As I've received numerous requests for past articles I've written on the prose poem, I thought I would reprint the two most pertinent pieces here so they're available to everyone. This first article originally appeared in Poetry News's Summer 2008 issue on page 4.
Close-up: What is a prose poem?
Thanks to David Miller’s overview of the prose poem in English in his article on the form in the winter 2003/4 issue of Poetry News, this essay can go directly to a common question: What constitutes a prose poem?
As with poems in lines, prose poems concentrate or distil their subject matter (as African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks once said, “Poetry is life distilled”), and they employ many of the same sonic devices that give lineated poetry its music. While rarely employing rhyme (and obviously unable to use end rhyme), prose poems also create musicality through the rhythms of prose in their syntactical constructions. These are particularly evident in Carolyn Forché’s excellent poem, “The Colonel.” It opens:
What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house.
Here, the repetition of short sentences with the same structure effects a staccato rhythm that helps build tension. Additionally, the alliteration of the plosive P in the fourth sentence raises that tension another notch by exaggerating that staccato, at the very moment the poem unexpectedly juxtaposes domesticity and violence.
The poem goes on to narrate the events of the evening: dinner, followed by the colonel confronting his guests. This movement through time and brief plot may raise the question of whether “The Colonel” is, instead of a prose poem, a short-short story. How does one tell the difference? The answer partly lies in the work’s apparent motive: whether it seeks to relate events for themselves or to make a greater point through the story told. While sometimes the difference is hard to discern, the tone and the frame of “The Colonel” imply that it means to make a statement both of and larger than itself. Note, also, that its characters are more types than individuals, another trait common to prose poetry. The characters’ flatness points up their analogical role.
So if the different uses of language, plot, and characterisation differentiate prose poems from short-short stories, what distinguishes a poem in prose from a poem in lines? Or, to put it another way, why write a poem in prose instead of lines? The choice between prose and lines has to do with how the poem operates. While there are always exceptions, a poem in lines makes some kind of progression, going from one point to a different point by the poem’s end, say from A to B. Consider, for example, the movement made in only twelve lines in Louis MacNiece’s “Snow,” from its first words (“The room was suddenly rich”) to its wondrous conclusion: “There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.” And as in “Snow,” stanzas often indicate steps in that progression, as they develop a narrative or argument.
A prose poem, however, wants to stay in one place. It starts with A and explores it, so that the poem concludes not at another point but with a greater comprehension of A than that with which it began. “The Colonel” opens by declaring an act of witness—“What you have heard is true,” and the poem goes on to share the “truth” with the reader, both in the literal facts, as in the objects the speaker enumerates, and the figurative truth implied by the poem’s conclusion, when the colonel spills a grocery bag of human ears on the table:
He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.
The poem can serve as a powerful act of witness, to testify to the truth of events that might otherwise go unreported or have their magnitude in terms of human loss unappreciated. That is the “scrap” the ears catch hold of, the possibility that someone will tell their story. “The Colonel” then does not so much progress as elaborate this idea, and recording “daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him,” among other details, evinces the commitment of that act of witness. Thus the prose poem, in the way it circles an idea rather than making a linear progression, offers a distinctly different structural approach, broadening what poetry can be and do.
Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel” originally appeared in her collection, The Country Between Us (Yale University Press, 1981).