Stuff to ponder: Prose Poetry

Rob posted a prose poem on his blog, here. I read it and liked it but don’t think I would call it poetry; I’d call it flash fiction instead. Why? I haven’t the foggiest.

I don’t have a clue how to distinguish prose poems from fiction. Once upon a time I thought I did, and I wrote stuff like this, which I considered prose poetry:


On nights like this the earth stirs and stretches, opening up and breathing out aromas, like millions of people sighing deep and preparing for love. Frangipani, heavy on the breeze, thickens the freshness of rain-to-come, coiling round you like incense in a dark room. The smell of frogspawn and snakes lingers close to the ground, clammy and cool, strangely sweet in the guinea grass by the porch. Even the blocks under the house have an odour tonight: a damp smell of chalk which clings to the roof of your mouth the way wet limestone sticks to your skin. Inside, lobster and cigarette smoke hang in the air, slowly mingling, their stewy staleness drifting out through the open door to meet you; and on him, a familiar smell of old smoke and recent soap and the sharp fresh greenness of aftershave.


Hard white video-light gone gold in the bowl of a brandy-glass. The pose: held as if photographed, held for a long moment, as long as it would take you, later, to gaze at the picture in an album. Long enough at least to notice details. Hands, two pairs, cupped around the fat bellies of two crystal snifters. Two heads: one bent, hair exploding downwards, inclined toward the core of light in the liquor; the other thrown back into the crook of the sofa’s arm, eyes three-quarters closed, the face greyshadowed by the flicker of the television screen. One knee, his, cocked, upbent above the seat of the sofa. One forearm, yours, loosely brushed by the fall of his trouserleg.

But later I wrote stuff like this, which I considered flash fiction:

So when it rain water collect round here. They say if you spit in the road in Centreville, you get a flood. Back in the day, the area we call the Valley nowadays had a real name, Culmersville, after I presume some dude name Culmer, whoever he was when he was at home, but now we just call it the Valley. All the area to the east of the wall and south of the hill. Well, maybe not ALL of it, but a whole doggone lot of it.

Tell me say they call it the Valley cause that’s short for Death Valley.

Tell me say back in the day there was people dying of consumption and pneumonia because of the dampness. That people who lived up on the hill there, Hawkins Hill or Sears Addition hill, when they looked out south all they could see was fog.

Tell me say this whole place was built on swamp some person decided to fill in and sell.

Not that this mean anything nowadays. Well OK, too much rain and it flood, but that’s just how it go, you know, and mind, it don’t rain all that much in the wintertime no how, not enough for flooding anyhow. So.

Here’s me, in the Valley, right on that same spot my daddy was born in and where his daddy move in from the island and build. Here’s me, sitting pretty in one of the first stone house people build in this part of the island, Christmas Eve or thereabout. OK, so I know I living in the better part of the Valley, not that part where the white people live, round Murphyville and Sears Hill and Twynam so and so, but not in that area where people grow up raw and rough. This neighbourhood, this East Avenue area, was for people who know how to behave, for people who smoothskin enough to slide into couple position of authority. I know this. But I also know you step two feet out my front gate and you looking at the park where the fellas them all come to practice for Junkanoo. And you know that when a goatskin lick up, ain’t much you could do to stop any Bahamian, if he got a teaspoon of nigblood in his vein, from dancing.

This spirit lick me young.

What’s the difference?

Edit: this discussion’s reminding me of the genre-hopping discussion further down, so I thought I’d link to it. These days my prose tends towards the theatrical — what’s the difference between flash-fiction no. 2 and a monologue?

New link


8 thoughts on “Stuff to ponder: Prose Poetry

  1. Hrm. The first seems more interested in imagery and sound, and the second in plot. But, if you presented me with the second and said it was a poem, I probably wouldn’t bat an eye. If you presented me with the first and said it was flash fiction, I’d probably say, “That reads like a poem.”

  2. Gah! Exactly! I would make the comparison just as you did – imagery and sound = poetry (and there are 3 more movements to that one btw), and plot = fiction, but since not everybody does, how the bejesus does anybody know?

  3. I wrote my piece for a challenge here, where they are also discussing what makes a prose poem, so I thought I’d link you up to that.

    I’m not sure of the difference between prose poems and flash fiction. Charles Simic won the Pulitzer with The World Doesn’t End, a collection of prose poems, but I wonder if they are closer to flash fiction, a term which probably didn’t exist as a genre then (1989?). Many of them have narratives and are written in Simic’s trademark ‘flat’ style.

    Perhaps if you’re normally a poet, you can call your flash fiction prose poetry, and if you’re normally a novelist, you can call your prose poems flash fiction. If you’re both you can call them what you prefer.

    There’s maybe more to it, so I’ll have a think.

  4. Frank Wilson linked to a piece on flash fiction yesterday, which in turn links to two examples of flash fiction by Bob Thurber.

    These pieces are definitely prose – just as they are intended to be – and I have no doubt about that categorisation. What makes them different from prose poetry? Perhaps in a prose poem we might expect an intensity, a compression of language, a rhythmic quality – some or all of these. Of course, prose can also be written with all of these things, but I suspect we’d then be talking of prose which had ‘poetic’ quality.

    I don’t think narrative should be an issue here. I think a poem can have a narrative every bit as much as prose, and a prose poem is no different in that respect. I guess flash fiction needs a narrative to work at all.

    I don’t mind what my piece is called. I feel it’s very different from Thurber’s piece, but I can also see why people might not think of it as a poem. Your prose poem feels like a poem to me. Your final piece feels a bit looser, a bit more like prose.

  5. Thanks to you both. Rob, after reading some of Simic’s pieces I can no longer use narrative/plot as a distinguishing feature of flash fiction vs. prose poetry. Apprentice, maybe they do overlap.

    This is something that I really don’t know how to assess, perhaps because I write both poetry and prose. My natural prose style tends toward the poetic, and my poetry these days tends toward the narrative, so you may understand why I’m so confused.

    Perhaps there’s a difference in the process. Flash fiction is exactly that (as far as I can tell) — written in a hurry, generally in a specified length of time. The second piece I posted was written for a flash exercise, probably a 60 or 70 minute flash. The first (written so long ago) was written as a different sort of exercise — the telling of a story through the five senses (as I say, the other three movements aren’t posted).

  6. Rob Mackenzie said…

    Frank Wilson linked to a piece on flash fiction yesterday, which in turn links to two examples of flash fiction by Bob Thurber.

    That link appears to be dead, though a Google search led me to a few stories by Thurber. My question is where can I find more of Bob Thurber’s work?

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