If it’s fiction, it can be a novel or a short story, or more exciting a short short, or a piece of sudden fiction, or best of all flash fiction, when the story will light up your day, your whole life, with its short-circuited electric fireworks. On the other hand, if it’s poetry, it might be an epic, a sequence, a single lyric, strict form or free verse, it might appear on the page, or be performed or rapped, until dullest of all it’s a prose poem. So I’m going to suggest that we ditch that name, leave it sodden where it belongs, and instead a poem written in prose should be called flash poetry. That means it’s not going to be as short as some well-known forms of poetry like a haiku, just three lines and seventeen syllables usually. But let’s forget about length, lines, words or syllable counts, and instead think about flashiness.
Probably the most important thing about any kind of writing is the “heart’s leap”, an idea coined by Wordsworth as a poet: My heart leaps up when I behold/a rainbow in the sky, he wrote and then he writes later in the poem: The child is father of the man. I’ve never been quite sure what that means except I suppose that children have a lot to teach adults. They are much quicker to heartleap (coined a new word all because of trying to tie down flash poetry, or rather let flash poetry explode.)
If the writing is worth its salt, the reader will heartleap. So let’s try and work out what the difference is between flash fiction and flash poetry. Visually, they will look much the same because the shape on the page will not be dictated by the poetic line in either case. Flash poetry may well look more dense since it is less likely to have paragraphs or indentation for dialogue. And content-wise flash fiction, however short, will have a narrative arc while flash poetry will catch a moment with maybe implied narrative. In fact, flash poetry will have more in common with a photograph than with a piece of prose. Anne Caldwell on her prose poem website quotes a definition by Carrie Etter:
She defines the prose poem as “circling or inhabiting a mood or idea, perhaps remaining in one place (although not static) rather than moving from A to B as a poem does.”
Anne Caldwell goes on to add: “Like a photograph being processed in the traditional way, in a dark room, the writing of a prose poem could mirror a chemical process that relies on containment within a frame.” And she continues a few sentences later: “ I have tended to see the writing of a prose poem as close to musical improvisation, particularly jazz, where a musician might take a phrase or idea and riff around it to explore just how far the musical phrase can be played with or pushed.” https://prose-poetry.uk/about
Prose poems were probably first introduced by nineteenth century French poets like Baudelaire but Hannah Salt, writing in Magma’s online magazine, dismisses Baudelaire’s prose poems, saying they are only read alongside his poetry. In fact Salt pretty well claims that prose poems are not poetry. https://magmapoetry.com/archive/magma-42/articles/poetry-in-practice-are-prose-poems-poems/
Here are some jokey but important suggestions on what a prose poem is not and is, set out by Danielle Michelle on the DIY MFA website: https://diymfa.com/writing/poets-revolt-brief-guide-prose-poem
You can take your pick.
A prose poem is not:
- a failed verse poem
- a short-short story
- a consolation prize
- from a poet who is questioning their genre-orientation
- a bagel
A prose poem is:
- a small justified block of text wherein “weird shit happens”
- a jazz solo
- a poem in a box
- capacious and interior
- a paradox
- born out of annoyance
- a revolt
- a nonsense
- an opportunity for something different
- miles and miles and miles
If only we called them flash poems, that ugly word prose would never have to be used in conjunction with the word poetry and we would heartleap at every reading of a flash poem..
To end with, here is a prose/flash poem by Danielle Michelle. Read this and then try one yourself.
Hadrian’s Wall was incorrectly thought to have anything to do with King Arthur. Arthur was thought to be a cuckold. A cock is a bringer of power. Or a fowl. Hadrian was thought to be a humanist, but he enjoyed a hunt. The Higgs boson is the fox. Run through the Large Hadron Collider beneath France. Results come out of Switzerland, because it’s neutral. The God-Particle has only one intention: to make you choose. Everything above the wall was said to be wild. You are a Lancelot. You convince me choice is irrelevant. There are three anticolors. They repel their natural mates. There is a man who listens deeply, whom I want desperately to love. Hadrian said his wall was “divine instruction.” You said there’s a better way to be lonely. It took two years to excavate the seventeen tons of gravel & six months to freeze the walls that house the Atlas Detector. Arthur was a fool for magic. I ask you to love me. Love me like the Higgs boson, like the particle that explains why I matter. Hadrian died an empire. Arthur, a kingdom. All this to prove a darkness. I sing out to the antiblue, give me some proof of existence.
Magma article referring to Baudelaire, his inspiration from …… and Francis Ponge who relies on describing the object
Emerson’s influence on James Tate’s The Lost Pilot – importance of transition
Influence of James Tate on Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars
Also published on Medium.
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