Poem is a poem is a poem

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!


  1. Very interesting post! Speaking as someone who’s written fiction (including flash fiction) and poetry, but very seldom prose poems (I think I’ve written four of them all told), what this post left me wondering was: what attracts you to write in this “grey area”, in which you navigate the banana peels so well?

  2. Thanks Tim. Interesting question. I didn’t consciously set out to write in the grey zone – I just seemed to be writing a lot of short pieces or extended sequences of linked short pieces and eventually I found out there were labels for that sort of thing. I may have been (subconsciously) influenced by Don Marquis’ archy and mehitabel, which my schoolfriend Jean introduced me to – a series of tales of a cockroach who is the reincarnation of Shakespeare and a cat who was previously Cleopatra…

  3. I also found this a really interesting post. I haven’t written much prose poetry – I don’ t think, but I really love prose that is poetic, and poetry that is narrative. I was working for a while on a novel, which I hope I may return to and finish (well, re-start and then finish) one day, and it wasn’t really working – I wasn’t able to get the tone I wanted. I think I was trying to get the tone of a long narrative poem – so possibly I should just write it as a long narrative poem instead.

    I also have a question – forgive my ignorance, but what’s flash fiction? A relation to slash fiction?? I could just google it, but it appears I am too lazy.

  4. Oh, sorry, I should have said – flash fiction is very short fiction (also called short short stories, postcard fiction or micro fiction). There doesn’t seem to be any agreement on how short it has to be – some journals specify under 500 words, some 100 words; others are happy for stories as long as 1500 words.

    Good luck with the novel/long narrative poem!

  5. Speaking of your poetry – I’ve just finished reading your section of AUP New Poets 3, and I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it. Particular favs are ‘Cafe Tales’, ‘Animal Tales’, and the selection of ‘The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider’, which I only just noticed are all prose poems!

    I found I was rather surprised and somewhat disappointed to turn the page and discover I was at the end of your section – I was all set to read for much longer. I believe an Alice Spider chapbook may be in order – I know you’ve written more of them.

  6. Thanks Helen. An Alice chapbook is a fine idea – she’s expanded to 100 odd pages (very odd, some of them) over the years & I’m sure I could squish her into a slim volume…

  7. Thanks invisibleinkling – I recently read another description of what was termed “the short prose thing” in online journal “six little things”. They say:

    “Some will call them “prose poems,” others “short short stories,” and you may feel free to argue amongst yourselves all you’d like, but I am happy calling them very nice paragraphs and recommending a maximum count of 250 words”


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