Prose Poems

A Collection of Classic Prose Poems

The prose poem may appear to be an impossible oxymoron—neither prose nor poetry, but also somehow both. Our notes on what a prose poem is or isn’t are below, following this collection of classic examples:

  • Charles Baudelaire,
    “Intoxication” from Petits Poèmes en Prose (1869, translated by James Huneker, 1919)
  • Oscar Wilde,
    “The Artist” (from Poems in Prose, 1894)
  • Gertrude Stein,
    A Long Dress, A Red Hat and A Blue Coat” from the “Objects” section of Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms (1914)

Poems in Disguise
Poetry is commonly defined by distinguishing it from prose, and it would seem to be a simple thing to make that distinction at first glance: On the page, a poem has lines of different lengths, and the line breaks are chosen by the poet, while the appearance of a passage of prose is shaped by the typography and the size of the page, and the words fill the page or column, with line breaks determined by the margins.

Prose is built of sentences and paragraphs, while a poem is made from lines and stanzas, and the white space around the words (or the pauses or silences, if you’re listening to a reading rather than reading the poem on a page) is part of the poem, as rests or hesitations are part of any musical composition.

So what makes a prose poem a poem, and not just a paragraph of prose? Some would say that a poem cannot be a poem if it takes the form of prose and eschews line breaks. But the division of utterance into phrases, or the arrangement of typography into lines on a page, are surely not the only defining elements of poetry. If you read through our collection of classic prose poems above, you will encounter many linguistic arts that can only be called poetry—metaphor, image, the music of rhythms freed from the strict measurements of feet and lines. And by the time you’ve finished, we think you will have developed a sense of what a prose poem is, even if you cannot offer a precise or concise definition. As a matter of fact, it may be easier to define a prose poem by saying what it is not: It’s not “verse,” which demands line-based metric rhythms and often rhymes. It’s certainly not a sonnet or any other kind of poem defined by its form. Nor is it quite the same thing as “flash fiction,” which always has a narrative thread, short as the story may be. You might even say that a prose poem is a poem in disguise, a poem pretending not to be a poem.

Notes on the History of the Prose Poem
The prose poem first appeared as a distinct, deliberately chosen type of poem in the work of French poets of the mid-19th century, most particularly Aloysius Bertrand, who has been called “the father” of the prose poem.

Speculation is that prose poems were a reaction against the strict formal prescriptions of the Academie Française. Charles Baudelaire famously introduced his volume Paris Spleen, or Little Poems in Prose with this oft-quoted definition of the prose poem:

“Which one of us, in his moments of ambition, has not dreamed of a miracle of poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience?”
Baudelaire’s influence on the Modernists led some of them to experiment with prose poems in English—even T.S. Eliot, whose early prose poem “ Hysteria” was published by Ezra Pound in his Catholic Anthology in 1915, but who later railed against the term “prose poetry” as a false hybrid in his essay, “The Borderline of Prose.” The prose poem has enjoyed a renaissance in English in the past 30 years. Many contemporary poets—including Robert Bly, Russell Edson, Charles Simic and James Tate—have written prose poems, and a number of good anthologies of prose poems in English have been published.