Welcome to the first of four August challenges in 2018! Every week in August a Foyle Young Poet will challenge you to write a new kind of poem. This week Enshia Li is exploring the unusual mutant world of the prose poem! And remember, if you’re confused by any definitions you can check out our Poetry Glossary.
Confession: When I was a kid, I was not into poetry at all. Aside from simple nursery rhymes, I thought poetry was too difficult, too abstract. Instead, I found solace in short stories and novels, which seemed more straightforward: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. That structure was a comfort when entering a whole other world. No, none of this Alice-in-Wonderland Poetry for me, please!
However, things didn’t stay that way for long. As I grew older, I began to enjoy poetry and found that the border between the genres wasn’t as concrete as I’d thought. Rather, it’s a slippery slope: literary categories begin to break down when we think about the prose poem.
What is a prose poem?
Compared to other poems, the most distinguishable feature of prose poetry is the lack of line breaks: at first glance, a prose poem might look like one or more “normal” paragraphs of text (aka prose). Because of this, sometimes it’s hard to say what is a prose poem and what is flash fiction or microfiction (which is very, very short fiction, sometimes under 100 words). People have spent their lives trying to draw a clear distinction between prose and poetry, so I won’t delve too deep into this question now, but you can look at the Young Poets Network Poetry Glossary to explore these terms further.
I would say that even though a prose poem might look like prose, it will still sound like poetry because of other poetic elements like rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, repetition, simile, unusual word order, and more. You might like to do some research of your own and decide what makes something poetry rather than prose for yourself: this video by UK poet, prose poet, and novelist Luke Kennard might be a good place to start.
Prose poems are diverse. Some can lean more toward the ‘prose’ category, and others can lean more heavily toward ‘poetry’, but I am most interested when I am utterly confused by what I’m reading. Prose poems can be deceptive, using poetic techniques with a narrative backbone.
Read Charles Simic’s ‘I am the last . . .’ which relays the tale of a Napoleonic soldier who has been ‘retreating from Moscow’ for 200 years. The poem is written in short, seemingly simple sentences. This apparent simplicity, and the startling images and symbols in the poem, make the fantastical idea of being in retreat for 200 years even stranger.
But prose poetry can be lyrical too. Read Hala Alyan’s ‘Oklahoma’ or Garrett Biggs’ ‘Werewolf’ (the latter isn’t technically poetry, but it’s still a great example!). These prose poems (or poetic prose?) deliver entire histories in a hurried but songlike tone. Notice how heavily repetition features, for instance. The speaker in ‘Oklahoma’ recounts:
This was before the gold rush, the greed of engines, before white men pressing against brown women, nailing crosses by the river, before the slow songs of cotton plantations, the hymns toward God, the murdered dangling like earrings.
In this series of vivid, violent images, the repeating ‘before’ acts as a rhythmical beat, like the soft clicks of a film reel. We are drawn in by the poetic repetition of sounds such as the vowels in ‘men … pressing against’ and ‘slow songs of cotton plantations’, and the half-rhyme in ‘dangling like earrings’. Repetition anchors the poem; each pulse both grounds the reader and propels them onto the next image, the next sound.
Write a prose poem. You might like to tell a story – a fable, a family history, a fractured fairy tale, an ending you want to correct … anything at all! There are no limits to how this story may be told. The poem can span over a hundred years or be fixed in a single, immutable moment.
Although you are writing a poem, it can be helpful to consider narrative devices. What is the setting? Who are the characters involved? Who is the speaker? Is there a clear plot?
At the same time, do not become too trapped in narrative conventions, and don’t feel that you have to describe a conventional story at all. While your poem might be bound by the story structurally, move beyond it. Try to detail events in language which surprises, in ways which may not be conventional but which bring out a line of music, an extra spark, an emotional truth.
You are free to pursue this challenge however you see fit, but here are some prompts to help you along:
- As seen in ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘Werewolf’, stories that span quite a long time – sometimes generations – can be condensed into a lyrical and concise prose poem. Is there a tale of epic proportions you would like to tell this way?
- With Simic’s example, an almost fable-like tone of voice is used to explore the hypothetical landscape of the poet’s establishment. What impossible scenarios are you obsessed with and would like to explore?
- Play with perspective: think of the most important event that’s ever happened to you, then tell it from the perspective of an inanimate object. Try it again, this time changing the speaker to someone else who was there. Then repeat the process with different events, ones which you may not have experienced but resonate.
As you write, don’t worry too much about whether your piece could even be considered poetry. Do the writing first, and save the judgments and categorizations for later. Actually, the more confused you are about where your piece falls the better! The poem with which I won the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award in 2017 was very much a hybrid prose poem: ‘unwritten letter from my great-grandmother to my great-grandfather, 1930’.
Finally, a few more suggestions for inspiration:
- Check out this wonderful prose poem ‘The Colonel’ by Carolyn Forché
- Read the second and third prose poems on this page by Carrie Etter; and her essay in which discusses prose poetry
- You could read some of Charles Baudelaire’s prose poems (notably from the collection Les Fleurs du Mal); Baudelaire is sometimes thought the father of prose poetry.
That’s it for the challenge! I look forward to reading all your hybrid creations.
The winning poems will be published on the Young Poets Network website. Winners will also receive an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, poetry books and other poetry goodies.
How to enter
This challenge is open to all poets up to the age of 25, based anywhere in the world. You can send a poem written down, or a performance poem as a video or as an audio file. Send as many poems as you like. The deadline for all entries is midnight, Monday 10 September 2018.
If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending a video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it.
Send your poems to firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, date of birth/age, gender, and the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country), you live in and the subject line ‘August challenge #1’.
If you are aged 12 or younger on Monday 10 September 2018 you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form if you haven’t already; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry. This is due to new data protection laws.
If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line of your email. If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, please include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the body of the email. You can sign up yourself for free here.
By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network and The Poetry Society to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity, though copyright remains with you, and to hold your data in a secure manner so we can contact you about the results of this challenge. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.
Enshia Li was a Foyle Young Poet in 2017. Previously, her writing has been recognized by The Adroit Journal and the Claremont Review. As she writes this biography, she is struggling through an identity crisis in the third person. She hopes to continue studying English Literature and Creative Writing at Stanford University this fall.