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!