The Prose Poem Issue

For the month of June, B O D Y will be presenting a selection of prose poems from our contributors in a special “Prose Poem Issue.” One of our goals in putting this issue together was to figure out just what a prose poem is, exactly. Is it a poem dismembered of its line breaks? Is it a small unit of prose which is “poetic” in its language? Or is it neither of those things, but rather a completely new form altogether, combining elements of poetry and prose?

While the form has been around long enough to be considered an established genre, it manages to cast a disruptive allure even today. As Charles Simic has noticed, prose poetry is “the result of two contradictory impulses, prose and poetry, and therefore cannot exist, but it does.” Its very mystery (what is this thing that cannot exist but does? how do you know one when you see it?) makes it seem continually experimental, almost counter-culture in attitude. It’s the poetry that cheats on poetry! No wonder prose poetry feels so fresh.

The friction of prose poetry’s identity has kept it current for centuries. Yet, despite its long history (it was already popular in 19th century France and Germany) it remains subversive, somewhat undefined; it has never become a dominant form. It has instead, been kept apart, a thorn in the side of poetry, and remains a vital part of an unfinished argument about what poetry even is.

In the anglophone tradition, part of prose poetry’s outsider status is surely due to the fact that it has been excluded from many of the most significant poetry anthologies of the 20th century and beyond. Since 1960, most American and British poetry anthologies have followed the model set by Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (1960). In so doing they have, perhaps unknowingly, relegated the prose poem to the margins. As Allen wrote to Robert Duncan in July 1958, the editor chose “to exclude all academic poets, to omit translation, to omit prose poems.” This somewhat idiosyncratic decision has helped entrench the tentative position of the prose poem (and translations!) in English-language literature. Nonetheless, poets continue to utilize and innovate the form to great effect, with Ron Silliman’s concept of “the new sentence” being just one example of recent poets thinking beyond the formal gesture of line breaks.

Having now read through many dozens of prose poems in recent weeks, we have noticed a number of things. Among the most striking is how important the physical form — the format — of a prose poem is to how it is read. Many of the poems we received, while seemingly simple blocks of text, had actually been carefully crafted for visual effect. The margins of their pages had been fiddled with, along with the font size and spacing. The shape of the prose block, we realized — the length of its visual line, where the text wrapped — all were essential to its reading.

Perhaps we can say a prose poem is one of those things that you recognize when you encounter it. Though line breaks are not present, when you read a prose poem, it feels like you are reading a poem, as opposed to a short story or a piece of flash fiction. The experience of reading it is like the experience of reading a poem. One doesn’t need the sign posts of line endings to feel the prosody, the beat, pressuring the reader forward with urgency and momentum. And unlike short stories, prose poems elide the constraints of plot, character, and scene. They have the privilege of being poems, and thus of being able to move like poems. They can move by gesture, by image, by implication, rather than through action or exposition. Or they can go nowhere at all. These texts can exist purely as rumination or meditation upon a single thought or object, and leave the reader satisfied that they contain all they should.

Herewith, B O D Y brings you a selection of the best prose poems we were able to get our hands on. We are grateful to the many readers and contributors who shared their work with us. Even those whose work was not ultimately selected have our deepest thanks — we were sincerely glad to read all of your submissions. Per our usual practice, we’ll be rolling out this issue over the course of the month, so please come back tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow for new stuff to read. You won’t be disappointed. We’ll be posting links below to all the new work as we publish it.

— The Editors
 

Issue Contents (updated daily):

June 3: Joshua Weiner
June 4: Petr Borkovec
June 5: Donna Stonecipher
June 6: Mark Terrill
June 7: Donna Stonecipher’s Prose Poetry and the City
June 10: Lacie Semenovich
June 11: Guarav Monga
June 12: M. Drew Williams
June 13: Tom Pickard’s Fiends Fell
June 14: Tom Pickard
June 17: Jarvis Boggs
June 18: Claire Scott
June 19: Matt W. Miller
June 20: Sarah Anderson
June 21: Justin Lacour
June 24: Chris Green
June 25: Leonard Kress
June 26: J. A. Bernstein
June 27: Michelle Penn
 

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