Did poetry develop before prose Why

Today we have a guest post by R. L. Black, publisher ofUnbrokenJournal. She explains the differences between prose poetry and so-called traditional poetry.

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What the Heck is a Prose Poem?

By R. L. Black

I recently launched Unbroken Journal, a bimonthly journal that publishes prose poems, and I get that question a lot: What the heck is a prose poem? How does it differ from a traditional poem? What makes it different from poetic prose or from flash fiction, or even a vignette?

If you’re looking for a concrete definition of what a prose poem is, it is poetry written as prose, poetry disguised as prose. However, my favorite definition of prose poetry comes from Peter Johnson. He said, “… the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels.” I like it so much I almost called my journal “Banana Peels.”

How is a prose poem different from traditional poetry? It is different in form. The prose poem is unlineated, written in a justified form that looks like a block. But even though the prose poem is free of line breaks, the elements of traditional poetry are still present, such as alliteration, internal rhyme, imagery, and rhythm.

Why not just call it poetic prose, or flash fiction? That would probably be accurate, and at Unbroken we also accept poetic prose. The biggest difference I see between a prose poem and poetic prose is that poetic prose tends to be longer, has more than one paragraph, and leans more toward a story than a poem. This could also be called poetic flash fiction, or a vignette, and at Unbroken we accept all of those, but no matter what it’s called, we publish everything in the unlineated, justified, block form. Why? Because we like it.

Because a picture is worth a thousand words, here’s a lined poem I did recently, and then changed it to a prose poem. I’ll give you both so you can see the difference, but also the way it retains the same poetic elements.

Here it is in lined form:

You check your little black book:
Jana, her favorite dessert
Cream Cheese Pie

Eight ounces of cream cheese
left out to soften
while you take a shower

You sip wine and mix the cream cheese
with a can of sweetened
condensed milk

Lemon juice, one third cup
Like your charm, freshly squeezed
You didn’t have to

You splash in a teaspoon of vanilla
and smile. Its scent
turns you on

You put on music and pour
the mixture into
a graham cracker crust

You and your pie chill for three hours
the doorbell rings
You’re so damn smooth

Now, here’s the same poem, in the form of a prose poem:

You check your little black book: Jana, her favorite dessert, Cream Cheese Pie. Eight ounces of cream cheese left out to soften while you take a shower. You sip wine and mix the cream cheese with a can of sweetened condensed milk. Lemon juice, one third cup, like your charm, freshly squeezed. You didn’t have to. You splash in a teaspoon of vanilla and smile. Its scent turns you on. You put on music and pour the mixture into a graham cracker crust. You and your pie chill for three hours. The doorbell rings. You’re so damn smooth.

Hopefully you can see from my example, there’s not much difference between the two versions, just that one is lined and one is not. But do you note the different moods that each form creates? Often, there’s a certain mood the poet is going for that will cause them to select the form of the prose poem.

If you’d like to further study the prose poem, I suggest you go to our current issue of Unbroken. There you can see the form that it takes. You can also see the difference between a prose poem (“The Petals”, by Nolan Liebert, for example) and poetic prose (“Arc’s Journey”, by Russ Bickerstaff.) You can even see great examples of what might be called poetic flash fiction or a vignette (“Devotional”, by j. lewis or “Monster in the Corner” by Kathy Steinemann.)

I also suggest Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Prose Poetry. This is my favorite book at the moment and I keep it with me at all times. It’s packed full of essays by today’s leading practitioners of the craft, and each essay is followed up with a selection of the author’s own prose poems.

I’ll leave you with these words from Bob Hicok in the aforementioned Field Guide to Prose Poetry: “Why write until the carriage returns? Cause it’s a pumpkin and I want pie.”

R. L. Black lives in Tennessee. When she is not busy editing Unbroken Journal, she reads for freeze frame fiction and The Riding Light Review, and writes flash fiction and poetry. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Maudlin House, Pidgeonholes, Literary Orphans, and others.

You can find out more about the author and her publications by following her on Twitter @rlblackauthor.

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