Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Prose Poem: An Eccentric Genre

by Bacopa Prose Poetry Editor Kaye Linden

Our 2018 Prose Poetry guidelines: Prose poems are pure creation, the playful and daring edge of poetry. The writer must provide powerful lyrical language and, above all, a truthful, commanding voice.

The eccentric prose poem is not honored as poetry by many writers because it is modern, nontraditional, and misunderstood. A prose poem breaks the rules of poetry. Prose poetry is the rebel with a cause, a woman ruling her own country, a mixed genre that identifies with no form in particular.

Prose poems don't use the line breaks of traditional poetry and may offer complete sentences in narrative form or odd fragments strewn across a page. They might consist of half-page or three-page narratives or one-line symbolic declarations, the obvious and the implied work in balance to surprise the reader. Whether a prose poem runs in broken lines or dense narrative, its major element, as with all poetry, is its language. That language is often simple, with implied symbolism, as with Edson’s "The Ant Farm" (The Tunnel: Selected Poems):
In spite of Columbus the world collapses and goes flat again.
The sky is a bell jar where a child in another scale watches his ant farm.
When the bored child yawns two thousand years pass.

Someday we have crashed to the playroom floor; the careless child knocks us over
with his fire truck. . . All that dirt lying in its broken sky.
Swept up, it is thrown into a garbage can at the back of the universe. 
Few writers can define this eccentric genre. At the same time, the use of sentences as opposed to broken lines does change the rhythm and oral read of any poem, and the use of sentence structure in dense or loose narrative elicits a different feel and expectation for the reader. 

Prose poetry allows experimentation and a breaking of poetic rules because of its flexibility and lack of strict definition. It often, but not always, has a specific shape on the page. Except for line breaks, it makes use of poetic device and tactics such as imagery and doesn't employ a plot or story line as does short fiction. 

For the amazing geography of the world of prose poetry, take a look at Great American Prose Poems From Poe to the Present edited by David Lehman (Simon & Schuster). In his Introduction, Lehman describes the prose poem as "an insistently modern form. . . inherently subversive. . . a hybrid form, an anomaly if not a paradox or oxymoron. It offers the enchantment of escape. . . ." 

Prose poetry and flash fiction hang out together like best friends. The poem above by Russell Edson doesn't boast all the definitive elements of flash story but it does have some—small frame, compression, minimalism, a tiny world, word weight. Not much of a story line though, is it? This poem works by implication and imagery, subtext and symbolism, the marks of poetry. And my flash piece, 1st prize winner for Creative Nonfiction in Bacopa Literary Review 2015 before I became an Editor, could just as readily be considered a prose poem:
The Linear and Circular One Sentence of Tattoo Designs over His Body

David runs through Goliath with a sword but Goliath stands strong, his sandal strap broken by the tip of steel, blood at the ankle, a few hairy hairs shaved from his knee, but he stays upright, an angel of the bottomless pit, the hero of one tattooed story with its swirly blue ink marks connecting letters over each vertebra of spine, letters that spell out “Never again” and “violence is not the way” with the word “way” spiraling down the spinal column, each lumbar protrusion covered with inky lines and letters, until the ink bleeds into Popeye opening a can of worms on the left buttock, and Olive smoking a pipe on the right buttock, the pipe smoke weaving a curly-Q whirly loop and merging into Spider man’s web on the left thigh, the web webbing its lacey stars and stripes network down and around the shins, around and around until it splatters inky blue spiders over the gastrocnemius of the left calf muscle and covers the ankles and feet with tiny Buddhas that continue under the feet and protect the soles of feet and the soul of the man, (but how on earth did he suffer through that painful tattooing?) and seen from under jeans, the feet appear dirty and garden-weary but when rolled up, like Eliot’s Prufrock on the beach, the design works magic like a waterfall works magic, a watershed of rainbow colors spreading in a rainfall of tattoo etchings across his massive shoulders, his sharp abs, pecs, scapulae, triceps, biceps, quadriceps, embellishing and fertilizing all six hundred and thirty-nine muscles, a landscape of linked vessels and lines emerging whenever he takes off his shirt, a rare occurrence, only when the gorgeous and the giants come to town and he dreads the time when he runs out of tattoo space on his skin and he must share his stories with his words instead.

Suggested reading:
The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry, Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek (Eds)
An Introduction to the Prose Poem, Brian Clements and Jamey Dunham (Eds)
(Drawn from two of Kaye Linden's posts in the Writers Alliance of Gainesville blog)


1 comment:

  1. Bacopa is the best. Many of my writer friends are so impressed with your journal's layout and content. Thanks for your support and hard work!