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Recently someone asked me what a prose poem was and I answered something along the lines of it being a poem that’s made up of whole sentences, like prose, but differing from prose in that it doesn’t rely on a plot, but uses an idea or language as the most important thing.  But some prose emphasises language over plot and some regular poems have full sentences.  So what is the difference?  Length? (but a prose poem can be short and a regular poem can go on for pages.  And what about flash fiction?)  Layout? (does it stop being a prose poem the moment you introduce line breaks or write it out in couplets?) 


I see there being a continuum, with prose at one end and poetry at the other and a whole grey area in the middle.  I spend quite a bit of time splashing about in this grey area.  Sometimes I’m not sure whether I’ve written a story or a prose poem or a poem.  Sometimes I’ve submitted a short story to one journal only to resubmit it as poetry to another.  One of my prose poem sequences was first published as fiction and subsequently as poetry.  Often, I’ll submit this kind of a work as “a short piece” to get around the thorny issue of definition.  Does it matter either way?  Personally, I think not.  One person’s poem is another’s short story.  It’s more important to me whether it’s any good, whether it works, whether anyone likes it (all very subjective, too).

So what do the experts say?  Encyclopaedia Britannica tells us a prose poem is:

“a work in prose that has some of the technical or literary qualities of a poem (such as regular rhythm, definitely patterned structure, or emotional or imaginative heightening) but that is set on a page as prose.”

Wikipedia has this to say:

“Most critics argue that prose poetry belongs in the genre of poetry because of its use of metaphorical language and attention to language.

Other critics argue that prose poetry falls into the genre of prose because prose poetry relies on prose’s association with narrative and its reliance on readers’ expectation of an objective presentation of truth in prose.

Yet others argue that the prose poem gains its subversiveness through its fusion of poetic and prosaic elements.”

Peter Johnson, quoting himself on Webdelsol, says:

“Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels”


Bring on the banana peels!

               Neil was twenty when I met him, twenty-two when he died.  Sometimes his hair was blond, sometimes green; often he had no hair at all.  He had shaved eyebrows & wore black eye-liner under his eyes.  Safety-pins adorned his ears.  Whenever I saw him, he was smiling. 

                Neil wore black trousers & torn shirts.  He made his own badges: ‘Drug-takers against the bomb’.  Only once did I see him wearing shoes.

He often talked about killing himself, but the date kept changing so we didn’t take him too seriously.  He planned to take something with him when he went, like the Auckland Central Police Station.  He was wanted on charges of possession, shoplifting, protesting against the Springbok Tour.  He wrote graffiti.

For a while, he travelled with others in an old bus.  I’d see him sometimes at parties or pubs.  I was in Barnacle Bill’s with a couple of friends once, looking for a guy who sold pills.  When they asked Neil if he’d seen him, he pulled the guy’s suicide note out of his pocket.  We didn’t stay long after that.

The second-to-last time I saw Neil, he’d come up from Stratford, where he’d been staying.  He’d changed his name to Null.  He wasn’t working or getting the dole & owned nothing but the clothes he was wearing.  His black dog, Umbrella, was with him, hungry but uncomplaining.  Neil was living off the cold pies & doughnuts he took from factory canteens at night.  He didn’t spend too long in any one town.

The night I saw him, I was at a restaurant in Auckland with a group of friends – a farewell dinner for some-one leaving town.  One of the group disappeared for a while & I went out to check he wasn’t throwing up in the gutter.  I found him in a dark doorway, talking to Neil.  The three of us went back into the restaurant & some-one ordered Neil some garlic bread.  (We’d finished our meals; he hadn’t eaten.)

I saw him a few days later, in the quad at ’Varsity with Umbrella.  We talked for a while.  I never saw Neil again.

When I heard on the news some months later that a punk anarchist had blown himself to pieces at the Wanganui Computer Centre, I wondered.  The name was released the next day: twenty-two year-old Neil Roberts from Stratford.  It wasn’t a surprise, but it was still a shock.  I listened to the details: his remains were scattered over 65 metres; an intact finger was found.  A recent tattoo said: “This punk won’t see twenty-three.  No future.”  He left a graffito nearby: “We have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity.  Anarchy Peace Thinking.”

Days later, I read the newspapers in the local library.  They described a polite, friendly person dressed in punk clothes, originally from Auckland, where his dog had now been sent.  I had to face it.  Neil was dead.  Long live anarchy.

                                                                                                      © Janis Freegard 


(Neil Roberts died on 18 November 1982.  I wrote this a couple of years later.) 



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