• Definition
  • What One Isn't
  • What Is One?
  • History
  • Recent Examples

Dictionary Definition

From The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan, Eds. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993) :


...[It is a] controversially hybrid and (aesthetically and even politically) revolutionary genre... With its oxymoronic title and its form based on contradiction, the p. p. is suitable to an extraordinary range of perception and expression, from the ambivalent (in content as in form) to the mimetic and the narrative (or even anecdotal). ... Its principal characteristics are those that would insure unity even in brevity and poetic quality even without the line breaks of free verse: high patterning, rhythmic and figural repetition, sustained intensity, and compactness.

In the p. p. a field of vision is represented, sometimes mimetically and often pictorially, only to be, on occasion, put off abruptly; emotion is contracted under the force of ellipsis, so deepened and made dense; the rhapsodic mode and what Baudelaire called the “prickings of the unconscious” are, in the supreme examples, combined with the metaphoric and the ontological: the p. p. aims at knowing or finding out something not accessible under the more restrictive conventions of verse (Beaujour). (p. 977)


What One Isn't

Even people who write them, read them, and love them don't much like the designation PROSE POEM—or even agree as to whether it is a genre or a form. That aside, we will attempt to describe what is generally understood by the term. The best way to get at what a prose poem is might be to start out with what it is NOT, beginning with the following dictionary/textbook definitions (agreeing that there are shining examples of each that break these molds):

(especially lyric poetry)
“writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, rhythm” and line breaks/punctuation; generally does not include traditional fictional elements such as character, plot, etc.; facts, names, etc. are assumed to be real; the speaker (eqivalent to fiction's narrator) is presumed to overlap greatly with the writer; spirals/moves/jumps in nonlinear ways; often rejects or takes great liberty with traditional grammar, punctuation, mechanics; heightened language
fictitious literature (as novels or short stories) whose elements usually include a narrator and characters, plot, setting, point of view, voice, suspense, conflict, denouement, etc., usu. written in paragraphs; the narrator's voice is different from that of the writer and those of the characters (or is one of the characters); facts, names, places, details, scenes etc. are claimed to be fabricated; can be very short, as in “sudden fiction” or very long; unfolds through linear structure of words, sentences, paragraphs; more prosaic language
Generally medium-length prose intended to educate, amuse, or otherwise convince the reader of its opinion or point of view on a personal or timely subject, or as memoir; assumed not to be made up; does not depend on suspense or characters per se; the voice is understood to unambiguously be the writer's. The academic variety closely resembles the “term paper”; the persuasive or informative might be a magazine article; usually follows a formal essay structure providing examples, evidence, statistics, concrete sensory details, etc.; uses the most prosaic language of all

A prose poem is not any of these, but it has parts of all of them. First of all, it LOOKS like prose—it is usually a paragraph (or 3 or 4). It has no line breaks, i.e., no manipulation of white space beyond floating as a block of text on a clean page. Its layout is usually linear, left to right, often in traditional sentences (but often not). It does not generally have the visual and pacing breaks of punctuated dialogue. When your brain sees one on the page, a slight expectation of prose-boredom sets in (this can resemble relief for those who resist poetry), which carries with it for the reader, unlike with a poem, the possibility of skimming instead of reading closely. It has that in common with an essay. Although this means the writer may have to work harder to keep the reader, in the end it IS a poem (despite appearances)—and that element of surprise, that turn, almost always works in the writer's favor.

In common with fiction, but unlike essays or "creative non-fiction," a p.p. does often have characters; a beginning/middle/end feel to it; setting; and other such narrative elements. But, even if there is a main character, there is little expectation that he/she will evolve or achieve self-awareness; what suspense arises, if any, is underdeveloped or truncated by the shape and brevity of the prose poem, so there can't be much... although what “happens” in the paragraph may be a life-or-death matter.


What Is One?

Much Disagreement
The prose poem is said to share with poetry every element (e.g., the "high patterning, rhythmic and figural repetition, sustained intensity, and compactness" previously mentioned in the Definition tab) EXCEPT line breaks, which, for some poets, practically is the poem. Those poets, if they acknowledge prose poems at all, might especially dislike the term prose poem, although most of its practitioners have been “poets.”

On the other hand, in his introduction to Great American Prose Poems (Scribner, 2003), Editor David Lehman says of Charles Simic's The World Doesn't End, a collection of prose poems (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1991), that those poems succeeded because they were not "tarted up to ape the supposed prettiness of verse. The writing was not self-consciously 'poetic.' On the contrary, the prose of these poems — one might say their 'prosaic' nature if a pejorative valence did not hang over that word — was a crucial dimension of their being."

There is yet a third view. Lydia Davis, best known for writing short pieces that look like prose poems but that she insists on calling “stories,” and who disagrees with Russell Edson's term for his own examples of the form, choosing to call his prose poems “stories,” makes this distinction: “the weight of emphasis in [stories] is on the narrative, ...not on the language. When the emphasis shifts onto the language, then maybe they enter the realm of poem” [interview in The Believer, January 2008; <>].

Each of these conflicting definitions offers something useful as a guide. To some degree, all the categorizing is irrelevant. In most cases it is not too hard to distinguish a poem, a story, a page from a novel, a prose paragraph (such as an encyclopedia entry), and a prose poem from one another. Distinguishing a "good" one from a mediocre one may be the more difficult task.

In summary, we should be able to agree that a PROSE POEM can fit into any of about three resting spots on the continuum going from poetry to prose:




Another way to explain the prose poem and its place in literary history is simply to list the names of writers best known for using, defining, praising, and publishing pieces of writing in what they believed was this form. Many of their names alone carry literary and political associations that will help identify the prose-poem personality (whereas listing even a thousandth of the names of people who have published poetry or fiction would reveal no obvious pattern or type). In the case of some of them, you can click on the highlighted names to read examples of their prose poems.

As is obvious from the list below, the prose poem (under various terms, some stressing the poem half, some stressing the prose half, some both, as in Ponge's "proèmes") appeared starting in the mid-1850s in France, and was most practiced in French before making its way to England and other parts of Europe and America. It seems likely that the prose poem form was just waiting to happen: it may have come naturally out of an urge to test the strict limits of both formal poetry and of grammar and syntax rules. (As synchronicity would have it, it is probably not coincidental that in Amherst, Massachusetts, at the very same time, Emily Dickinson was protesting, in her own private quarters, the obligatory rhyme schemes and standard punctuation in English-language poetry.)

NAMES from 19th century (note their location/language):
Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841), France
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), France
Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1861), France
Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), France
Max Jacob (1876-1944), France
Francis Ponge (1899-1988), France
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Irish; expatriate in Paris (after his imprisonment)
Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), American; expatriate in Paris

A partial list moving into the 20th century (American):
Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Russell Edson, Charles Simic*, Robert Bly, James Wright. There are also classic examples in Russian, Japanese, Spanish, etc. Almost all well-known poets have published at least one or two prose poems.

*(Simic won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1991 for The World Doesn't End, the first ever awarded for a collection of prose poems)


Recent Examples
Here are four examples published recently — these alone say most of what needs to be said about what a prose poem "is" in this century. We are grateful for the permission to reprint them here:


Brenda Hillman
White Fir Description

  —14 cones at the top with meso-tight rings of fitted pods, boy bronzes rising somewhat

—The usual turkey-foot top but with toes splayed 43°, 47°, 49°

—At no place does the sun show through more politeness than 8- inch rhombuses criss-crossed with daggerdowns, & the "wrestle" "with my heart" side

—Each needle an inch-and-a-half more profuse toward manzanita than near Meeks Bay more profane toward sound of scrub jay stopping then doubling

—Changeoid quiver-cripple wind starts up & lets you record: how often you fought a fear, half-panic laced with ennui as

—Blond oxygen hovers over the tree, in the direness of safety—an ethics that would want to want the other to get better



Janet Kaplan

Little Theory

A machine named Universe knew about itself what it knew at present, nothing more. Away it skipped, blowing bubbles and careful not to step on Father's clock.




  Chad Davidson

Wood has no future. It saves all scratches. At twenty-three I helped a woman sand her table down to grain. I touched every inch of that table, used a belt-sander but took the corners by hand, not wanting to burn through. I had it clean in days, then set to clearcoating. I could count my years in its surface as the tiny histories of the people who had eaten there vanished.

When we lie together at night and I'm asleep, do I ever run my fingers down your back? I have the sensation sometimes of running underneath the skin, like a splinter.




  Brooke Horvath

A prose poem should be square as a Picasso pear, or paragraphed like that same pear halved, then halved and halved again — free as air, palpable as an air crash and as final, yet somehow not all there.

A prose poem should be neither short nor long and somewhere between a snort and song. It should be dense and chaotic as a World Series crowd, yet open and orderly as the game being watched. It should be loud as the nameless lost are loud, quiet as a mugger in moonlight, magical as the maniac's ghostly knife, mundane as the victim when finally found. A prose poem should be shocking as the unspeakable when spoken is shocking — and as familiar.

Its feet all thumbs but with every line justified, marginal because it knows where the margins are, intimate with disinheritance, the prose poem's job is to follow its nose, accepting all comers, admitting defeat.

The porcine prose poem speaks: "waste not, want not" and "learn to live on garbage and in mud" it tells us straightforwardly when it stops you in a crooked street to hand you a slippery pearl, a bitter sweet.

In Streetcar Named Desire, the prose poem plays Stella. And BIanche. And Stanley. In My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle: make of me what you will, it says; make me and I'll make you, it thinks.

For all its history and intellect, a few dirty secrets and neglect. For love, the French.

Not equal to or better than or worse; neither prose nor verse; perhaps not for you or me.

The prose poem should not be defined but let be.





"White Fir Description" © Brenda Hillman. Reprinted with permission of the author. Appeared in Pieces of Air in the Epic (Wesleyan 2005) and in An Introduction to the Prose Poem (Firewheel Editions 2009). All rights reserved.

"Little Theory" © Janet Kaplan. Reprinted with permission of the author. Appeared in An Introduction to the Prose Poem (Firewheel Editions 2009). All rights reserved.

"Refinishing" © Chad Davidson. Reprinted with permission of the author. Appeared in An Introduction to the Prose Poem (Firewheel Editions 2009). All rights reserved.

"Definition" © Brooke Horvath. Reprinted with permission of the author. Appeared in An Introduction to the Prose Poem (Firewheel Editions 2009). All rights reserved.



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