Thursday, April 21, 2011

Writing Prose Poems

Welcome to my prose poem binge! In the last few weeks, I've written most of my poems in paragraphs rather than lines. I start a sentence and just keep on typing, ignoring phrase endings, commas, weighty words – all places where I usually press RETURN. The momentum carries forward like an ocean wave, not breaking until the shore of the final period.  One reward: figuring out which topics lend themselves to prose poems and how to use this form effectively.

Poems that tell a story lend themselves to prose poems.  Makes sense, right?  The difference between fiction and the prose poem, though, is brevity and language play.  Instead of a full story, we usually get a single scene.  Or just an action.  Or one memory.  Also, most sentences contain sensory details, figures of speech, creative turns of phrase, or sound devices.  This is where the "poem" part of "prose poem" earns its name.

Poems with a strong voice make good prose poems.  If a character starts speaking and won't shut up, give her some free rein by letting the line run all the way to the margin and wrap around to the next line.  Create a persona.  Readers enjoy hearing a particular personality express itself -- as long as the language is tight, rings true, and captures interest.

Casual poems benefit from the prose form.  A lined poem seems to announce itself as a serious item, just by its form on the page.  Meanwhile, the prose poem greets us with a familiar wave.  It uses humor, sentence fragments, and slang with nonchalance.  Since a short paragraph doesn't intimidate, you can write one of these in your flip flops.  Just don't forget the basics of strong writing: active verbs, specific nouns, few adjectives, and fewer adverbs.

Sound-rich poems work well in prose.  Try repeating consonants in clusters to create sonic interest.  Do the same with vowels.  Rhythm and momentum make the poem flow or jerk or tumble forward.  Direct that flow with punctuation.  Without the line and white space to control pacing, turn to the period, comma, semi-colon, colon, and dash to speed up and slow down.  Try following a long sentence with a short one.  Like this.  Consider using repetition.  Repeating a word or phrase creates a series of dots for the reader to connect, so it benefits structure as well as sound.  A prose poem is an especially good place to use rhyme because no line endings will draw undue attention to it.

The best way to learn how to write prose poems is to read some.  I enjoy Mary Oliver's.  My own "Guatemala" is a favorite of my readers, which I'm reading below.  Enjoy writing one of your own!

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