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The Prose Poem

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March 2012
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By Dave Hood

What is a prose poem? According to the Academy of American Poets, the form is traced to the French symbolist poets of the nineteenth century.

The prose poem is a popular form of modern and contemporary poetry, composed in prose, not verse. Though it is composed in prose, it reads like poetry.

To construct the poem, the poet puts into use the same poetic devices as those worked with to craft modern and contemporary poetry, such as free verse, and traditional poetry, such as the epic or blank verse poem. Popular poetic devices include:

  • Simile
  • Metaphor
  • Allusion
  • Personification
  • Symbolism
  • Alliteration
  • Assonance
  • Imagery

Poets apply other techniques to create prose poems. These techniques include:

  • Concrete and specific details
  • Fragmentation
  • Compression
  • Repetition
  • Rhythm

And according to Natasha Saje, who wrote the excellent article “A Sexy Animal: The DNA of the Prose Poem” in The Writer’s Chronicle, the prose poem acquires its energy from realism and fantasy. And the prose that the writer selects to craft the poem are often lyrical and rich in figurative language.  For Saje, the prose poem “has become sort of a grab bag, defined as prose that has the content of a poem and is not recognizable as another genre: not novel, not lyrical verse poem, not a play, not an essay, not a memoir…”

The prose poem does not have line breaks, which are important to constructing traditional and free verse poetry. Instead, the poet writes the poem in sentences or with intentional fragments.

The poet also compresses events, or experience, or details into short paragraphs, often constructed of a few sentences. The poet distills the details, working to create “the essence.” Each word must serve some purpose. And so there is “no wordiness.”

The poet uses particular nouns that have significant meaning and action verbs that give the poem its energy. Adjectives are used occasionally. But too many adjectives create “wordy sentences.” Most poets use the “active voice”, so that the noun performs the action of the verb.

Most prose poems are brief, often a paragraph or two. Yet the occasional prose poem is much longer, winding on for pages and pages. American writer Edgar Allen Poe wrote a prose poem called “Eureka” that is 59 pages.

In One Year to a Writing Life, the author Susan M. Tiberghien writes that “ the prose poem contains paradox—a revelation of something with seemingly contradictory qualities.”

The poet can use many different modes, such as narrative, meditative or contemplative, fable, dreamscape, reminiscence, to compose the poem. One of the most popular modes is the “narrative poem”, which tells a story, like a short story–and ends with a twist or some epiphany or revelation. The voice of the poet is often lyrical.

Charles Simic wrote that “the prose poem is like a dog that talks.”

The following are two good examples of the prose poem, crafted by two well-known contemporary poets:

I Am the Last…

By Charles Simic

I am the last Napoleonic soldier. It’s almost two hundred years later and I am still retreating from Moscow. The road is lined with white birch trees and the mud comes up to my knees. The one-eyed woman wants to sell me a chicken, and I don’t even have any clothes on.
The Germans are going one way; I am going the other. The Russians are going still another way and waving good-by. I have a ceremonial saber. I use it to cut my hair, which is four feet long.

Warning to the Reader

By Robert Bly

Sometimes farm granaries become especially beautiful when all the oats or wheat are gone, and wind has swept the rough floor clean. Standing inside, we see around us, coming in through the cracks between shrunken wall boards, bands or strips of sunlight. So in a poem about imprisonment, one sees a little light.
     But how many birds have died trapped in these granaries. The bird, seeing freedom in the light, flutters up the walls and falls back again and again. The way out is where the rats enter and leave; but the rat’s hole is low to the floor. Writers, be careful then by showing the sunlight on the walls not to promise the anxious and panicky blackbirds a way out!
     I say to the reader, beware. Readers who love poems of light may sit hunched in the corner with nothing in their gizzards for four days, light failing, the eyes glazed . . .
     They may end as a mound of feathers and a skull on the open boardwood floor . . .

You can find more good examples of prose poems at The Prose Poem Project website:


  • “One Year to a Writing Life: Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft” by Susan M Tiberghiem
  • “Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry” by David Mason and John Frederick Nims
  • The Prose-Poem Project
  • Article called “The Sexy New Animal: The DNA of the Prose Poem” in the Writer’s Chronicle magazine, March/April 2012

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