Abigail Beckel

Prose Poem Issue Introduction

Volume 14:4, Fall 2013

Guest Editor: Abigail Beckel

“Who among us has not, in his ambitious days, dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple and agile enough to adapt to the lyrical movements of the soul, to the undulations of daydreams, to the leaps of consciousness?” French poet Charles Baudelaire described this aim for prose poetry in a letter to Arsène Houssaye that later became the preface to his groundbreaking posthumous 1869 collection The Spleen of Paris, Little Poems in Prose. Baudelaire and his fellow Frenchman and contemporary Aloysius Bertrand (known for Gaspard of the Night, 1842) are considered the originators of what we now call prose poetry.

Since that inspired beginning, prose poetry has had a rocky history. It has been maligned and rejected as poetry by many, including famously by poet T.S. Eliot and 1978 Pulitzer Prize Committee member Louis Simpson. It has been dormant for periods of time, but has garnered renewed interest from both writers and readers since the 1970s. Today prose poetry is a thriving, popular genre with many practitioners, as evidenced by the over 500 submissions we received for this special prose poetry issue—from just five Mid-Atlantic states! The 43 prose poems by 30 poets included in this issue offer a primer in all that is enchanting and exciting about prose poetry, as well as wide-ranging examples of styles and techniques used to create effective prose poems.

The signature element of prose poetry is that it has no line breaks like traditional poetry. A prose poem looks like a block of text on the page, running from left to right margins without care where the lines break. It’s a chunk of prose that reads like poetry. In a prose poem, the unit of rhythm is the sentence rather than the enjambed line, but those sentences must be imbued with the lyricism and sonic play of a lined poem. A prose poem is not a lined poem smooshed together with the line breaks removed. It’s usually obvious when a poet has tried this approach, as the tension still resides in the old lines and you can hear them begging for enjambment. A prose poem finds its tension in sentences—its cadence starts and stops with punctuation, with the long sentence and then the short, with repetition, alliteration and internal rhyme built in. Prose poetry offers the best of verse and prose, spinning off down poetic byways but offering the assumed approachability of a paragraph, while all the time rattling the cages of both genres.

Because the prose poet is working with sentences and does not have enjambment to help determine the pace and rhythm of the poem, the poet’s focus must return again and again to the level of individual words. The sonic qualities of precise word choice can be used to create density, repetition, and mouthfeel.  Two poems in this issue, David McAleavey’s “When My Shirt Dries,” and Chloe Yelena Miller’s “No,” use the twin driving forces of repetition and word choice to propel their poems along with urgency and energy. Read these two poems. Then imagine them with line breaks. Where would you break the lines? How long would the poems stretch down the page with all that room to breathe? Would the effect be the same? I don’t think it would. The ability to create a breathless gallop of words is one of the gifts of the prose poem form.

There is a belief in some quarters that prose poems must have a certain attitude, a kind of surrealist or absurdist wit made famous by the modern masters of prose poetry—Russell Edson, James Tate, and Charles Simic, among others—when they re-popularized the form in the 1970s and 1980s. But though many prose poets do tap into the somewhat inherent irreverence and rebelliousness of the form to write with dark humor and wild imagination, prose poets today employ just about every style and technique used in lined poetry (with the exceptions of enjambment and formalism, of course) and borrow from many other genres as well, including fiction, essay, and playwriting. In prose poems, both in this issue and generally, you will find an array of craft elements in use, among them narrative, lyric, persona, discursive, experimental, confessional, and imagist.

The hybrid nature of prose poetry, with its shameless, joyful borrowing of craft and conceits from other types of poetry, other genres, and even everyday language encounters like letters, emails, conversations, lists, and questionnaires, makes it particularly well suited to techniques such as epistolary and ekphrastic writing. This issue includes two of E. Ethelbert Miller’s “Dear Micky” letters from his epistolary prose poem series “The Fictional Letters of Don Millo written to the Colored Poet Micky at the end of the 20th Century.” The issue also includes four ekphrastic poems: Paulette Beete’s “In the Garden,” Elizabeth Poliner’s “Looking at Buds,” Flavian Mark Lupinetti’s “Mural,” and Michael Gushue’s “Godzilla (1954),” which take their inspiration from the artwork of Cy Twombly and Georgia O’Keefe, community artwork on the side of a library, and a popular Japanese sci-fi movie, respectively.

The prose poem is also a natural vehicle for narrative poems. There has been much debate over the years about what makes a narrative prose poem poetry and what makes a similar-sized flash fiction piece fiction. I can usually distinguish a narrative prose poem from a short short story when the wordplay and lyric qualities of the sentences supersede the plot or character development. Also, prose poem narratives tend to wander more, creating non-linear, more metaphoric narratives. However, I’m not sure that the boundary between those two genres is really worth fretting over, because binding a piece of writing with a firm definition or one label versus another does not often do justice to the work’s creative end. A more compelling point of study is how prose poets craft narrative poems differently than poets who write narrative poems in traditional lines. In his essay in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry, James Harms offers his argument for why narratives written in prose poems often work so well:

“Certainly plain­spoken narrative poems work wonderfully in lines, but here’s the rub: Lined narrative poetry often seems to work in opposition to compres­sion, and the danger of flatness is extreme. The prose poem, on the other hand, is ever mindful of compression: It may look like prose but it’s trying like hell to be short, to not resemble a story or an essay. I suppose there’s an irony here: In attempting to overcome the limitations of line and lyric length, the lined narrative poem often tends to slackness; in risking the relative slackness of expository language, the prose poem tends toward tightness, toward concision.”

This issue includes many examples of effective narrative prose poems, including Jessie van Eerden’s “Brothers” and Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka’s “Queuing for Lenin.” The issue also features a subset of narrative prose poems: the poetic reimagining and retelling of known stories and myths. Some of these poems place fairytale characters in modern times, like Christina Daub’s “Out of the Woods”; others bring striking new images to the old stories we thought we knew, like Barbara Westwood Diehl’s “Rosefinch” and A.K. Padovich’s “How to Visit Baba Yaga.”

People often ask me why, as a publisher, I am drawn to hybrid forms. The truth is, I like any writing with a mind of its own and a flair for the unorthodox and unconventional. I am a fan of weirdness that works on an emotional level. But more than that I believe traditional forms and genres can become too constricting and formulaic, and that allowing ourselves as writers to let the words and subject matter find their most illuminative form can be an exceptionally fruitful practice.

Beyond their potential to help us hone our craft, good prose poems are in themselves marvels to be appreciated and enjoyed. They snap, surprise, and burst. They are strange and succinct, twisty and tightly wound. Their words are packed so densely between the margins that they nearly vibrate off the page. It’s been a pleasure to immerse myself in that energy while editing this issue of Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and I hope you will find this collection of prose poems just as electric and engaging as I have.

—Abigail Beckel

Abigail Beckel is the publisher of Rose Metal Press, an independent, nonprofit publishing house she co-founded in 2006. Rose Metal Press's mission is to publish and promote books in hybrid genres such as prose poetry, flash fiction, flash nonfiction, novels-in-verse, and text/art collaborations, and to encourage writing that moves beyond traditional genre boundaries by providing a publishing home for authors doing innovative work. Beckel's poems have recently been featured in Barrelhouse, Rhino Poetry, Ecotone, and The Fourth River. She lives in Takoma Park, Maryland. To read more by this author: Fall 2011 Issue