You may be familiar with prose and with poetry, both forms of writing that you can recognise immediately just from one quick glance of a page. But prose poetry can seem like an oxymoron. How can both be put together?
Prose poems combine those two styles – prose and poetry – to form a unique form of poetry.
To fully understand prose poetry, it’s important to be aware of the difference between prose and verse.
Firstly, what is prose? This is the most common form of writing because it best reflects the way we speak and think. It follows grammatical rules and is arranged into sentences and paragraphs.
Prose is found everywhere. Most fiction you read – from novels to short stories – will be in prose. Likewise, nearly all content you read online will be prose as well, such as news stories and blog posts.
If you ask someone what is poetry, it’s likely that they won’t have an immediate answer. It can be difficult to define because poetry tends to take a more aesthetic approach to language compared to prose.
Poetry can be written, spoken, or performed, and is an art form that has existed in many forms for millennia, being used for storytelling, capturing ideas, and to evoke emotions.
Language is crucial to how a poem is created. Poets can use every tool at their disposal – such as alliteration and metaphor – to achieve their desired effect, but they aren’t constrained by grammatical rules.
What is prose poetry?
Traditionally, poetry was written in verse. This means it’s metrical, with a structured rhythm to how it’s spoken. Prose poems are still a form of poetry, but they deviate from this tradition by not using verse.
Like with other poems, prose poetry tends to use metaphorical language to create images which capture a moment, idea, or experience. However, it’s also written in prose, meaning that it is structured in sentences and paragraphs without any strict meter.
Examples of prose poetry
- Charles Baudelaire’s “Paris Spleen”
- Aloysius Bertrand “Gaspard de la Nuit”
- Amy Lowell’s “Spring Day”
- Amy Karon’s “Arizona Drought”
Excerpt from Amy Lowell’s “Spring Day”
Little spots of sunshine lie on the surface of the water and dance, dance, and their reflections wobble deliciously over the ceiling; a stir of my finger sets them whirring, reeling. I move a foot, and the planes of light in the water jar. I lie back and laugh, and let the green-white water, the sun-flawed beryl water, flow over me. The day is almost too bright to bear, the green water covers me from the too bright day. I will lie here awhile and play with the water and the sun spots.
The sky is blue and high. A crow flaps by the window, and there is a whiff of tulips and narcissus in the air.
Excerpt from Amy Karon’s “Arizona Drought”
Dusk of scorched August kills lights and batteries. Bereft, we feel our way downstairs to sleepwalk rippled asphalt. Night blooms around us. Awake now, we trace faded memories of desert petrichor, the sweet, pungent exhale of creosote after rain. Lights stay out, and eastern hills birth a dense moon. Our neighbors emerge, phoneless and befuddled, to murmur low and circle the lone field where nighthawks croak and boom and poorwills snatch moths from ghosts of ironwood. Moonset sends these tenants of earth and sky to sleep. But we stay out, the join of our fingers a compass marking the path toward thunderheads that burst on the horizon (at last, at last, at last).
History of prose poetry
While poetry has existed in one form or another for thousands of years, prose poetry is much newer as a defined distinct style. Some point its origins to the 19th century with French poets such as Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire being amongst the first to write prose poems.
The style grew in popularity and spread across Europe and then to America, with other famous writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke, William Carlos Williams and Franz Kafka adopting the style.
During the Modernist era of the early 20th century, prose poetry fell out of popularity in some circles, with TS Eliot in particular being critical of the form. Nevertheless, others of the era such as Gertrude Stein still used it, and by the middle of the century it became more widely-favoured, especially in America.
Some argue that prose poetry has existed for much longer, even if it wasn’t distinctly referred to as prose poetry. For example, passages of the Bible appear more like prose poems than verse.
How to write prose poetry
If you’ve never written a prose poem before, it can be a daunting new challenge. Make sure to follow these steps so you can be confident about writing prose poetry:
Choose your subject matter
What you actually want to write about is, of course, important. It’s crucial to remember that prose poetry is, at the end of the day, still poetry. You’re not writing a short story.
Like all poetry, the subject matter can be anything from a personal experience you’ve had to the dissection of a theme or idea. It could even be about an object, location, or person.
Write the opening
Your first few sentences are the most important. They should capture the tone of the poem and establish your subject matter. It’s also where you need to set out how the prose poem will work in terms of the syntax and sentence structures, therefore showing a reader why it’s should be a prose poem in the first place, as opposed to a verse poem or short story.
Create the first draft
Your first draft won’t be perfect, but completing it is arguably the toughest hurdle. Once you’ve conquered it, no matter how bad you think it might be, all you need to do is edit it.
Refine and redraft
Once the first draft is complete, you’re past the hardest stage. Now you can make it better. Check for any obvious mistakes first, then really polish the voice and tighten the language to really make it flow.
Have someone critique it
The next part can also be difficult: showing your prose poem to someone else. You don’t need to reveal it to strangers yet, but it’s an invaluable step to have a friend or family member to read through it and voice their thoughts. Any feedback is useful.
You can implement any points they’ve made and really make the prose poem as good as it can be. You’ll then be ready for the final step: share your poem with the world!
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