These columns are about writing flash fiction, but this month I want to peer over the border to examine flash fiction’s sister genre, the prose poem. At least some flash fictions and prose poems are similar enough that it can be difficult to see just which side of the border they belong on. Russell Edson calls what he writes “poems,” but all of his work is formatted as prose and is narrative. Readers can be forgiven for thinking that it’s flash fiction. Some of my own work that I considered to be fiction when I wrote it has ended up being published as poetry. Whenever I teach a class in the “short forms” of flash fiction, prose poem, and brief literary nonfiction, one of the first things I do is show the students a variety of short prose pieces and ask them to tell me whether those works are fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. Students seldom agree completely on the genre of any of the sample writings.
I mentioned in the first of these columns that Robert Hill Long considers all of these short prose forms to be essentially subversive. They are in a constant state of rebellion against the rules of literature or the reader’s expectations. Certainly there’s a good historical argument for seeing the development of prose poems as a series of insurrections against the “rules” of poetry. When Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé started writing their poetry as prose, the dominant form of French poetry was the Alexandrine with rhyming lines of twelve syllables per line and additional fussy rules about the one or two pauses — or caesuras — per line. These writers, each of whom had startling things to say to their readers, seem to have concluded that the dominant rules were for a tamer, more domesticated poetry than theirs.
I think of prose poems as trouble makers in the genteel drawing room of poetry. The French writers managed to get them admitted to the party, and a few traditional poets grudgingly admitted that maybe the prose poems could be poetry after all, provided that the poems hid interesting rhythms and meters in their language. “Oh, yeah?” said the prose poems (or at least some of their practitioners), and they adopted language that was less musical. That’s how I think of prose poems, standing in the middle of the room with their arms folded and saying to any attempt to nail them down, “Oh, yeah?”
Any attempt to nail down the rules, standards, or reader expectations for the prose poem is futile. Prose poetry doesn’t even have to make sense in order to please some readers. Gertrude Stein seems to have composed much of her prose poetry in pursuit of language itself, choosing words because she liked the sound or shape of them. The so-called “language poets” follow a similar aesthetic, one in which it’s not desirable for a poem to make sense or to refer to anything particular in the real world. (I once submitted a poem to an anthology whose editors shared this aesthetic. The editors at first accepted the poem, then weeks later rejected it as “too referential.” In other words, they had re-read it enough to realize that it was actually about something.)
Prose poems don’t have to break rules or strain any existing definitions of literature in order to be good, but they do have this history, this penchant for glaring and saying, “Oh, yeah?” And that’s why I think it’s a good idea for writers of flash fiction to read the form and try writing it, particularly writers who are feeling a bit constrained or bored with the rules of what a story is supposed to be. Prose poetry laughs in the face of rules, and even the writer who is mostly going to follow the rules will likely find liberation, and ideas, in flouting them.
Recently, I established that the only definition of “story” that makes sense to me is the highly subjective one: A story is any narrative that satisfies the reader’s desire for a story.
The definition of the prose poem is even broader than this. The prose poem is a work of prose that presents itself as a prose poem (by appearing in print alongside other prose poems, for example). This definition admits the possibility of a lot of bad prose poetry. A paragraph from an algebra textbook could be titled and published as a prose poem, and I don’t think there’s any universal standard by which we could exclude it from the genre. We have to let every claimant into the genre, even the ones that we don’t like.
Because the territory of the prose poem is lawless, I find it relaxing to visit there. I can sit down with pen and paper to push words around in any way that I like, and I’m composing a prose poem. I can allow myself to be surprised by any idea about what I’m saying or how I’m going to say it. I might accidentally wind up with a flash fiction, but even if what I write would satisfy no one’s notion of “story,” I can at least be sure that no matter what turn I take, I’m at least going to end up with a prose poem.
Naturally, it might be a bad prose poem. In the end, even if I have been writing without rules, I have to apply some standard to what I am creating in order to decide whether it’s done and whether I like it enough to submit it for publication. A good prose poem is one that not only claims to be a prose poem, but also rewards the reader who invested time in reading it. Rewards how? Any answer will do. For me, the only criterion for quality in this genre is that I am glad to have read the poem, and I especially like reading that rewards me in a way I didn’t anticipate or haven’t seen before.
But all this talk of having no rules or breaking expectations doesn’t mean that a prose poem has to break new ground in any way. In spite of the prose poem’s history of breaking rules and redefining itself, it can also be conservative. As the genre that dares the reader to say it isn’t poetry, the prose poem doesn’t have to be written in beautiful or efficient language, but beautiful and efficient language are one way that it might reward the reader. As the genre often favored by poets who are allergic to making sense, prose poetry doesn’t have to have a message, but making sense and having a message will be what leaves some readers feeling satisfied. The prose poem can be unambitious, can consist of a single metaphor or express a certain state of mind. The only rule is the rule for all good writing: don’t bore the reader.
by Bruce Holland Rogers
For the second time today I find myself stepping into traffic against the light. Tires squeal, and a sedan stops an arm’s length from my knees. It has been like this all week. All week I have felt like Yellowstone burning. Above smoke-shrouded mountains, the sun dims with the shifting wind. Fire advances along the ridgeline of my spine, and trees explode like drums of turpentine with an orange flash and a ball of black smoke. Helicopters hover to take on water, their blades beating the bitter air. Ashes snow down. The moose and bear and elk move on ahead of the flames, but the ground squirrels dodge from rock to tree until they are surrounded. Beneath my skin, nests crackle like candy wrappers.
It’s late. The pen sleeps in my hand, and tonight I feel like a small town in a snowstorm. Near the town square the traffic lights flash red in four directions; no one sees them. The snow is too deep to walk through, falls too densely for anyone to see across the street, but no one’s looking anyway. The storefront windows and windows of the houses are dark. Someone far away is trying to make a telephone ring in one of the dark rooms, but the storm has downed all the phone wires near the heart. The caller keeps dialing, and the impulse to make the bell ring keeps bleeding from the end of the broken wire into the snow. Snow falls thicker than ever, piles deeper, and the darkness inside the windows grows darker still.
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