Prose poem; definition and famous examples

The term ‘prose poem’ means a composition printed as prose but distinguished by elements common in poetry: such as elaborately contrived rhythms, figures of speech, rhyme, internal rhyme, assonance, consonance, and startling images, symbols. 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.

Aloysius Bertrand (1807-41) appears to have been one of the first writers to establish it as a minor genre. His Gaspard de la nuit (1842) was a collection of fantasies in the manner of Rembrandt and Callot written in the very ornate and rhythmical language. It contains many dazzling images, a number of which are grotesque. Later, Baudelaire was influenced by this work, as is apparent from his Petits poemes en prose (1869).

It is likely that Bertrand’s work had some influence on the symbolist poets and on the surrealists. Other writers of note to have attempted the prose poem are Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde, Amy Lowell, and T. S. Eliot, William Carlos William, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Franz Kafka, Peter Redgrove, and David Wevill.

A remarkable recent example is Heathcote Williams’s Whale Nation (1988), a long work which is a celebration of the existence and way of life of whales and a plea for their preservation. Other notable examples are Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns (1971), Amy Lowell’s Bath, Metals Metals by Russell Edson  Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945).

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