In most conversations about what makes a poem a poem, form is discussed. One of the seemingly defining factors of a poem is its line breaks. Whether it be sprawling free verse, or the strict nature of a sestina, a key identifying factor of poetry is its visual appearance. Line breaks are a key poetic tool to manipulate mood and to segment images—they are, in many ways, one of the few things poetry has no other genre does.
I’ve always considered myself someone who can express themselves better narratively than abstractly. Because of this, I have struggled with the more nebulous nature of poetry, particularly regarding telling a story within the form. Then, I discovered the prose poem.
Prose poems are the Weird Westerns of the writing world. Prose poems dip their French fries in milkshakes, and put Cheetos in their sandwiches. Prose poems pronounce milk “mulk”.
The ability to anchor my images within a prose-like structure in many ways enables me to let the images flower naturally, and my idea tend to follow a more natural progression when they aren’t being stuffed into visual tube tops. Don’t get me wrong—poetry is a majestic form, and line breaks are the stakes keeping the vine growing up. Take the stake away, the vine collapses into a bowl of spaghetti. A prose poem is a bowl of spaghetti that you can read.
For some reason, surrealism blooms in prose poems. But so does honesty, because the imagery and syntax of poetry bring emotion into the space that swells without form to keep it clean.
For a long time, I thought prose poems were not in fact poems, largely because of the aforementioned belief that line breaks are the foundation of poetry. Humans naturally reject things they can’t easily categorize, and prose poems trample on category. Some think they should be considered as a genre of their own—my previous self, included—which is fair. But genre, like so many other things, is only a set of rules meant to be broken.
However, the foundation of poetry is music—poems were originally meant to be sung. It is the sound of a poem that makes it a poem, which is why when you remove the line breaks of a poem, you can still tell it is one. It doesn’t matter to me if the prose poem is a poem, or something else entirely. What matters is that they are uniquely dynamic and engaging worms of writing that sometimes kick you in the face and tell you to like it.
Take an experience within your life and explore it through a surreal prose poem. Use aliens, mythological figures, or any other fantastic images/language you can think of. Through the fantasy/sci-fi aspects, explore the emotional consequences of this experience.
-Zarra Marlowe, Managing Editor