4.11 Prose Poems: Definition & Famous Examples

Feb 4, 2020 | Courses, Literature, Poetry

What exactly is a prose poem? In this lesson, we will define prose poems, analyze characteristics of prose poetry, and learn about a few famous examples. We will wrap up the lesson with a short quiz to test our knowledge.

Introduction to Prose Poetry

Have you ever encountered something that claims to be a poem but looks like prose? For instance, maybe it reads like a lyrical poem, but it’s written in paragraph form? If so, you might have come across a prose poem. A prose poem, also known as prose poetry, is an example of a hybrid genre of writing. Prose poems occur when someone writes prose using poetry techniques.

Prose Poems Defined

Before we can understand what prose poems are, it’s important to understand the genres of prose and poetry independently. Prose is anything written down that does not possess any poetic meter. Well, that’s an easy enough definition, but what is meter exactly?

Poetic meter is the rhythm of a poem. Whether you’ve heard any of Shakespeare’s famous sonnets or the latest hip-hop song burning up the charts, chances are that you’ve noticed that many poems or songs have a certain rhythm to them. This rhythm is based on different factors, including the syllables per line and what syllables are naturally emphasized or stressed if someone were to read the poem out loud.

There is more to poetry than poetic meter, of course. Poems are often image-driven and emphasize visual descriptions, including metaphors, while prose tends to focus on aspects such as narrative, characters, and plot arc. In addition, poems also play with the sound of language using repetition and rhyming.

To rephrase that: prose contains narrative and does not follow any set rhythm, while poetry is rhythmic and image-based. So, what is prose poetry then? It’s quite simple. Prose poetry is anything that combines these elements into a single piece of writing! If you want a stricter definition, prose poetry is poetry that is not written in verse and contains other poetic attributes, such as rhythm and metaphors.

Characteristics of Prose, Poetry & Prose Poetry

Prose:

  • Written in paragraphs
  • Tells a story rather than describes an image or metaphor
  • Generally has characters and a plot

Poetry:

  • Written in verse
  • Written in poetic meter
  • Focuses on image-driven metaphors
  • Might have a narrative, but it might not or it might be harder to understand

Prose poetry:

  • Looks like prose (written in paragraphs)
  • Focuses on images
  • Includes instances of poetic meter
  • Contains language play, such as repetition

Examples of Prose Poems

Gary Young

An example of a prose poem written by Gary Young, Poet Laureate of Santa Cruz county, is called ‘I discovered a journal’.

‘I discovered a journal in the children’s ward, and read, I’m a mother, my little boy has cancer. Further on, a girl has written, this is my nineteenth operation. She says, sometimes it’s easier to write than to talk, and I’m so afraid. She’s offered me a page in the book. My son is sleeping in the room next door. This afternoon, I held my whole weight to his body while a doctor drove needles deep into his leg. My son screamed, Daddy, they’re hurting me, don’t let them hurt me, make them stop. I want to write, how brave you are, but I need a little courage of my own, so I write, forgive me, I know I let them hurt you, please don’t worry. If I have to, I can do it again.’

The prose poem looks, at first glance, like prose. But unlike prose, it resists conventional narrative or character. The voice of the speaker is never elaborated on (except that he is a father). The poem defies easy interpretation, due to multiple pronouns that are not clarified, in addition to raising the question of whose journal it is. If you read the prose poem out loud, you can hear the rhythm that the prose poem contains. It’s not as clear-cut as a traditional poem, since it is a prose poem, but there is clearly a consideration to each word and sentence the writer chose.

Charles Baudelaire

Another example of a prose poem is Charles Baudelaire’s poem, ‘Be Drunk’, translated from the original French:

‘You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it–it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk. But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.’

‘And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: ‘It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.’

Once again, this piece has all the characteristics of a prose poem. It is written in paragraphs, it does not have the narrative structure of a prose piece, such as developed characters and a plot, and it is very image-driven. It also contains lots of repetition (a common device in poems) and has a strong rhythm or poetic meter.

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein’s book of prose poems, Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms, deals with different objects. The book includes her prose poem, ‘A Box’.

‘Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle. So then the order is that a white way of being round is something suggesting a pin and is it disappointing, it is not, it is so rudimentary to be analyzed and see a fine substance strangely, it is so earnest to have a green point not to red but to point again.’

Like the other examples, Gertrude Stein’s prose poem is written in the style of prose but contains the rhythm, images, and language play commonly found in poems. Examples of the language play at work include repetition of the phrase ‘out of.’

Lesson Summary

Prose poetry is a hybrid genre of prose and poetry. As a result, it has characteristics of both genres. Prose poetry is written like prose, in paragraphs rather than verse, but contains the characteristics of poetry, such as poetic meter, language play, and a focus on images rather than narrative, plot, and character. Meter is the rhythm of a poem, including syllables per line and which syllables are emphasized. Prose poetry has been written by many writers, including Gary Young, Charles Baudelaire, and Gertrude Stein.

Learning Outcomes

After you have finished, you should be able to:

  • Explain what prose poetry is
  • List the combined characteristics of prose and poetry that create prose poetry
  • Identify a piece of prose poetry
4.10 End Rhyme in Poetry: Definition & Examples