A poem is a poem is a poem?

“Just as [dark] humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels.” –Peter Johnson

There is some debate about the prose poem as a poetic form; though one could argue this stretching of the lyric, embracing and resisting line break, has that certain presence in the writing of Charles Baudelaire, James Wright, William Carlos Williams, and Charles Simic, among others. As with a great many things, much of the debate is a discipline’s need, in this case literature, to name, organize, categorize. How dare the writer defy literary rules and traditions? And still, may the writer dare to defy literary rules and traditions!

As contemporary poets twist and blur, sever and mend, Johnson’s quote is flexible as it acknowledges how slippery the craft of poetry that curiously finds itself drawn to prose shapes. Could it be that we are familiar and therefore rely on more traditional lines of prose that seem to use the full of the page and the mark of the margin, all while gathering and sorting words into beautifully detailed sentences, densely carved blocks of ink?

While the line is a great concern of the poet, that line is a sentence, sometimes a long willful sentence. When I’m teaching I often remind writers (and remind myself) that poems are constantly negotiating with those sentences—imagery pulled apart and stacked, broken and borrowed, accents strong or weak, and lines of syllables and lovely letter sounds.

It is interesting this curious form, this tension, the prose poem as it dangles somewhere between crafting and resisting, between imagery and narrative, between line and space.

Do you ever blur the lines of poetry and prose?

The debate continues. Check out this collection of essays:  The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice

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Categories: Writing

6 Comments on “A poem is a poem is a poem?”

  1. December 16, 2013 at 9:15 pm #

    Love that Johnson quote.

    • December 16, 2013 at 9:45 pm #

      It is a good one!

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