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Factoid Prose Poems

January 2020


"Which one of us, in his moments of ambition, has not dreamed of a miracle of poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience?"
- Charles Baudelaire

Since Charles Baudelaire and others suggested this new poetry form - a genre with an oxymoron for a name" - it has intrigued and baffled readers and writers.

A prose poem is a composition that, while not broken into verse lines, demonstrates other traits such as symbols, metaphors, and other figures of speech common to poetry. 

There are passages in early Bible translations and the Lyrical Ballads of William Wordsworth that can be considered prose poems, but the form was formalized by the nineteenth-century French symbolist writers such as Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire.

This month's prompt is inspired by a new collection of prose poems from Renée Ashley titled Ruined Traveler. Renée writes poetry, such as in her collection The View from the Body, but also prose (Minglements: Prose on Poetry and Life) and even a novel, Someplace Like This, so Renée has four feet in all those modes!

Her collection of prose poems, Ruined Traveler, contains compressed poems with rigid justified margins to heighten pressure on the language. A few short poems shoot out from the right margin. There are also long segmented poems (such as "Ruined Traveler" and "from Her Book of Difficulties") that are interwoven throughout the collection. Looking at her two model poems, you can see that rather than punctuation, capital letters seem to indicate lines (though without breaks).

In Ashley's two poems, you won't find the straight story narrative of the Baudelaire or Jenkins poems. Both of her poems are much closer to poetry than many prose poems. But that range of styles over several centuries shows you the possibilities.

For this month's prompt, we are asking you to write a factoid prose poem. That is one that begins with or uses at least one piece of factual information. The best of these poems mix information and imagery and create (as Mallarme said) “the intersections, the crossing of the unexpected with the known.” This prompt was suggested by Danielle Mitchell and here are two of her own poems. Another factoid example is  “Information” by David Ignatow.

This is our fourth prose poem prompt so take a look in our archive for other examples.

NOTE ABOUT THE FORMATTING HERE:  We have selected a width that is not so narrow as to appear "poetic" nor too wide as to make reading it difficult (75% of the page width). In print, prose poems are usually controlled by page size. And even the size we have set here is dynamic and viewing the poems on a phone, tablet screen, laptop or monitor will change where lines break. Where poets have started a new paragraph/stanza/break in their poems, we have maintained that on this page.


For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


SOLSTICE

Did the dogs know it was the winter solstice? I had to ask my smartphone that morning to confirm when (Northern Hemisphere, 11:19 PM on December 21) but while I was watching the evening news they both jumped up from their spots by the electric fireplace as if someone had entered the room and then came over to me as if to ask "You felt that, right?" but of course I had felt nothing though probably I had been focused on Pelosi days after impeaching the president invited Trump to deliver the State of the Union address and now I feel guilty that I hadn't paid as much attention as the dogs to something global rather than to that electronic buzzing that was quickly absorbed into the atmosphere "I will pay closer attention at 11:50 PM on March 19" I tell Macbeth and Lady who satisfied but skeptical circle in place to find their alignment with the magnetic poles and go back to sleep.

Charles Michaels



80 DEGREES OF SEPARATION

In January it was minus 40 in Saskatoon while we were enduring plus 40 in Melbourne, 80 degrees of separation. The Calgary winter was equally severe, while damp Toronto competes on the "feels like" temperature scale. Meanwhile Vietnam has 30 degrees all year. Last winter in Melbourne, one night it came close to freezing. You call that winter? My four brothers are close by
email. While I adore each of them, they are daunting in aggregate. It has always been this way. The childhood punches on the shoulder translate in adulthood to shrewd needling, companionable at first but leading to foreseeable rancour - or all-out war. Discussing the difference between a banana and a plantain can spiral into vitriol - as controversial as perceptions of Trump. I will not scoff at weather conversation. Far from being shallow or tedious it brings a warm and relaxed connection - without danger.

Niesje Hees



THE LAST MAGI

“A person is known by what he gives away,” Grandma told me one Christmas, as she handed me the gift that would make me the happiest, then later the saddest I had ever been. But I was too young to understand how devious love can be. All I knew, as a twelve year old, was that I needed a pair of roller blades like my friends had. How I envied them racing down the Chicago sidewalks, flying from one playground to the next as if they had wings, while I chased behind them and their dogs.
And though I told my mom what I wanted, I was old enough to know a single mother has enough to worry about with food and rent without wasting money on presents. So I couldn’t believe my eyes when my grandmother, who usually favored my little cousin, because he had a father who took care of things around her place, gave me just what I wanted.
For the first time in my life, I kissed her before she kissed me. I didn’t even mind her rubbing my head, as if I was one of my friends’ dogs, something which normally drove me crazy.
The rest of the winter, I imagined speeding from stoplight to stoplight, with all the little kids like my cousin envying me the way I once did my friends. But this was Chicago, where snow and slush and debris cover the sidewalks until spring comes, which, in this city, is always late. By the time the weather was warm enough for me to try my roller blades, they no longer fit. I had gone through another growth spurt, and, try as I might, I couldn’t force my fat foot into the little boot.
So I had a choice: To either throw them away out of spite, which would have disappointed my mother, or give them to my younger cousin. I can still see Grandma’s smiling face as I gave him the blades, and feel her hand rubbing my head.

Ron Yazinski



BATHING IN THE CLOUDS

A swift can fall asleep on the wing, to wake up in exactly the same place. An octopus sees with its skin; the two light-balls halfway up my face Suddenly seem primitive, even basic. I’d love to see with my whole body surface! Peep round corners with the tips of my fingers. Use the top of my head to gaze up into space While the back of my neck keeps a check on who lingers Behind me, out on the mean city streets. And as the octopus glides through her watery realm, the swift stays in the air for months at a time; some never land at all and, by flying proud, Bathe in the mist in the midst of the clouds.

Damon Leigh



FOR MY SWEET BOY

Complicated grief, also called persistent complex bereavement disorder, grief so overwhelming it seems to have no end, is experienced by 10-20% of grieving individuals How is it that when your heart is breaking it breaks not just for one thing or person but rather it seems for all the things or persons for which and whom it was previously broken?
What is a “normal” length of time to grieve? If love goes on and I believe it does, then shouldn’t grief go on as well?
Go they not hand in hand? One alongside the other; one in the brilliant sunlight; the other an unwanted lurker in the shadows
It’s there and we know it - we glance at it now and then sideways not expecting it to not be there no, but to gauge its distance or rather its closeness
Eventually the two meet up and though we knew they would, still we are left unprepared, reeling and lost
We question loves worth when the Lurker catches up and then overtakes us; we ask why this wonderful thing we have been given and nurtured must be taken from us
And in our pain we detest ourselves not for having loved so much or too much because there is no such thing but for the moments in our weakness when loss was imminent that we wanted it because continuing was so hard
There are few places if any that you were not and so my grief is within and without - the Lurker now replaced by this Steady Companion in every room, in every corner and even where you were not
I called out to you one day and I waited but you did not come; I thought if only my love were enough to bring you back – if by saying your name I could resurrect you – if by truly believing I could make it so but no conjurer nor prophet am I
Perhaps too I wanted to say your name aloud, to hear it again - not in sad hushed tones but loud and vibrant
Perhaps I hold onto this grief as much as it does me because it is something that I can hold onto, that which most sharply connects me to you - for already I feel you fading and this pains me more than the grief- this depth of pain versus the depth of nothingness
Deep gasp-like breaths I find myself taking as though emerging from a battering of ocean waves drawing me in and pulling me under
Yet, there are few drops left in this body; my eyes wrenched of tears - I emit whimpers of “dry grieves,” but emptiness remains and the anguish reverberates - clanking against my insides - deep and dark - palpable and present
And so it seems without end - for this is how much I loved you

Terri J. Guttilla



REFUGEE REPRIEVE

Subsisting on promise, outsiders peer through opaque social portals without roots, sans sigils defining allegiances. Commitment free expatriates without a homeland wade through the shallows of each new sandy beach, pursing solid soil, praying for sanctuary on shore where belonging replaces roaming, strange clothes today become fashion statements tomorrow, foreign languages evolve into mere curiosities rather than enduring communication barriers. Reprieve astrolabes neither measure indignity’s degree, nor rely on heavenly bodies to navigate quests. Still the immigrant languishes. Every minute of perpetual flight exacts a price. An exodus of memories fair and foul shuffles former concerns, focuses on the present, nurtures novel experiences, shapes fresh family legacies. Instead of timeless drifting on leaky ships of hope, or bloody feet treading each new trail of tears, exiles keep moving, wishing, watching, scanning—both eyes set on the horizon, searching for a personal Ithaca—hungry for acceptance, inclusion, satisfaction. Like silver-tongued Odysseus leaving Troy far behind, refugees end their epic wandering with longitude and latitude fixated on safe havens.

Sterling Warner



NO WORRIES

A continent ablaze. Nearly half a billion animals believed dead from Australia's wildfires. 20 million acres scorched, 2,000 homes reduced to ash. Dozens dead. An eerie charcoal landscape etched against a glowing blood red sky. Is Climate Change to blame? Skeptics claim it's just a hoax cooked up by left wing scientists. Say this sort of thing is nothing new. Point to people charged with arson. Experts contend it's more complex: rising temperatures ... extended droughts ... more fuel for hungry fires ... less rain to put them out. Elsewhere, a has-been troubadour and a slanderer-in-chief team up to publicly berate a "brainwashed" teenage girl for spreading apocalyptic lies when she ought to be in school. Across the globe, Fat Cat miscreants reinvent reality. Play chess with people's lives. Misanthropes engage in mass misinformation. Facts wage war with fantasy. Fate waits in the wings, while we debate who's at fault, what should be done, and whether it's too late.

Frank Kelly

BLACK & WHITE

The dead never seem to know they're dead. Standing in front of a church, eyes forward, sitting on a trellised porch unaware, or on the back steps, smiling in the shade.
Light from a sun long gone slants from the side as trees, grass, house glow in a bent halo of Eden’s light, photons bouncing off the glossy surfaces like flat stones on a pond.
Smiles, a slimness known only in youth, an essential thereness haunts every scene as moments of transition are marked, captured in black and white for the waiting eons.
Grinning, they tumble on the lawn, stand in uniform, beside cars, Christmas trees, on church steps, with dogs, cats, drinks, in shorts, suits, halter tops, swim wear.
Could they have understood, foresaw the relentless force that set the stage, ever changing, the past bubbling up into their present, froth on an eternal tide? Time noting the moment,
then moving on, always forward, the ticking of a clock in a silent room, the cry of a hawk, the stillness of noon under a copper sky, all fading into the past with Troy and Stonehenge.

Robert Miller