcore)…

    anyhow, there were other inroads made with the prose poem besides the American Surrealists (Simic’s more American than all of us!) that you mention….Ashbery’s Three Poems, the long works Mayer & Colidge did in the 70s, the langpo’s work in the 80s (My Life, etc.)…even WCW’s early prose work (Kora in Hell, Spring & All) didn’t even really gain a wide readership until it was re-printed just after mid-century and then seeped ahistorically into various new Americans and their inheritor’s aesthetics.

    So I do think it all has a history but now it’s somehow tied to the technologies with which we both approach the dissemination of the writing & on/with which we do the actual work…

  11. Johannes

    Interesting that the ones you mention as being not american surrealists – kora, my life, ashbery – are also coming out of the frenchies, though their entry points might be different. You may know this better than me, but i seem to recall the prose poem actually publishing both hejinian and ashbery, suggesting again a certain haze of boundary. / johannes

  12. NEG

    Oh & I suppose I meant to say that yes, the term is important, but its parameters have shifted, become hazy, bent a bit beyond use, so that maybe it now stands as a historical genre and we’re all as poets currently wading in post-history, waiting for the tide to die down…

  13. Johannes

    I guess also I totally disagree with the Silliman (based on your description, I haven’t read that book for years) – it seems to miss too much in its formalism. “THe Prose Poem” has not just history but dimentions that don’t show up so easily – for me the most interesting being its convulsivness (other languages, forms etc).


  14. kristen

    I’m interested in the idea of the form as an anachronism — Is it’s relative newness the quality that suggests a specific timeline? Compare it to a formal poem, such as a ghazal, which in my mind is locked into the realm of ancient Persian writing, but still seems as “legitimate” of a form today as it was then. In fact, according to the internet, the ghazal wasn’t immediately recognized as a poetic form — perhaps it is even more “legitimate” now.

    I’m rambling here a bit, but perhaps your claim that the prose poem is “dead” informs the sense that it belongs only to a specific time period and is therefore anachronistic?

    Also… the idea of a form being “dead” is extremely interesting. How does a form die? Death = falling out of fashion? Out of usefulness? For whom?

    Very interesting article, J.

  15. Joyelle McSweeney

    Guillermo, how on earth did I miss your Sucre publication? Ordering immediately.

  16. Hugh Behm-Steinberg

    I want to push one of Noah’s points a little farther: I think the reason the prose poem has become so ubiquitous is because of its relative technical ease to publish, especially online (and even more so in e-readers). Because linebreaks don’t matter in prose poems, they’re able to fit in all manner of spaces/formats. They’re the antithesis of highly visual, highly designed poems that utilize all of the page space, neither hugging left nor right margins, which I loved until I had to do typesetting. So the prose poem isn’t a genre so much as a form; trying to critique the prose poem or keep up with the prose poem sounds quaint, like trying to stay on top of what folks are doing with quatrains.

  17. Johannes

    Yes, it does seem to have something to do with technology and not just online but I think composing on a word processor might have something to do with it. However, I disagree that it’s somehow beyond discussion. It might sound quaint but I’d like to see some interesting discussion. / Johannes

  18. Ann Bogle

    Montevidayo never disappoints me as a reader, since my first finding it. I misspelled Montevidayo in a letter of interest, twice, with an “e” where the “a” is, and left out a word, at first masquerading as clever when I discovered my omission was the word “one.” Three typos a good witch makes me.

    I take in poetry as often as I take in local beer, about three draughts a day. To follow in discussion of poetry, even to write it, to read it are part of my particular mind. Discussing it comes unnaturally to me. Fiction I can identify in its parts. I feel a difference in a flash and a prose poem. Narrative is not the difference. And both are concise. Flash fiction is upright, like a boy’s young-man printing–upright or back-slanting, in black, as if his printing withstands a wind, leads with its base instead of its head, while a girl’s head sails bluely or greenly forward, ahead of her base, her tail a curl, in cursive writing. Flash fiction is upright, and prose poetry has O’s.

  19. Johannes

    I like these Rebecca, like how it seems like a medium with too many voices pushing through. Which I agree with because Spiritualism is the official religion of Montevidayo. And also the official medium of Montevidayo.


  20. Johannes

    Also I like the manic energy. That was also something I was really interested in when I wrote Dear Ra. How the prose poem allows for that kind of obsessive field. When in the post I mentioned Basquiat I really should have included another painting – one of the paintings that are obsessively covered with text.


  21. Jessica

    Declaring a genre dead seems importantly distinct from noticing an outdatedness in how a genre is discussed. Painting – and all of poetry itself – has suffered the false-death-throes of pronounced “deadness” and always profited wildly from it; everyone loves a comeback. Maybe it’s not prose poetry that’s the anachronism but people’s expectations for and critical assessments of it.

    Beyond this, I was struck by the scarcity of female prose poets mentioned in your post, Johannes. It would be interesting to investigate the gender distinctions between prose poetry written by males vs. females.

    There are as many reasons to turn to the form – or non-form – of prose poetry as any other one out there, but the most important one to me seems to be its relationship to language’s greatest common denominator: the sentence. Prose is everyone’s form; it’s what most people associate with “understandable” language. How that democratic comprehensibility is actually to a strange linguistic invention itself – and one that’s hardly as transparent as it may popularly appear – is the magic of prose poetry: it recovers the strangeness and constructedness “normal” or “common” in speech and lays it bare, exposes it as the rhetorical subterfuge it is.

    All best, jessica

  22. Johannes

    I do think that tension between the prosaic and the poetic to be an important appeal. In the composition as well as the reading of the prose poem.

    I’m not sure what you mean with the female-to-male ratio. This whole discussion started with my post on Negroni, Di Giorgio, Berg and McSweeney (all women), and this post mentions about an equal number of men and women. The thing where this is perhaps relevant is the journal The Prose Poem, which as I note always struck me as emotionally normative and thus off-putting. And it is true that when I talk about it, I mostly mention men (Edson, Simic, Tate, Johnson etc) because those are the poets that seem representative of that journal (or wider space). And now that I think about it, that may be part of why it seemed normative to me; I guess when I talk about “indie rock” I mean something like “bromance” in the contemporary expression.

    And as I note, the poets that influenced me most at that time – Ann Jäderlund and Aaase Berg – were obviously women, women associated with a female/grotesque/extremist turn in Swedish poetry. So the short answer is that yes, very likely this discussion of prose poetry has something to do with gender.


  23. Sandy

    I think prose poetry is writing (fiction/nonfiction) whose sentences make you want to drop dead. I disagree with the idea that “prose poetry should not contain too much narrative or it becomes fiction” and would further make a distinction here between fiction and literary fiction. Fiction doesn’t employ the sentence as much as it employs plot. Literary fiction often ignores plot in its panorama of perfect sentences. Flash fiction is exactly what it sounds like: fiction that goes fast. But it works like regular (nonliterary) fiction, in the sense that the phone must ring. The gun must be shot. The scene must both linger and close. Prose poetry, on the other hand, lingers in language by both aperture and saturation. To me it’s is more like a Rothko than a Basquiat. No, it’s like a large empty room with only one Rothko in it. Basquiat to me would be flash fiction or rather flash nonfiction. I would (unpopularly) call Faulkner, Abani, Vera, and Fuentes prose poets. There’s an incredibly perfect paragraph in Midnight’s Children that I wanted to find and share, but sadly the book is in a box in the basement. While Rushdie is not my favorite writer, there are moments in his work that kill, and that’s what I like. I like to be killed.

    Having said that, I would actually argue that Rebecca’s work linked here reads more like flash fiction than it does prose poetry, or perhaps it reads more like poetry and less like prose poetry. (I like it very much. Thanks for posting it.) But perhaps flash fiction because it reads like a compressed story or novel. It reads like compression.

    I’ll add that I disagree totally that the genre has anything to do with technology, and if that’s its frame, it should be dismantled. Technology doesn’t alter the sentence, if that makes any sense.

  24. Johannes

    I wrote dear ra by copying and then transforming lolita and our lady of flowers – they must be prose poetry. / johannes

  25. Tyler Flynn

    Johannes, I’m happy to see this tease for conversation in regards to Prose Poems. I’m most struck by your Basquiat curiosity, which I’ll get to in a moment. I was very influenced by prose poems early in my writing, mostly by Mallarmé and Rosmarie Waldrop, and then by more contemporary writers like Peter Johnson and the various published contributions in journals like Sentence. When I think of prose poems I think of the sentence and in two ways: 1)that a thought consists inside of it wanting to come out side of it; 2) that in writing we are sentenced to a shape, feeling, etc. Thus the sentence for me remains integral in the prose poem, that this form, if slit and crumbled, would not be as strident in other forms.

    Over time, however, I’ve come to accept/be compelled by the prose poem for part of the reason you speak, and perhaps skeptically, of it–for its interiority, that it thinks back into thinking’s dilemmas. I don’t think a prose poem in my mind busts too much into surreal or exterior realms; instead, it gives into theory and here I think of Blanchot talking aboout Celan and so on but that’s another punch I need to stir for a moment before this leaks. I want to get to Basquiat before rambling, that the prose poem has a boxy element that is also harnessed by canvas, that you have a shape to pour your oils into. What technology has allowed for is the ease by which you can just start typing a poem and immediately justify it so that it looks like a box, whereas many prose poems may have shape but not rely on the justifications. I think of the canvas of a prose poem in a very abstract-appreciative way, that there’s always a flash or color one can get to in a an abstract painting and dig, and that solid prose poems always, to me, seem to wade in ideas until one line comes crashing in and this one line might be the very purpose of the whole thinking event of creating the poem. Some people might say, well, take that one line then, but the prose poem is an examination, so often, and as such lets you think with it so it doesn’t need to edit itself as often or much.

    It seems to me that there’s less talk of prose poems these days and that’s because flash fiction has picked up. But I don’t want to confuse these two. I think that prose poems have to have a poetic element, not by force but by very hand, and that flash fiction explodes into a larger arena where many genres can clop and therefore the two remain separate for me, though I believe I write in both.

    I’d be excited to hear and express more on this front. It seems I’m late in the conversation though, and that you’re probably six posts deep and different than this one right now, bookshelves and all.

    Cheers, Tyler

  26. Jessica

    Thanks for your response, Johannes. I suppose I was focusing on the male-centric “Prose Poem” Journal and PP/FF portion of your post, as well as your subsequent list of early influences — Lautreamont Genet, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, etc. The French fellows certainly do swerve wider of the “normative” ditch than Edson, Simic and co. — though they are still, I think, not that far from it.

    I suppose I mention it just as a point of interest, as it’s something that’s never occurred to me to explore. Creating an analogy dichotomy for gender in indie rock vs. painting is fun/funny — though, they may be too similar at heart. Maybe more indie rock/painting vs. wallpaper/decoration? That seems more appropriate: expressive extremism versus the quotidien continuum?

    All best,

  27. Johannes

    Yes, any binary like that might be too reductive. And also to assign gender essentials is too reductive. I would actually also say that to oppose extremism to wallpaper isnt the most interesting approach either. We might consider for example how the seeming opposites of wallpaper and artaud actually are at odds with a notion of the human and competence at heart of a lot of uninspred tastes in art. And it is certainly true that indie rock is not the opposite of baudelaire, and like i noted neither indie rock nor the prose poem are without interest to me, tho in the end i find them a little less interesting. Sorry wroting this on iphone

  28. Lucas Klein

    Interesting to read a post “wonder[ing] if “prose poetry” has any value anymore”; just last year I published a book of translations from the Chinese, largely of prose poetry. I sure hope it has value!

    One of the reasons I imagine prose poetry still has value has to do with the history of its origins. Cole Swensen (an interesting person to quote here) locates the birth of prose poetry with the birth of Parisian modernity; she says it “”was poetry adapted precisely to the changes in ambient sound … the rhythms of the prose poem reflect an overall atmosphere of expansion, improvisation, and adaptability—socially, economically, stylistically,” particularly as brought about by the travaux haussmanniens.

    But aside from a hint in the line about “creating not only a space where prose and poetry could interact but also a space where translation was valued,” I didn’t see much discussion of another element of prose poetry’s original associations–strangely, for a Montevidayo piece–which is its history of inextricability with translation. In my intro. to Notes on the Mosquito, I also noted that “the modern form originated in eighteenth-century French translations of foreign poetry into prose, and in American English the seminal works of prose poetry were by either literary internationalists or else translations proper,” adding in a footnote, “For prose poems by literary internationalists, I am thinking of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914), William Carlos Williams’s Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920), Robert Duncan’s “The Structure of Rime” (published serially 1960–1987), and John Ashbery’s Three Poems (1972); prose poem translations essential for the development of the form in American English were Nathaniel Tarn’s Stelae by Victor Segalen (1969), Cid Corman’s Things by Francis Ponge (1971), and Eliot Weinberger’s Eagle or Sun? by Octavio Paz (1970, 1976).”

    I think this all adds to the and/or of prose poetry, and I’d like to know more about how you sense it all together.

    irregular Lucas

  29. Johannes

    Well, I think I mentioned the translation, but you’re absolutely right. “The Prose Poem” (the journal, the genre, the mode or whatever) was/has been very influenced by translation, and I think that’s why it can have no real “future” or sense of lineage, or it has one of those pervy foreign influenced lineages… I guess that’s why David Lehman had to create an anthology called “The American Prose Poem” a few year ago, trying to establish a proper, all-American lineage (and failing utterly). / Johannes