Poetic Forms: Prose Poetry

Of all the poetic forms, prose poetry may be the most controversial. After all, free verse and most experimental poetry still contain line breaks. But prose poems often look like a short short story or a long (even if poetic) paragraph. (One of my favorite prose poets, Nin Andrews, wrote a piece on prose poems in the 2012 Poet’s Market.)

The rules are simple and straightforward:

  • Write a poem.
  • Don’t break your lines.

Some poets will argue that you can’t do one without the other, but after reading prose poems by Robert Bly, Nin Andrews, and Denise Duhamel, I think it’s possible. As the poet, your challenge is to make the reader believe that a lump of text with no line breaks is still a poem too.

Instead of sharing my own attempt at this form, check out these examples:

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Find more poetic forms…
…in the 2016 Poet’s Market, edited by Robert Lee Brewer.

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21 thoughts on “Poetic Forms: Prose Poetry

  1. candy

    Break The Rules

    Write without taking a breath. Break the rules. Write until you’ve wrung your heart dry and your mind is an empty shell. Don’t stop for line breaks or meter or rhyme. Make the rules. Keep your pen marching forward into uncharted spaces. Push your muse through the dark places until you emerge, reborn. Then start again at the beginning with poetic rules and old friends and favorites.

  2. The Happy Amateur

    Hi, Robert and everyone,
    I’m new to this blog and very excited to be here. I’d like to post something I wrote a while ago, but before I do, I want to make sure it’s not too long for a blog post. Would a 500-word prose poem (at least, that’s how I see it) be OK?
    Thank you,
    Alexandra

  3. Juanita Lewison-Snyder

    Moon Gate
    by Juanita Lewison-Snyder

    Luna glows shyly behind a stand of bamboo and horsetail, rustling petticoats of lemon grass in the darkness. An eternal circle embracing unity, peace and happiness, she sighs and ripples amid a worshiping culture of bonsai and water iris, moving as if a horse coming to fence greet an old friend. In ancient times, moon gates were powerful talismans in the gardens of Asian nobles, built for the attraction of Luna. Newlyweds paid dearly for the chance to step through to receive ancestral blessings. Today however, moon gates are considered nothing more than openings along garden walls subject to pedestrian superstitions; orbital beggars of architectural stone vying for affection among the red maple and weeping cedars. But if you toss your heart over the fence, perhaps Luna will come like a horse and follow.

    © 2011 by Juanita Lewison-Snyder

  4. rebeccarpruitt

    Quiet Chaos

    What am I supposed to do when my senses are only responsive to you? I speak to you as if you’re listening. I sit as if you’re watching me. You swarm my mind; your presence persistent to stay with me, yet not realized.
    How can I pursue my purpose now that you are the core of my consciousness? I invent protocol to love you. I make sacrifices in my thoughts to make you happy. I think of ways I can be good to you. They never materialize.
    What is it I am doing? Hoping, dreaming, wishing, desiring? Knowing that she is the one who holds your heart, I foresee only pain in it. Yet I set aside my own rules; keep back fears and tears. No outward reason why.

  5. Miss Mel

    Tahoe Toe Lapping

    We sit front row as Lake Tahoe’s boat created waves threaten to overtake a makeshift dam the kids made that separates us from the wet. Sitting on our red and white picnic cloth in the Tahoe sand as darkness falls, we wait for the first blast of light to commemorate our country’s birthday – for it is Independence Day, July 4, 2010. We arrived here in late afternoon and are thrilled to celebrate this day with all the revelers. The flash begins, the waves occasionally crash through – further heightening the drama by carressing our bare feet with frozen kisses. Happy Birthday, America!

  6. Rain200

    Prose Poetry- INFOMERCIAL

    the weights were, oh say, 8 pounds a piece these hand weights I got the other day, they look small, they are shiny and smell of cool rubber over asphalt. I sniff them more than pull on them, but I pull on them with my small, chubby hands. Soon very soon the commercial will go off and motivation will wave good bye to me.

    pulling ever harder on these 8 pound weights I lift as muscles scream as an old house door which never been in use, I reach higher higher higher! Like the slender toned brunette says in the commercial. Her coltish legs tease me and mock me as she wiggles in appreciated freedom while the weights slowly succumb to gravity and she shouts: “If I can do it! You can too!” The scene cuts to her false “before” picture slamming down bbq ribs and my refrigerator asks me if I want that second bite.I slow down the reps and the screen flips to her sweating in some alien suit which suddenly fits her. It is is not fair and so I drop and give myself twenty just like she does. I want to be an alien too! Day 30 and the only results is that jealousy has grown better, leaner muscles than me and the doctor just told me to slow down I am at my normal weight.

  7. Zebedeerox

    Prose Poetry Entry:- Nature’s Way

    Dancing against darkness, enter player one: a yo-yo, gangly, daddy-long-legs flutter, drawn towards the flickering tube, ignited. Rebounding on and off and across the glass, oblivious in its crazy, crane-fly path, it bounces between wily web and window. Player two, predatorial quick-silver: its eight legs scuttle, engage, become fourteen; no thoughts, pure instinct – to feed and to survive. Within seconds the furious battle’s won, the arachnid’s speed and stealth overwhelming; Its home’s wrecked, adorned with dismembered trophies. Yet still the victim lamely, gamely struggles, becoming integral as the rebuild starts: reconstruction with a gossamer hot-dog.

    Eight legs must feel like thousands as the crane fly, helpless, watches the crafter re-weave its lair, crawling up, down and around the dying meal. Feverish claws criss-cross, stitching and mending, thread loose segments together to make a rope, then wrap around the flailing, failing die-hard. Outside, against the bare arc-sodium glare, this macabre ballet floats ghoulishly, yet real; nature’s nightmare, perpetual, yet ageless. Strewn all across the suspended battleground spindly legs twirl on unseen severed strands, breeze bouncing the torment like a trampoline.

    Now, this performance draws to its conclusion: spider, satisfied, struggles to web-central, prey hauled in a tug-of-war with gravity. Glued, the four rear legs spread across remnant strands; Its four-arms clinch the warm papoose, pinceresque; abdomen arched, thorax risen: table’s set. The triumphant, tiny head plunges; buried, furtive fangs feast on fruits of its labour: the skeletal remains a burned-through matchstick.

  8. Sue Tanida

    This was inspired by seeing a funny-but-sad sign next to some London Broil in the pre-made foods section of Whole Foods Market: “contains beef”–of COURSE London Broil contains beef, it IS beef… but then I noticed all the other signs disclosing the not so apparent ingredients and thought of my friends who need to avoid various foods they can’t digest–and my own digestive issues, which cause some upset but not anything terribly serious. I imagined someone with a LOT of them and wrote this prose poem:

    Fading

    Reading the side of the box, gluten…sigh. lactose…sigh. soy lecithin…sigh. Soy wheat milk soy wheat milk soy wheat milk, what the hell doesn’t have soy, wheat or milk in it? There has to be something… something… anything… please? Palefaced she moves through the aisles, stomach cramping, insides aching, hoping beyond hope that there is something out there, something not processed on equipment with…something that her body can assimilate without the cold pangs of betrayal, the sharpness of an unread word stabbing her ability to digest and deflating it like a cruelly popped balloon. Intolerance, intolerance, intolerance. The word mocks her as she reads on, anxious, perspiring, fearful of food. Not really Crohn’s, not really an allergy, not really a convenient diagnosis. just being a girl fading away with pain, with frustration, with the friends who forget someone who can’t go out to eat with them, whose only interaction with others is passing silently through the aisles reading the sides of the boxes…

  9. Robert Lee Brewer Post author

    Susan, I totally agree, but all those tools and techniques are present in line-broken poetry as well. It could be (and has been) argued by some that the problem with much of free verse is that it’s just prose with line breaks. So, I don’t want to oversimplify, but the same rules for free verse poems are there for prose poems too.

    Also, I know there are passages in several novels (and even online articles) that read like poetry, but it is all about presentation–and it’s totally subjective.

    1. Susan Budig

      Yes, it is subjective. I teach online and when we work prose poems I often run into the most controversy. It’s much easier to explain how a poem is or is not a villanelle for example.

      I hope I manage to come up with something that qualifies for your challenge.

  10. Susan Budig

    Robert, in all respect, I think your posted rules are a bit shy of adequate. A prose poem also uses poetic techniques such as, but not only, metaphor, simile, repetition, phrase echo, etc. If it doesn’t, I believe it qualifies as beautiful writing, but not prose poetry.

    I am currently reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. In many places, it is truly prose poetry although it’s not promoted as such. I quote from page 9: “When it crashed, three deep gashes were made in the earth. Its wings were now sawn-off arms. No more flapping. Not for this metalic little bird.”

    1. Zebedeerox

      Susan, I’m totally with you on this – there has to be some differentiate between prose & poetry.

      If you’ve ever been on a poetry ‘review’ site and the ‘top poets’ wake up, scratch their backsides, scribble three lines in their diary while the kettle’s boiling and post it as poetry – argh!
      But the punters all rave about it and give it five stars, or ten genies or seventy-two thumbs-ups…
      …pet hate of mine, that. But, there’s a lesson in the power of branding, if nothing else.

      Sorry – rant over. Yes – all poetry must have something that distinguishes it (Robert will say ‘it’s the word-craft that does it’, I’m just waiting for it; point taken.).

      Otherwise, if a paragraph a day make’s you a poet, I guess you can kiss my assonance goodbye.

  11. Walt Wojtanik

    A HEART NO LONGER MINE

    The trail stretches, amidst the barren trees and forgotten hollow where we used to spent our time. A hidden place, where hearts were given, exposed to the solitude that nature provided. That’s where we would hide all secrets shared and passions exchanged in pangs of wanton desire. It was a fire long smoldering that kept us safe and warm, safe from harm, execpt from that of each other’s love. Above us the clouds would converge sneeking peaks at our private world; infatuate guy and fragile girl. I held you in your fright through an unsure night, offering assurances that the light of day would return to you as long as my shield stay unpenitrable. Here in this venerable place; our sanctuary with nary a nay said to our escape. But, I was exposed as a charlatan, unable to save you from your attacker, your riddled body. It became a waste of time to watch you waste away. The decision to stay was all mine, and I assumed you were fine with it until my banishment. Your declaration that I was to remain unseen and hidden, alone much like that place that heaven envied and no one else knew. It was always just me and you, and that was true until the silence of your pulse rendered yours a heart no longer mine. Time will pass. Days will linger. Your memory will fade. But, apparently not today.

  12. Walt Wojtanik

    A RAINY DAY OUT BUFFALO WAY

    The days count down, and this town has been embroiled in autumn weather since late august. The weather gurus always see the glass half full with a chance of thunder storms. But, it warms my heart to see that everything around me says we’re almost into falling temperatures and foliage, sometimes in that order. Up across the border, the Canadian cold fronts are aligning and I’m finding it harder to ignore. Emploring the meteorologisal gods for 30% probability of a break is asking a lot. And the rains fall. From gentle showers to deliberate downpours, the weather whores make us pay the price. We think twice knowing we’ve got to get our affairs in order. And so, the lawn gets a good grooming, all while moving the snow blower closer to the door. The windows get caulked and sealed, a big deal when the Buffalo winds start to reel. All the cars get a going over in preparation for the ice and cold. I’m getting too old for this shit. I better get it together for the inclement weather. The days are counting down. Goodbye Summer. We hardly knew ye! I thought I was a resillient fella, but where the hell did I put my umbrella?

  13. sojourningwithjoy

    As I read above, Yesterday like today, it rang true to the very heart of me. I have stood on the edge of who I am and wondered what made me so. My senses take in the beauty of the earth, her colors flood my eyes, the smells of her living and dying fill my being, I hear her, feel her, am her. Out of this filling comes forth artistry that is mine, but not mine alone. I paint upon the canvas all my eyes have seen, that which I was given to experience. I decant the words bottled up in me, whisperings of spirit voices, wind walkers and my own ancient understanding. Who can explain the ties? It is not something that cannot be told, only known. It cannot be understood, only experienced. The wind blows across my arms, whose before me I wonder and how long ago? The rain falls, returns to fall again; on how many crops for how many children? I can write, but my words are not my own; they are echoes from across times vast existence. Stirrings from another time. Words rewritten to suit my sayings, yet they are not mine. They are echoes, echoes of whoever stood on this same hill calling to the wind and waiting for the answer to come.

    1. sojourningwithjoy

      correction to above prose…. the line reading “It is not something that cannot be told only known…. should read, ” It is something that cannot be told only known.” You never find the oops until you have hit the post button. sorry.

  14. Walt Wojtanik

    YESTERDAY LIKE TODAY

    It’s funny how thoughts of the past cleave themselves to the present, flavoring every last savor of an idea with familiarity. Poems rewritten become new like a freshly woven thread through the old swatch of fabric. A cloth well-worn but still stylish. transplanting a smile laced with remembrance. In the final analysis we weave the old and new into an enhanced rumination that serves the ear and the eye. Why not leave well enough alone? It is shone in your history. An unraveled mystery and genealogy. We are all a re-written story. We are a tale of glory that spans a timeline of an infinite nature. Call it what you will, it still links the old with the new; the past and the present. Yesterday is today.

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