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When it comes to creative expression within the English language, most artforms fall into one of two categories: prose or poetry. Prose includes pieces of writing like novels, short stories, novellas, and scripts. These kinds of writing contain the kind of ordinary language heard in everyday speech. Poetry includes song lyrics, various poetry forms, and theatrical dialogue containing poetic qualities, like iambic pentameter.

However, prose and poetry are not completely stratified such that one can never contain the elements of the other. The prose poem is a creative writing format that combines elements of the poetic form and the prose form.

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What Is Prose Poetry?

Prose poetry is a type of writing that combines lyrical and metric elements of traditional poetry with idiomatic elements of prose, such as standard punctuation and the lack of line breaks. Upon first glance, a prose poem may appear to be a wholly unremarkable paragraph of standard prose, but a reader who chooses to dig in will note poetic overtones within its meter, repetition, and choice of language.

What Are the Origins of Prose Poetry?

Prose poetry exists in many cultures around the world. In Japan, poetic prose traces its roots to seventeenth-century Japan, where Matsuo Bashō, a preeminent poet in the Japanese Edo period, invented a poetic variation known as haibun, which melded prose elements with those of traditional haiku.

In Western culture, a bevy of French poets led a movement toward prose poetry, beginning with the compilation Gaspard de la Nuit by Aloysius Bertrand. Later nineteenth-century French prose poets include Stéphane Mallarmé, Charles Baudelaire (author of Le Spleen de Paris), and Arthur Rimbaud (author of Illuminations). English language poets also embraced prose poetry, including the Irishman Oscar Wilde and American poets like Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe.

Prose poetry fell out of fashion in the Modernist era, particularly in Anglophone culture. T.S. Eliot was a vocal critic of the form, although Gertrude Stein, an American expatriate in Paris, enjoyed the acceptance of prose poetry within French culture.

By the mid-twentieth century, prose poetry enjoyed a revival in the United States. Poets like William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Charles Simic, and Robert Bly brought both long and short prose-based variations on free verse to coffeehouses in New York and San Francisco.

Billy Collins Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry
Billy Collins Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry
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Malcolm Gladwell Teaches Writing

What Are the Characteristics of Prose Poetry?

While there is no fixed definition of prose poetry, it always involves injecting elements of traditional poetry into a prose format. These elements may include:

  • Alliteration
  • Repetition
  • Implied metrical structure or rhythmic structure
  • Rhyming language (a combination of hard rhyme and soft rhyme)
  • Literary devices (such as metaphor, apostrophe, and figures of speech)

Of course, some of these elements are not unique to prose poetry. Figurative language, for instance, is a major characteristic of literary fiction, and repetition and alliteration are frequently used in speechwriting. This simply means that some writing will narrowly toe the line between prose poetry and standard-issue prose.

An Example of Prose Poetry

“Spring Day” by American poet Amy Lowell, published in 1916, contains sections that could either be regarded as subdivisions or short-short stories in their own right. The first two sections are below:

Bath

The day is fresh-washed and fair, and there is a smell of tulips and narcissus in the air.
The sunshine pours in at the bath-room window and bores through the water in the bath-tub in lathes and planes of greenish-white. It cleaves the water into flaws like a jewel, and cracks it to bright light.
Little spots of sunshine lie on the surface of the water and dance, dance, and their reflections wobble deliciously over the ceiling; a stir of my finger sets them whirring, reeling. I move a foot, and the planes of light in the water jar. I lie back and laugh, and let the green-white water, the sun-flawed beryl water, flow over me. The day is almost too bright to bear, the green water covers me from the too bright day. I will lie here awhile and play with the water and the sun spots.
The sky is blue and high. A crow flaps by the window, and there is a whiff of tulips and narcissus in the air.

Breakfast Table

In the fresh-washed sunlight, the breakfast table is decked and white. It offers itself in flat surrender, tendering tastes, and smells, and colors, and metals, and grains, and the white cloth falls over its side, draped and wide. Wheels of white glitter in the silver coffee-pot, hot and spinning like catherine-wheels, they whirl, and twirl—and my eyes begin to smart, the little white, dazzling wheels prick them like darts. Placid and peaceful, the rolls of bread spread themselves in the sun to bask. A stack of butter-pats, pyramidal, shout orange through the white, scream, flutter, call: “Yellow! Yellow! Yellow!” Coffee steam rises in a stream, clouds the silver tea-service with mist, and twists up into the sunlight, revolved, involuted, suspiring higher and higher, fluting in a thin spiral up the high blue sky. A crow flies by and croaks at the coffee steam. The day is new and fair with good smells in the air.

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