Prose Poetry Vs Poetic Prose

Eleanor Perry delves into that grey space between poetry and prose.

Lately I’ve been thinking about prose poetry. It seems to me that, as a poetic form, it’s characterised by its lack of rules, which makes it both a wonderful and difficult thing to approach as a poet; wonderful because with such an absence of parameters it’s free to be explored without limit, but difficult for precisely the same reason – boundaries can be reassuring guidelines at times, and a navigating a place without them can be a daunting prospect.

Strangely enough, a lot of my recent reads fall into the non-place that is curiously in between poetry and prose, leaning toward one or the other in various degrees. Firstly, Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, a book T.S Eliot described as ‘poetic prose’ in his introduction of it, is indeed written in a lyrical style that wanders languidly between story events, but underlying that is a solid narrative framework. It seems to me that, crucially, a coherent narrative could be part of what separates prose poetry from flash fiction.

Secondly I have just finished reading Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, an ethereal and mellifluous tale of transience and a childhood invaded by vagrancy. In a similar fashion, it is the narrative that anchors the wayward writing firmly to prose rather than poetry, although at times Robinson creates such a sense of the poetic ephemeral that it is easy to see why it sits ambiguously between the two.

And then there is Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, a kaleidoscopic word-tapestry woven with light and sadness, and which would appear to sit quite securely at the prose poetry end of the spectrum, although beneath the surreal is a barely tangible sense of narrative at work. It seems to me that it isn’t as simple as putting pieces of work on a spectrum with poetry at one end and prose at the other. Pinning down what differentiates a prose poem from a piece of poetic prose or a piece of flash fiction is extremely difficult, and I wonder whether it is down to some sort of inherent intention in the writing itself that contributes to its definition of one or the other.

Take, for example Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, a genre-defying collection of comment-card poems that add up to a sort of post-consumerist confessional diary, touching upon the dehumanisation of the customer, the compulsive and self-perpetuating nature of desire and the notions of detachment and anonymity that result from it. These at times seem to be prose poems and at other times something else entirely, borrowing a little from either form and fashion them into something new.

Or how about Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, a prose that is constantly shifting in perspective among each of the six characters’ voices and to the voice of the waves themselves and then back again in a pleasantly perplexing stream of consciousness. that has at least as much in common with poetry as with prose — in fact, Woolf herself defined the form she used as a ‘playpoem’. Finally there is Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, a febrile and relentless interior monologue accounting the deterioration of a passionate relationship told in a frenzied and tormented prose soliloquy that makes constant use of devices like amplified imagery, repeated motifs and an oblique and disconnected tone that would normally be associated with poetry.

Like the works themselves which dally joyfully between the conventions of one or the other, prose poetry is not so easily categorised as perhaps one might hope. But again, therein lies the magic; a lack of rules means that there are no rules to be broken. Writers looking at exploring prose poetry are free to dance lightly along the spectrum and back again, free to experiment without the fear of being tied down to a particular form. For anyone interested in examining transience or transition, this would appear to be an ideal form to explore.


Eleanor Perry is a poet and writer based in Folkestone.
Prose Poetry Vs Poetic Prose was originally published on The Music of Breakages (17/02/12)


6 responses to “Prose Poetry Vs Poetic Prose

  1. I loved Housekeeping. Maybe I need to read Trout Fishing….do you recommend it if I loved Housekeeping?

  2. Hi Cassie — I would definitely recommend Trout Fishing to anyone, particularly if they have an interest in prose poetry / poetic prose, but it’s very different in style to Housekeeping — much closer to prose poetry, quirky, surreal and at times, very funny.

  3. I would definitely recommend Richard Brautigan’s work to anyone – particularly if they have an interest in prose poetry / poetic prose. I would warn that it’s very different in style and tone to Housekeeping; it’s quirky, surreal and at times very funny, but nonetheless a weird and wonderful read.

  4. Thanks for the post – I’ve always been fascinated about the spectrum and what one defines as prose poetry.

  5. I love The Waves maybe more than the other books in a way. I have been re-reading it recently and came across this passage that I remember back from when I was a 16-year-old A-level lit student.

    “I will pick flowers; I will bind flowers in one garland and clasp and present them – Oh! to whom? There is some check in the flow of my being; a deep stream presses on some obstacle; it jerks; it tugs; some knot in the centre resists. Oh, this is pain, this is anguish! I faint, I fail. Now my body thaws; I am unsealed, I am incandescent. Now the stream pours in a deep tide fertilising, opening the shut, forcing the tight-folded, flooding free. To whom shall I give all that now flows through me, from my warm, my porous body? I will gather my flowers and present them – Oh! to whom?

    Sailors loiter on the parade, and amorous couples; the omnibuses rattle along the sea front to the town. I will give; I will enrich; I will return to the world this beauty. I will bind my flowers in one garland and advancing with my hand outstretched will present them – Oh! to whom?”

    Loved the spiralling interbound sensation of this and still do but I guess what surprises me most is how immediate this passage is, how she focusses not just on thoughts but also on the sensation of being in a body. It wouldn´t be a big step to turn this into free verse. I didn´t know until I read the notes in the Penguin edition that it references Shelley´s ‘The Question’. Not sure that makes it any richer for me. I think I just like it as it is. Shelley´s poem leaves me cold.

    Also, I have a half memory of a line about not losing friends because of an inability to cross the street. Is this in The Waves, too?

  6. Emily Holmes Coleman’s The Shutter of Snow is also a good example of prose poetry/poetic prose if you want one to add to the list.

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