Prose Poems vs. Lyric Essays

In my reading of Aaron Shurin’s poetry for this week, I found myself very caught up in the fact that most of his poems seem to be prose poems. While I don’t want to detract from Sara’s presentation, I am very interested in some of the issues that his poetry brings up–particularly the idea of what prose poetry is.  We’ve talked a little about it in class, but I don’t recall us ever coming to a succinct definition as to what prose poetry is.  Building on that, where is the line between prose poetry and lyric essays? What is the difference between the two?  In my mind, a prose poem is typically rather short, while a lyric essay is longer.  However, a lyric essay seems to embody a bit more of a sense of the narrative than a prose poem does, as prose poems are a space to explore images & more abstract ideas. So what happens if (as in the Shurin) a poem is both long and abstract?  Is there a defining line between prose poetry and lyric essays? I’m not sure there is, but you all might have different/more concrete definitions. How do you all differentiate?

2 Replies to “Prose Poems vs. Lyric Essays”

  1. Hey Sarah,
    I’m in the same boat; I think prose poetry is a super interesting avenue but is also incredibly unexplored. As we all found out in class today, it seems that we’re all still fairly uncertain what exactly a poem is, and the deviation from poetry, which we’ve always conceded to be lineated, makes me even more uncomfortable with prose poems. I’m not really sure how to know when to turn a lineated poem into a prose poem, but I think that after writing any draft, you should take all the lines out–does it work this way? Do you see new opportunities for breaking?
    On another note, speaking of prose poems, I remember distinctly that we had a lesson in my 12th grade English class about what a poem is, and we read “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forche: (taken from poetryfoundation.org)

    WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried
    a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went
    out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the
    cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over
    the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English.
    Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to
    scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On
    the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had
    dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
    calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of
    bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief
    commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was
    some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot
    said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed
    himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
    nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
    home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
    dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one
    of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water
    glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As
    for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck them-
    selves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last
    of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some
    of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the
    ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.

    I always think of this piece when I think of prose poems because it is a great example of something that just works as prose. It’s such a feeling of image-saturation, and it has a very lyric quality that is fitting for prose.

    1. An ongoing question – the definition’s only been complicated in the 130-odd years since Baudelaire introduced the term, and Sarah’s right to note the porous line between prose poem and lyric essay, to which I’ll also add the line between prose poetry and flash fiction is difficult to find. Partly context matters, and partly it’s about the poem’s agenda: if you’re trying to develop a narrative, you’re more likely to be close to fiction, and yet of course no-one would accuse The Odyssey of not being poetry – and not just because of its meter.

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