There are so many different types of poetry out there in this big world, but few of them are as strange and unique as prose poetry. In this article, we are going to go over a brief history of this type of writing, the characteristics of prose poetry, the differences between it and standard prose, and several prose poetry examples. All of these should, together, provide a good overview of what prose poetry is in the first place. If prose poetry is one of the things that you would like to learn more about, then move on to the rest of the discussion to learn more!
Table of Contents
- 1 A Look at Prose Poetry
- 2 Summary of Prose Poetry
- 3 The History of Prose Poetry
- 4 The Characteristics of Prose Poetry
- 5 Prose Poetry Versus Standard Prose
- 6 Prose Poetry Examples
- 7 Frequently Asked Questions
A Look at Prose Poetry
This type of poetry is a bit of a difficult one to easily discuss and define. In fact, we may not even be able to call it a standard form of poetry at all. It may have more in common with prose than it does with poetry. So, what is a prose poem? This question leads one to a bit of an interesting space because a prose poem is not quite a poem or an example of prose. It is something in between them both. However, if you were to simply see an example of prose poetry, you would likely automatically assume it was prose based on its structure. It is when you read a prose poem that the specifics of it as a form become more obvious.
The basic idea behind prose poetry is that it is a form that incorporates elements from prose and poetry into a single type. This means that it basically looks like a piece of prose in that it does not use the standard line and stanza structures that you might see in a typical example of poetry. However, when reading the actual text, it reads a lot more like poetry because it can incorporate many different poetic elements. For instance, prose poetry can make use of poetic techniques, like rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, and so on. Although the characteristics of prose poetry will be discussed in more detail below. Before we get to any of that, though, let’s first have a quick look at a summary of this concept.
Summary of Prose Poetry
There are many things that can be said about prose poetry even though it is a relatively recent poetic form. However, many of those aspects will require further elaboration and discussion, and so there will not be the time for them in the below summary.
This summary is instead here for those who don’t have the time to read the rest of the article, or for those who just need a quick refresher.
- Prose poetry blends prose and poetry. This type of writing cannot necessarily be called prose or poetry but instead uses aspects of both of them. For instance, it often uses the form of prose while injecting a number of poetic elements into any prose poetry examples.
- Prose poetry uses no stanzas. The prose poem is a thing that often uses the general structure of prose over poetry, and so it generally uses paragraphs over stanzas. The lines run to the end of the page and form paragraphs instead of broken lines.
- Prose poetry often looks like prose. Thanks to a prose poem’s dedication to generally using paragraphs over stanzas, it can be easily confused for a piece of prose writing. Only on closer inspection will many notice that it is actually a piece of prose poetry rather than traditional prose.
The summary is now out of the way! That means that we can move on with the rest of our discussion about prose poetry. We will start with some of the origins of this form to get us kicked off on our examination of this concept.
The History of Prose Poetry
This type of literature is relatively young in comparison to many other examples of literature. While there were instances of prose poetry having an origin in the 17th century in Japan, it did not become particularly well-known outside of the country and in Western regions until the 19th century. It grew in France and Germany during this period as a response against more traditional forms of poetry.
Oscar Wilde (1882) by Napoleon Sarony; Napoleon Sarony, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The style would continue to develop and grow into the 20th century, and some of the most notable writers of this form would make use of the style, such as Max Jacob, Gertrude Stein, and Francis Marrash. However, there was often pushback against it as a style, such as T.S. Eliot writing against it as a medium. Regardless of whether it was accepted by anyone, it became a type of artistic expression and continues into the present day. It is not a particularly famous form of writing, but there have been some fantastic examples of it. The difficulty in classifying it as either poetry or prose has likely contributed to some of those difficulties. So, let’s have a look at some of what makes a prose poem a prose poem.
The Characteristics of Prose Poetry
In basic terms, prose poetry is a type of writing that cannot necessarily be called prose or poetry and instead uses both. However, at first glance, it can generally look like a piece of prose. This is because it gets rid of the notion of the stanza for poetry and instead embraces a more paragraph style of presentation. So, there are no line breaks and there is implied enjambment in every line. However, the reason that it is not simply prose and is instead prose poetry is because it still makes use of many poetic techniques. For instance, many prose poetry examples still use rhythm, rhyme, metaphor, fragmented delivery, compression of sentences and lines, and repetition.
One of the primary characteristics of poetry in general is that it has a very particular focus on language.
Every single word is important to the whole. And when it comes to prose, this is not as often the case. In fact, one could probably remove words from a novel, and many would not even notice. Whereas if you removed words from a poem, it would damage the metrical flow and become immediately obvious. This is also the case with prose poetry. We can see prose poetry examples as predominantly appearing like prose while conforming to many of the aspects of poetry that we may otherwise understand to often be wholly poetic in nature. Prose poetry can also often be discerned from regular prose because it is usually short, pays close attention to the sound of the text, and is generally experimental in form.
Prose Poetry Versus Standard Prose
We have already discussed some of the similarities and differences between standard prose and prose poetry in the section above, but it is worth noting that standard prose is still very distinct from prose poetry. There is usually a stronger structure to standard prose. It has a particular narrative and plot that it wishes to convey, and this is something that prose poems don’t do as often. They may have similar goals to a standard poem because they wish to capture a snapshot of life or experience rather than telling a story.
Walt Whitman (1889) by John White Alexander; John White Alexander, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
The lines can become blurred though. Poems can also tell stories, and so can prose poetry. However, prose often uses more ordinary language, but, once again, there are examples of writers who produce highly poetic prose. For instance, the work of Herta Müller often falls into this kind of classification. So, the lines between these two types can become immensely blurry and, as a result, there has been a lot of debate over what does and does not count as a prose poem.
We often argue the differences in more minute detail rather than overarching aspects. Is a highly poetically written novel an example of prose poetry or is it just a novel that uses poetic language? Is a shorter text actually prose poetry or is it just a vignette?
The difficulties in determining what is and is not a prose poem can often devolve into debates, but that is also what makes this type of writing so interesting to talk about.
Prose Poetry Examples
Prose poetry is not a particularly common form of writing, but it is a rather interesting one. It is best to have a look at a few prose poetry examples, or examples of any poetic form, when trying to understand that form. So, we will try to do just that. What is a prose poem? Well, it is what we will soon examine in the section below as we look through five different examples of prose poems to determine what exactly sets them apart from other examples of poetry.
Be Drunk (1869) by Charles Baudelaire
|Type of Poem
|Trochaic pentameter (generally)
Be Drunk is a prose poem that advocates for a hedonistic embracing of everything that life has to throw at us. It tells us that we should get drunk and enjoy ourselves because it’s the only way to not feel horrible about a lot of what life has to offer us. This is presented in what appears to be a handful of paragraphs, but various poetic techniques are used throughout, such as several instances of alliteration like “back and bends” and “green grass”.
This is one of the better-known prose poetry examples, and it is a short and easy-to-read text that fixates, repeatedly, on getting as intoxicated as possible.
Charles Baudelaire (1862) by Étienne Carjat; Étienne Carjat, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Spring Day (1916) by Amy Lowell
|Type of Poem
Spring Day is a very long prose poem that spends its duration describing a day in spring. The prose poem is meant to explore the different, seemingly mundane aspects of the day, such as taking a bath and going for a walk. Each of the sections is described in poetic detail, and there are examples of highly figurative language such as the way that “sunshine pours” through a window or how images are created and thrown aside, like a crow flying by the window.
This poem is one of the longer prose poems out there.
Metals Metals (1973) by Russell Edson
|Type of Poem
Metals Metals is a prose poem that focuses on the idea of metals. The name may have given that away. However, it presents metals of the earth as a thing that is both immensely important to us while also causing us harm. For instance, the very first phrase of the poem mentions gold. There is metal everywhere. We use it in our utensils and weapons, in our tools and money, and so on. It may come from the earth, but it is something we have also used to hurt others.
This prose poem often uses poetic techniques, such as the capitalizing of terms that would ordinarily not be capitalized.
Information (1993) by David Ignatow
|Type of Poem
|Knowledge and understanding
Information is a prose poem about counting. It fixates on the numbers that can be found in a tree. More specifically, the leaves that could be counted on the branches of a tree. It shows us that through this counting we can see that a tree is actually something finite rather than infinite in its leaves, and the use of poetic language and disjointed sentences helps to create an image of toiling at seemingly pointless tasks, like counting leaves or the hairs on one’s head.
It is a celebration of information that can be found in our world.
David Ignatow (1973); 1973 York College/CUNY Yearbook, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
[Kills bugs dead.] (2006) by Harryette Mullen
|Type of Poem
[Kills bugs dead.] is a prose poem about bugs. It focuses on how insects are constantly around us, and it uses meta-language to bring in poetic language, such as the expression, “Redundancy is syntactical overkill”, to describe the title of the poem. The poem focuses on how bugs are essentially omnipresent, and they will eat us after we die and yet they are indispensable. Yet we still try and kill them as much as possible. No matter how many you kill, they will always come back because they can never be wiped out. No matter how hard we try.
There are a few forms of literature in this world that straddle the lines between various mediums, and prose poetry is one such form. In this article, we have looked at the history and characteristics of this form, the differences between it and standard prose writing, and a few prose poetry examples. This is still quite an uncommon style in general and one that can be rather difficult to find. However, it is an interesting form that defies the ordinary rules of both poetry and prose to produce something new and different. So, if you get the chance to read some prose poetry examples, take the chance and see whether or not you enjoy it.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is a Prose Poem?
This is a type of writing that cannot quite be deemed an example of poetry or prose but is rather a combination of both of them. The general idea is that this kind of literature is poetic in its use of devices, such as metaphors, rhythm, and even rhyme, but it does not make use of standard poetic structures. This means that there are no stanzas or traditional understandings of things like rhyme schemes or metrical structures. A prose poem can make use of some of these elements, but there are no definitive constraints that enforce this.
What Are the Characteristics of Prose Poetry?
This form of blended poetry and prose can, effectively, have characteristics from either of these forms. It is generally standard for prose poetry to not make use of stanzas or other instances of poetic structure, but poetic devices are still often used. For example, many prose poems use alliteration, rhyme, types of meter, and imagery, but there can also be aspects of prose mixed into it, such as the possible use of plot, character, and description.
How Does Prose Poetry Differ from Ordinary Prose?
Prose poetry is a very specific type of literature, and it is quite different from standard prose. When it comes to ordinary prose, there is usually a more straightforward use of language, the development of plot and characters, and more conventional storytelling styles. Prose poetry, on the other hand, undermines that by either using or eliminating some of the primary elements of prose in favor of poetry. For instance, instead of more straightforward language, it might use highly poetic language.
What Are Some of the Most Famous Prose Poetry Examples?
While there certainly are many examples of prose poems out there, this form is not all that common in general. However, some of the best-known examples of prose poetry include Be Drunk (1869) by Charles Baudelaire, Spring Day (1916) by Amy Lowell, and Metals Metals (1973) by Russell Edson. There are a variety of other prose poetry examples, but this form is relatively uncommon in comparison to many other types of poetry.
Who Are Some of the Most Famous Writers of Prose Poems?
Some of the most famous poets who have written prose poetry, and other forms that are very similar, include figures like Charles Baudelaire, Walt Whitman, Jorge Luis Borges, and Pablo Neruda. There are also instances of figures like Herta Müller, who inject a lot of poetic language into their prose. This can be seen as a kind of prose poetry or poetic prose, but the definitions can become unwieldy.
Justin van Huyssteen is a freelance writer, novelist, and academic originally from Cape Town, South Africa. At present, he has a bachelor’s degree in English and literary theory and an honor’s degree in literary theory. He is currently working towards his master’s degree in literary theory with a focus on animal studies, critical theory, and semiotics within literature. As a novelist and freelancer, he often writes under the pen name L.C. Lupus.
Justin’s preferred literary movements include modern and postmodern literature with literary fiction and genre fiction like sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, and horror being of particular interest. His academia extends to his interest in prose and narratology. He enjoys analyzing a variety of mediums through a literary lens, such as graphic novels, film, and video games.
Justin is working for artincontext.org as an author and content writer since 2022. He is responsible for all blog posts about architecture, literature and poetry.
Cite this Article
Justin, van Huyssteen, “Prose Poetry – Explore This Strange and Unique Poem Form.” Art in Context. November 23, 2023. URL: https://artincontext.org/prose-poetry/
van Huyssteen, J. (2023, 23 November). Prose Poetry – Explore This Strange and Unique Poem Form. Art in Context. https://artincontext.org/prose-poetry/