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Prose Poems

April 2013

Louis Jenkins is an American prose poet whose books include Nice Fish: New and Selected Prose Poems and Just Above Water: Prose Poems. I first encountered him at the 1996 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey. When I heard him read, I did not know he was a prose poet. I heard line breaks in his narrative poems and only realized that they were prose poems when I bought his book and asked him to sign it.

I had issues with prose poems back then. I wasn't sure what to think of them as poetry. I wanted line breaks and stanzas because, in my mind, that's part of how poems are made. A poem he read that day was "Too Much Snow" from Just Above Water

Some people say that prose poetry shouldn't be read as poetry or as prose, but as its own form, a fusion of the two. Then why is it "poetry"? It is poetry because the language has the heightened attention that we associate with poetry. It also has more emphasis on figurative language than traditional prose. I'm not sure we would want to read a 250 page novel written in the way that a prose poem is written. T.S. Eliot was opposed to prose poetry as a form. When he wrote an introduction to Djuna Barnes' highly "poeticized" 1936 novel, Nightwood, he said that the novel should not be called "poetic prose" as it did not have the "rhythm or musical pattern" of verse.

But the form does have prose characteristics such as narrative, sometimes even dialogue and perhaps more of an expectation of an objective truth than with poetry. I like the opening of an article about the prose poem form that says "Though the name of the form may appear to be a contradiction, the prose poem essentially appears as prose, but reads like poetry."

As a teacher, I used Jenkins' poem "Football" from the anthology Poetry 180.   My students would hear me read the poem first, then see it on the page - the same way I did at that poetry festival. But they had no problems with the form. I asked them. "Is this a poem?" The majority said yes. "But where are the line breaks and stanzas," I asked.  It didn't seem to matter to them.

I even asked them to put in line breaks and stanzas where they thought they might "help the reader." They did it. They did it pretty well. But why did I ask them to do it? My own poetic insecurity, no doubt. I have come around to my students' acceptance of prose poems as their own form.

Where the lines do end up breaking in a prose poem usually depends on the layout of the page. In a book, they will often end up breaking by character count - say 60 characters wide. For this month's prompt and your submissions, the lines will all break in the same place based on the "page" width. Those of you with a bit of poetic OCD or control issues will have to let go of some line break control. You can submit as a block of text since the breaks will be determined by the web page layout.

Sine you have given up that control, we give you complete control over the subject of your poems. If you get blocked on what to write about, feel free to choose from any of the prompts we have used in previous years on the site. There probably are a few you never attempted.

More on prose poems

A Look at Prose Poetry
Poems by Louis Jenkins on The Writers Almanac
and another example of the prose poem: "Spring" by Jim Harrison from Songs of Unreason

For more on this prompt and others, visit the Poets Online blog.

BATHROOM TALK

A beautiful woman with a small dog, small breasts, foreign accent, stops me in the Public Garden and says: “Excuse me, do you know the bathroom?” And I wonder if the locative case in her native tongue is absorbed by the accusative case. And I wonder if the tongue is employed in a first kiss in a beach town of her native seashore, the waves lapping at our feet, as I look down in the general direction of her urinary tract and feet, and say: “Yes. I know the bathroom very well.” She smiles hopefully, gives me her great big brown expectant eyes, and says: “Yes?” And I feel a delicious pressure building in my chest, and in her chest, and in the air between us, a kind of referred pressure from her bladder or her colon, a kind of grammatical pressure from her tongue and my tongue which are meeting here in my favorite context. “Bathroom talk” my mother called it, banishing it from the house, and banishing us from the house when we couldn’t stop laughing at the thought, couldn’t stop crooning at the sound, and the sense, and the nonsense, and the signifiers and the signified. The nomenclature we invented as we went along, went about our business, which was the business of the body, the business of being in a body in the world, a world that preferred to keep that business secret, except for the children and the dogs and a few banished grown-ups. “Yes, yes,” I tell her, and I hold out my hand to her, pointing with my other hand at the gold dome of the State House, where I’m headed myself, I tell her. It’s the best-kept secret in the Commonwealth: the cleanest, most exquisite public toilets in the city flush and gleam there, flash and yearn there, there in that stately place, for patriots and foreigners alike. Though a dog, even a small dog, wouldn’t be allowed in. No.

Paul Hostovsky



DEADLINES, HEADLINES AND SKYLINES

some lines are straight. they can be used to separate, or show us where our boundaries lie. at times the lines are ill-defined, causing quite a paradigm. lines can cross and be crossed too depending on your point of view. some folks like to cross the line, just to cause a kind of stew. there are line breaks, dotted lines, fine lines and underlines. airlines, hair lines, party lines and clothes lines. at some point though, be it thick or thin, one must draw the line. el fin.

marie a. mennuto-rovello



THIS PLACE'S EDGE

How many times I have gazed longingly at you as we drive up and down the coast. And with each brief and sacred encounter, I like to imagine that it is we you shelter from the ocean winds hitting your high bluff at gale-force clip; it is we you welcome into your quiet and cheerful solitude, beyond the reach of driving winter rains and relentless summer sun; and it is we who laugh and cry each season of our lives beneath the sturdy beams upholding your gently corroding tin. In my mind's eye we lie amiably together at our seaside window, sharing intimate conversation, discreetly serenaded by such creakings and groanings as you stretch and try your own, old timbered limbs. Seabirds, sailing by us in noisy parade, ride high updrafts of air, wheeling and screaming their joy at being alive, cheered on by wind-stunted rhododendrons waving pink flowers like flags. Ocean waves join this wild melee, thundering as they surge and crash in dangerous, white frenzy against black, jagged rocks; their comings and goings, ebbings and flowings bound to a capricious and distant moon. And in our own way, we too, belong to this place, this life on the edge; invited, like you, into its precipitous beauty.

Maddison Ross



AT EIGHTY

My eighty year old friend said to me, "When my time comes, I'll be ready to go." I will be the dawn, the dark, the day - all things both quick and still. If I want to, I'll soar like an eagle, open like a Night-blooming Cereus, drift downstream like a row boat caught up by the wind and the rain. I'll be free to be anything I choose - a butterfly, a trumpet vine, or nothing but bliss. Perhaps I'll be a shape-sifter and change everything all at once without adding to or taking away a single thing.

Bobbie Townsend



CONFESSION

You were always wise way beyond your years, probably due to the fact that your mom was an English professor at Harvard and your dad left you guys before you knew how to talk, so instead of playing Tag or Catch or Blind Monkey you’d stack building blocks in front of me and pretend you were Monstresor sealing me away forever until your mom saw and decided that maybe Poe was a little too morbid for your bedtime stories anymore. But you were still pretty precocious after that, smoking your first cigarette when you were twelve and running away at thirteen and having sex that same year and reciting On the Road to me when you called me up, drunk and fifteen and lost at a 7-Eleven somewhere, crying when my brother drove me across three towns to pick you up, crying that the only people for you were the mad ones before crying to sleep on my lap. You took your mom’s Zoloft and her Xanax and her Valium all at once a week before graduation and I think you tried to die because you wouldn’t speak to me for days after I called 9-1-1. I think you always read the wrong sort of books and tried to model yourself after Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath and their miserable lives when you would have been much happier if you had read some Shelley or Yeats or maybe just some of the god-awful poetry I waste my time writing about you.

Michelle Lesniak



POETIC LICENSE

The other day I saw an out-of-state license on a poem. The license was only on the last line. The author apparently resided in one of those states where a clean, unobstructed front-end supersedes efficient review of the theme. There was a license plate-shaped phrase on the front of the poem, but it didn’t say where the poem was from. Some licensing is necessary in poetry, I suppose. It may be good to limit slips into prose where there are a lot of potholes in personal thinking. The same goes for feelings which accumulate a layer of ice, or when the subject is dirt and there is no centerline in the dark. I looked up an actual poet in my state and asked her what poetic licensing was all about. She said it’s difficult to explain but there are rules, as there are for other things. What they were, she couldn’t say exactly, but she used her poetic license all the time and it seemed to work. So, I said, how is it that a poet with only one license can say the house of her childhood called out to her before it was demolished? Or what about when she says her recognition of me preceded our actual meeting? And how could it be OK to claim that the incredibly painful moment happened without warning, although the breakup was anticipated? “It should have,” was all she said.

James G. Brueggemann



CAROLINA BEACH

On a day when the surf is brown with sea weed, from a storm far out in the Caribbean, a stocky dark man with a round, pock-marked face uses his cell phone to film his skinny girl friend. She splashes towards him, through the spreading waves, until she reaches him; then she throws a kiss at the phone before hugging him. Together they watch the replay of her run, while laughing and kissing and laughing some more. It must have been the way he was holding the phone that made her look attractive. But they’re in love, so let them enjoy the moment. But I wonder who will see this film. Maybe he’ll send it to his wife, as if the girl’s beauty explains why he’s never coming home. Though the wife will only feel worse when she compares herself to the girl. For her part, when the girl has gone on to another man, maybe she’ll use it to taunt her present lover with the capacity for joy she once had. Or perhaps they will be the lucky ones, who by a confluence of miracles, find that neither their love nor technology has changed over the years. One quiet night they will view it and tell each other that they never knew how satisfying love could be until they fell into each other’s arms. But most likely, as with the majority of photos that document insignificant lives, the job guardian angels once did before the invention of the camera- cell phone, the film will be stored in the cloud for all to see and none to watch.

Ron Yazinski



SOCIAL MEDIATION

Expressing a genuinely kind thought without syrup is harder in this hyper-connected text-based communal relationship - how the nuances go missing where our bodies are absent and we become external minds where words are less floated than sunk in slowly shifting mud which eventually solidifies in a different place, to be revisited and reinterpreted in the context of other sub-cultures and timeframes or, if that's too bleak a metaphor, converted to the equivalent of a million varied but remarkably similar plastic bath toys set to sea to bob together, drifting apart and redirected by waves, tides, winds and whirlpools, some caught as they might in dragnets of fear or loops of the obsessive brain, chopped up, qualified, misinterpreted, text and my good intentions now other-contextualised, fumbling to soothe, forged into something sharper as they sit exposed in a sea-soup of likes and shares and moderated comments and, too late, I wonder should I have used the smiley face or a sign of kiss or hug because now I feel so over-connected that I must show nothing as if it is all and all as if it is nothing, as I forever slip across the fragile surface of twenty-first century communication, never to break through that shell, or drink of the cup, or take the time to really hear or simply trust in the other regardless of faux pas, mistakes of language, unintended slips of the tongue. And I do blame Freud for giving it all the more weight and encouraging everyone-and-their- dog (or cat) to theorise on limited information and jump to a thousand different conclusions about what lies beneath, rather than simply leaving be and accepting that you're okay, I'm okay, and we are all slightly less than perfect communicators in this sound-bite economy.

Iris Lavell



RACE

Sparrows scatter. She pushes through weeds, brushing seed-heads turned dry and brittle – puppyhood changing with the hour, the day’s shadows. She flicks her ears to what escapes me. Instinct’s all in the family of dog. The hunt, the pursuit. This puppy from an untraced lineage, forebears I never knew; never rubbed flea shampoo into their guard-hairs down to the soft undercoat – a different color than any dog I’ve owned. If “own” has any place in the fictions of human/canine. Nothing fictitious about the tracing of blood down pedigrees of dog, how she loves to run to the next horizon. My puppy turns the look of an old dead dog she never knew; my once-best friend and partner in the search. Spirit-guide in a Shepherd coat.

Taylor Graham



AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD

Walking in from the the parking lot he could hear the distant whine of the engine in the early morning air; he thought of himself translated, like Twain’s Yankee, back to the middle ages, a knight walking across a field at first light. Hearing such a growl, would he have taken it to be an ancient worm, a dragon? Suddenly plunked down amid the pines surrounding the black, broken asphalt, he might have thought the distant scream of a passenger jet gearing up to launch itself into the darkness a demon come to eat the world and send it spinning back through the ages to some distant singularity. In the evening, the planes came over just above the tree-tops; their roar engulfed everything and displaced everything, starting with a high-pitched whine that grew and grew as the air was compressed in front of it, swelling like a Bach organ piece to orgasmic fullness as the belly of the beast thundered overhead: there was no peace here, no calm center to withdraw to, no inner world to escape to; there was only this sound, this continuous blast, over and over again as plane after plane descended into the murk beyond.

Robert Miller



Three Headaches

I. I used to have these until my dentist noticed the wear and tear on my teeth. I was grinding, he said, in my sleep. My teeth knew my stress even if I denied it. A relief to know the mousetrap snap at my temple could be softened if I slept with a piece of plastic called a “night guard” in my mouth. The fact that my husband snores louder than my grinding kept him from noticing, I’m sure.
II. I had them for years and thought they were a sign I may be dying until I got the nerve to ask a doctor who told me they are called “migraine hallucinations.” Zig-zag snakes of candy apple green, camera-flash light crawl across my sightlines until I can’t concentrate or clearly see. There’s no pain, but it follows. They are a message: take something now, bitch, or you’ll be sorry.
III. Oh God, is it a toothache? A sinus infection? Why does it ignore medication? Allergies? Pollen, or my dogs? Yes, I am allergic to my own dogs. No, I won’t get rid of them. Why does it always begin in the classroom? Yeah, I know, stupid question. This one pounds behind my eyes, climbs down my neck to my shoulders, demanding: Hot Tea! A bath—some steam! Close your eyes, you idiot, close your eyes! Go home, just go home. Leave your job, drive up to the house, go in, close the door, go to bed. Close your eyes, go to sleep, you know you want to, just go the f--k to sleep.

Svea Barrett



DARK AGE

Can I do anything with a word when the world is sparking through wires and cables and atmosphere crackling on screens drawing current from electrochemical Homo sapiens? Can I do anything with a word when the chemicals come so easy and hit so hard and run so fast and shoot so high and last so long? Can I do anything with a word when art is for intellectuals and commoners are jettisoned to their easy pulp? Can I find a word that will cut through meanness and shame power lust and inspire the meek and disable the unjust and pull the disguise off everyday life? What can I do when I am tortured by the mind and bleeding from the heart and enslaved by the logical and brainwashed by the desirable and distracted by discourse and people are dying in droves and killing is a political option and this is the real world and Jesus has already come and gone and the kind-hearted are cheated and the vicious are prosperous and I am honest by accident and duplicitous by nature and into the night I lie awake searching for a word.

Russ Allison Loar



TRUTH

Whimsical wonder the taste of night; truth revealed no love, no light. Darkness enveloped constellations cluster; seeking answers a tune I muster. Honesty buried, honor destroyed, earth crumbles heavens; rejoice! truth revealed no love, no life. Whimpering withers wills that might Reveal the truth I wish for, I dream of at night. Fear binds nerves, bondage my delight. Submit only to truth I must and will fight. Wastewater flows corrosion filled faucets. Lackadaisical plumbing exculpate in haste. Truth revealed no love; don't partake. Winning approvals, egos ballooned Fashion the soul to fall oh so soon. Weakest in numbers, cats don’t fight in packs! Lion roars while wizards adjust their caps. Share with me the truth; scream engulfed, staff gripped tight. All that is revealed is the whimsical wonder, The taste of night Truth revealed, no love, not this night.

Mack Smith



FOR MOM

It was you that decided that regardless of all the pain and strife that I was worth bringing to this world and giving me life To put everything in your life on hold, dreams you never told replaced for baby clothes to fold, your life to me was sold Promised to love me and give me a life u never had, to show me happiness and protect me from bad, raised to the occasion of mom and dad When I was young you were my best friend and now you reach out and a hand I don’t even lend I was your precious seed, how could I not see, that you let me flourish pulled out all the weeds, and it’s you I will always need When I grew older I went on my own, thought I was soldier and when I met defeat you stepped in and my battles you beat You never expected a thank you only wanted to see me succeed, and show you the love and respect you earned for your selfless deeds And when my heart was broken I turned to you to fix and mend, the only person that can heal my heart because u love me with no end I haven’t showed you that I appreciate everything you do, that I am who I am a product of you, I wrote the message but never clicked send I hope someday I can give you a fraction of what you have given me; I promise to make u proud and not to forget you gave me my start That I remember when I cross the finish line it was because of you, and that all you have sacrificed made my dreams come true.

Karisia Garcia Garcia