Though the name of the form may appear to be a contradiction, the prose poem essentially appears as prose, but reads like poetry. In the first issue of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, editor Peter Johnson explained, "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." While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. The prose poem can range in length from a few lines to several pages long, and it may explore a limitless array of styles and subjects. History of the Prose Poem Form Though examples of prose passages in poetic texts can be found in early Bible translations and the Lyrical Ballads of William Wordsworth, the form is most often traced to nineteenth-century French symbolists writers. The advent of the form in the work of Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire marked a significant departure from the strict separation between the genres of prose and poetry at the time. A fine example of the form is Baudelaire's "Be Drunk," which concludes: And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.” The form quickly spread to innovative literary circles in other coutries: Rainer Maria Rilke and Franz Kafka in Germany; Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz in Latin America; and William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein in the United States. Each group of writers adapted the form and developed their own rules and restrictions, ultimately expanding the definitions of the prose poem.
More about the Prose Poem Form
Among contemporary American writers, the form is widely popular and can be found in work by poets from a diverse range of movements and styles, including James Wright, Russell Edson, and Charles Simic. Campbell McGrath’s winding and descriptive "The Prose Poem" is a recent example of the form; it begins:
On the map it is precise and rectilinear as a chessboard, though driving past you would hardly notice it, this boundary line or ragged margin, a shallow swale that cups a simple trickle of water, less rill than rivulet, more gully than dell, a tangled ditch grown up throughout with a fearsome assortment of wildflowers and bracken. There is no fence, though here and there a weathered post asserts a former claim, strands of fallen wire taken by the dust. To the left a cornfield carries into the distance, dips and rises to the blue sky, a rolling plain of green and healthy plants aligned in close order, row upon row upon row.
There are several anthologies devoted to the prose poem, including Traffic: New and Selected Prose Poems and Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present, as well as the study of the form in The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundries of Genre.
read more prose poems
From A Poet’s Glossary
The following additional definition of the term prose poem is reprinted from A Poet's Glossary by Edward Hirsch.
A composition printed as prose that names itself poetry. The prose poem takes advantage of its hybrid nature — it avails itself of the elements of prose (what Dryden called “the other harmony of prose”) while foregrounding the devices of poetry. The French writer Aloysius Bertrand established the prose poem as a minor genre in Gaspard de la nuit (1842), a book that influenced Baudelaire’s Petits poèmes en prose (1869). Baudelaire used prose poems to rebel against the straitjacket of classical French versification. He dreamed of creating “a poetic prose, musical without rhyme or rhythm, supple and jerky enough to adapt to the lyric movements of the soul, to the undulations of reverie, to the somersaults of conscience.” Baudelaire’s prose poems — along with Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations (1886) and Mallarmé’s Divagations (1897) — created a mixed musical form (part social, part transcendental) that has been widely and internationally practiced in the twentieth century. “There is no such thing as prose,” Mallarmé insisted in 1891. “There is the alphabet, and then there are verses which are more or less closely knit, more or less diffuse. So long as there is a straining toward style, there is versification.”
Read the rest of the definition here.
And have you read, Allen Ginsberg's HOWL? I you haven't I suggest it.
Here's Ginsberg's take, and others on the poem, from enotes.
Everything you read, like what follows here, will inform your already established ability as a writer of poetry.
I know how busy your life as a husband, and Dad to three young boys is, Niall, and I know I've said this to you before, but I'll say it again, (lol) read everything: the good and the bad, new and old poems, criticisms, and books on craft, work reading into the little time you have for writing. And remember, revision is not the same as writing a poem.
Howl by Allen Ginsberg
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 617
Allen Ginsberg’s own description of “Howl”—“A huge sad comedy of wild phrasing”—is an accurate summary of its largest structural outlines and predominant moods. Written in a version of open verse that employs as its fundamental unit a series of individual image clusters, it is divided into three parts, each marked by a specific rhythmic pattern. The first part, with its fervent declaration that “the best minds” of a generation have been driven to madness, immediately establishes the poet as an engaged witness, while the compelling claim that opens the poem, “I have seen ,” is a conscious parallel to Walt Whitman’s active participation (“I was the man; I suffered; I was there”) in the critical moments of his time. Taking as his subject the “angelheaded hipsters” who represent an undiscovered underground community of artists, junkies, street people, mutants, and other outcasts, Ginsberg uses the first part of “Howl” to tell, in compressed form, the life highlights of people who have been damaged or destroyed by their inability to fit into American society during the Eisenhower years. Using the word “who” to begin each miniature biographical fragment, Ginsberg gradually develops a picture of an entire counterculture, the separate images building toward a mosaic of madness and desperation, but a mosaic which is informed by the manic energy of inspiration and excitement that made these people so distinct
. The motive behind the actions he describes is the achievement of a transcendent vision of existence, and the range of experience he covers is transnational, including urban jungles and open plains, academic settings and back alleys. His “angelheaded hipsters” use every available transformative agent, as well as their untapped mental capacity, to reclaim a world that has gone awry. Part 2 of the poem is an attempt to identify the reasons that society has become so hostile for these “remarkable lamblike youths,” and after asking what “bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination,” Ginsberg locates the core of corruption as a “monster of mental consciousness” that he designates “Moloch” after the Canaanite Fire God (in Leviticus) whose worship required human sacrifice.
The entire section is written as a composite of images that coalesce into the super-symbol of monstrosity which stands for every negative element in American life. Each long-breath line is set off by the word “Moloch,” and the repetition of the word within the line as well generates a cascade of doom overwhelming the political realm (“Congress of sorrows”), the social (“Whose blood is running money”), the sexual (“Lacklove and manless in Moloch!”), and the personal (“who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy!”). The inventory of ugliness culminates in a series of staccato statements, a chant of wrath—“demonic industries! spectral nations! in-vincible madhouses!”—that suggests a swirl of chaos in which people are engulfed, their lives governed by forces beyond their ken.
The third part of the poem is an attempt to set the spiritual strength of an artistic intelligence against the materialistic forces responsible for this spiritual desolation. This section is addressed to Carl Solomon, a man Ginsberg met when they were both patients in Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, and places the poet in a kind of solidarity with Solomon, who is being treated in Rockland Hospital. Solomon stands for all the “lambs” of part 1, and each line in this section begins with the affirmation “I’m with you in Rockland,” which is modified by aspects of Solomon’s ingenious, creative, and anarchic method for spiritual survival. The poem concludes with a presentation of what Ginsberg called “the answer,” followed by the last image, an extension of the community of love and brotherhood into a dreamlike future of promise and hope.
Forms and Devices
PDFCiteShareLast Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 774 Before writing “Howl,” Ginsberg had worked primarily on what he called “short-line free verse” in the measures of American speech and in more traditional forms based on centuries-old British prototypes. Describing himself as “sick and tired” of what he was doing, and fearing that his work was not “expressionistic enough” because he could not “develop a powerful enough rhythm,” he decided to follow his “romantic inspiration” and write without concern for precedents or conventions of any kind.
He thought that his subject (“queer content my parents shouldn’t see”) would probably prohibit publication, so he felt free to compose without preconception or limitation. Guided by what he called his “Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath”—a version of Old Testament prophetic proclamation, modified by Herman Melville’s conversions of those rhythms into the syntax of American prose narrative—Ginsberg worked out an effective, original formal structure which was completely missed by most critics at the time of publication. Noting in a letter that none of the reviewers had “enough technical interests to notice” what he considered the “obvious construction of the poem,” Ginsberg explained (or taught) the poem himself in his “Notes for Howl and Other Poems.” According to his account, after his initial declaration of his subject, the fate of the “best minds” (his narcotics-using bohemian community), Ginsberg depended on repetition of the word “who” to keep the beat, an approach influenced by Jack Kerouac’s ideas about improvisation akin to modern jazz. He then built “longer and shorter variations on a fixed base,” elaborate images lifting off each basic measure that were written for their meaning as well as “the beauty of abstract poetry” and the latent energy found in “awkward combinations disparate things put together.” The repeated “who” operates as a ground beneath each “streak of invention,” but even with this technique, Ginsberg worried that it would be difficult to sustain a long line in a long poem. To put “iron poetry back into the line,” Ginsberg believed that his “concentration and compression of imagistic notations” such as “hydrogen jukebox” or “bop kaballa” would function like a haiku, in which juxtapositions encourage the brain to make a connection in a leap of energy, which he called “lightning in the mind.” Ginsberg also likened this method to the “cubist phrasing” of Cezanne’s painting. In a further attempt to keep the line moving, he employed “primitive naïve grammar,” which condensed phrases by removing words not totally necessary, and eliminated what he thought were “prosey articles” that dulled the rhythm. The goal of his efforts was to “build up large organic structures,” and he believed that all of his previous work as a poet was involved in balancing the lines to avoid any loose or dead areas that would leach energy out of the poem.
Parts 2 and 3 follow a similar strategy. The framing question of the second part calls forth the series of images of Moloch, Ginsberg’s ultimate symbol of the evil and destructive forces of the modern world. Each line operates as a separate stanza, with the line itself broken into “exclamatory units” or “component short phrases”; the repeated use of the word “Moloch” acts as a “rhythmical punctuation.” The whole section builds toward a climax in which the poet intones individual concepts as exclamations of mental fixity (“Dreams! Adorations! Illuminations!”), concluding part 2 in an explosion of psychic energy leading to a mood of ecstatic abandon developed by a chant designed to approximate or induce frenzy.
Part 3 is conceived as a “litany of affirmation” that restores the tranquillity which the Moloch passages have disrupted; Ginsberg based it to some extent on the model of Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno” (“rejoice in the lamb”), just as the Moloch structure is partially based on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Epipsychidion (1821). Smart’s use of statement-counterstatement lies behind Ginsberg’s repetition of a phrase base (“I’m with you in Rockland”) as an anchor, with the response or extension that begins “Where ” “elongating itself slowly” to form a pyramidal structure. The individual units are often surrealistic, as Ginsberg attempts to convey the imaginative, often oblique sense of existence for which Solomon stands. The final unit in the pyramid is purposefully too long for one line, or one breath unit, and its textual density is developed to carry the full weight of Ginsberg’s last revelation (“where I open out and give the answer”). This final unit is open-ended, containing no rigid punctuation device, as if to suggest the beginning of a journey “in the Western night” that replaces the initial journey into nightmare that was introduced as the poem began with an image of “streets at dawn.” Bibliography PDFCiteShare
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 367 Suggested Readings Ginsberg, Allen. Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript & Variant Version, Fully Annotated by Author, with Contemporaneous Correspondence, Account of First Public Reading, Legal Skirmishes, Precursor Texts & Bibliography. Edited by Barry Miles. New York: Harper & Row, 1986. An impressive study of the annotations, allusions, inspirations, revisions, and original typescripts of the poem. The book also presents contemporaneous correspondence from a range of poets and critics who were involved with the poem.
Hyde, Lewis, ed. On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984. An excellent collection of essays, reviews, and biographical materials. Gregory Stephenson’s explication of “Howl” is especially comprehensive and helpful. The discussion of “Howl” in the 1950’s and James Breslin’s essay on the poem’s genesis provide interesting information on the circumstances leading up to the original publication.
Merrill, Thomas F. Allen Ginsberg. Boston: Twayne, 1969. Provides a good overview of the publication history, structure, and theme of “Howl.” Also includes a useful chronology. Miles, Barry. Ginsberg: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.
Ostriker, Alicia. “Blake, Ginsberg, Madness, and the Prophet as Shaman.” In William Blake and the Moderns, edited by Robert J. Bertholf and Annette S. Levitt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982. Explains how Ginsberg’s reading of Blake inspired a series of religious visions that led him to believe that the poet is a prophet of madness who must “illuminate mankind.”
Portuges, Paul. The Visionary Poetics of Allen Ginsberg. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Ross-Erickson, 1978. Portuges writes about Ginsberg’s quest for a transcendent, mystical vision. He describes the poet’s fascination with the poetry of William Blake and his interest in jazz, drugs, mantras, and Tibetan Buddhism.
Raskin, Jonah. American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. An intensive scholarly study of the historical and cultural context of the poem and its author. Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
Shinder, Jason. The Poem that Changed America: “Howl ” Fifty Years Later. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Twenty-six essays produced by noted authors recounting personal reactions to Ginsberg’s poem and the way it impacted society.
Very interesting read, thanks Maggie. I do enjoy reading prose very much, and good prose undoubtedly holds as much weight as good poetry.