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A blurring of genres.

A Fortnightly Review.

Prose Poetry: An Introduction
By Paul Hetherington and Cassandra Atherton

Princeton University Press 2020 | 345pp | $18.85 £14.48



One of the main divisions of opinion in recent debates about prose poetry is whether it is a distinct literary form or not — and if not, whether that matters.

WHATEVER DOUBTS CRIT­ICS and writers may have voiced in the past about whether the prose poem is really ‘poetry’, it’s hard to avoid the fact that as a form it is flourishing. So obviously is this the case, say Paul Hetherington and Cas­sandra Atherton in Prose Poetry: An Introduction, that it’s time scholars developed ways to engage positively with prose poetry. Genre, they argue, is an inherently unstable concept, and as a form which borrows elements from both prose and lyric traditions, prose poetry necessarily forces a re-evaluation of the usefulness of traditional categorisations of texts for understanding contemporary practices.

Sensibly, they caution against being overly prescriptive in defining boundaries. ‘The contemporary prose poem,’ they say, ‘is so many things at once, and so protean and hybrid, that no summary will sufficiently delineate its borders or indicate the scope of its preoccupations and approaches.’ This caveat, however, does not stop the authors attempting to make a series of general statements about the prose poem which they see as necessary to shifting critical engagement onto a positive footing.

For example, having briefly reviewed arguments advanced by other critics about how long a ‘prose poem’ can be, they contend that ‘the majority of prose poems…are no more than one standard size page in length.’ There are exceptions, they acknowledge, but assert nevertheless that: ‘many of the most convincing prose poems – those that exemplify the possibilities of the form – make brevity and compression the rule.’ These kinds of statements are, however, invariably challenged by the very rich selection of material quoted in the book, which ultimately refuses to conform to such strictures. Chapter nine, for instance, includes discussions of long prose poems, book-length sequences of prose poems, and long hybrid texts.

The centrality of ‘the sentence and the paragraph’, as opposed to the line, and the presentation of many poems as a ‘solid justified prose block’ are additional qualities the authors emphasise. Other distinctive characteristics of the prose poem, they say, are that they: (a) ‘are never entirely driven by narrative and are always trying to point to something about their language or subject’, (b) ‘frequently suggest that powerful unseen and unconscious forces are at work in human experience,’ and (c) may ‘point laterally to additional understandings, implicitly indicating issues and topics other than those they directly address.’

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While such observations may be true of a great many prose poems they scarcely amount to a definition of a genre or sub-genre and, as with the issue of length, many examples of poems appear in the book which break these rules. This tension of course reflects one of the main divisions of opinion in recent debates about prose poetry, whether it is a distinct literary form or not, and if not whether that matters. Prose Poetry: An Introduction gets no closer than other recent studies to settling these questions.

Despite this, the book has huge merit. Its strength is the authors’ enthusiastic celebration of the diverse range of prose poetry that’s out there. By showcasing the work of a large number of poets the authors provide a far more powerful demonstration of the literary significance of this mode of writing than any theoretical discussion about genre ever could. There’s a real treasure trove of material here, including a great deal of recent poetry. Jeremy Noel-Tod, in his back-cover endorsement calls it ‘a terrific mini-anthology.’ The sheer vitality of so much of the poetry featured in the book makes its own case for attention.

HETHERINGTON AND ATHERTON follow the standard dating of the origin of the modern prose poem to mid-nineteenth-century France and the work of Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire. The second and third chapters of Prose Poetry: An Introduction provide much useful historical context. They rightly remind us that the modern form has a complex lineage. They cite, for example, the work of Fabienne Moore and the poèmes en prose of the French Enlightenment, as well as discussing other historical precedents, including the Japanese haibun.

The importance of the Romantic ‘fragment’ as an influence on the development of prose poetry is explored at some length here. The ‘fragment’ was for the Romantics an ideal form for dealing with the inherent limitations of human knowledge, allowing the writer to hint at larger mysteries. Examples of how contemporary writers of prose poems exploit the fragment are given in the book, including the explicit undercutting of Romantic tropes about Nature, the sublime, and the ‘noble savage’. There’s also a useful observation here on how much contemporary writing is shaped by the legacy of Romanticism.

Growing urbanisation in the nineteenth century is another contributing factor in the emergence of prose poetry that the authors discuss. Their argument here is linked to an examination of rhythm, and in particular the highly flexible and diverse rhythms of prose poems. Such rhythms, the authors contend, are inextricably linked with urban experience. Hetherington and Atherton explore Baudelaire’s concept of the flaneur as the type of the modern artist, and links between poetic rhythm and walking. Jazz rhythms are also discussed in the book, especially in relation to African-American prose poetry.

Much of what the authors argue here has real value, though it could be applied equally to lineated poetry. The rhythms of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems are surely just as marked by the experience of walking in a city as are the prose poem examples in the book. Much of Ron Silliman’s writing reflects the rhythms of life in San Francisco, in both his lineated and his prose poetry. These are not influences unique to the prose poem. Nevertheless, Hetherington and Atherton are right to argue that the prose poem has a complex history rooted in some of the major cultural trends of the last two centuries. Such perspectives are clearly relevant to understanding how the prose poem emerged and evolved, and help to dispel the idea that prose poetry is some sort of literary aberration.

THE SENSE OF incompleteness and openness of the ‘fragment’, of the text being in dialogue with an absent and unknowable whole, is developed further in chapter four. Here, Hetherington and Atherton make the claim that prose poems differ from lineated lyric poetry in being more open. Lineated poetry, they say, tends, on the contrary, to seek closure. Unfortunately, this assertion is not really substantiated. The only examples of a lineated lyric the authors give in the chapter are a sonnet by Shakespeare, and a fragment of a very early poem by Allen Ginsberg, later rewritten as a prose poem. Many of the ‘prose poets’ quoted in Prose Poetry: An Introduction also write lineated lyrics, but nowhere, aside from the Ginsberg example, is work in the two forms by a single author examined. This seems a curious omission.

Instead, statements by various critics and authors are marshalled in support of the idea that prose poems are characterised by indeterminacy and an avoidance of closure. But the same can be said of much contemporary lyric poetry. In what way is a Rae Armantrout poem more ‘closed’ than a typical prose poem? How are Charles Simic’s prose poems more ‘open’ than his lineated poems? Maybe there’s a case to be argued here, but no real evidence for the claim is advanced. While the Ginsberg poem certainly works better in prose, the main reason the lineated version feels more closed is because of the inclusion of a final phrase which is omitted in the prose version. Russell Edson, discussed at some length in the book, said in an interview with Peter Johnson: ‘My pieces, when they work, though full of odd happenings, win the argument against disorder through the logic of language and a compositional wholeness. So my ideal prose poem is a small, complete work, utterly logical within its own madness.’1

Similar arguments are made in chapter six, suggesting the absence of white space in a prose poem creates a particular kind of ‘TimeSpace’. Examples here of how line breaks create space for thought and breath include a speech from Macbeth, an Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet, and Malarmé’s ‘A throw of the dice’. Only one contemporary lyric, by the poet Fiona Benson, is quoted. Statements by a series of writers are enlisted in support of the idea that the sense of TimeSpace in prose poems is typically ‘compressed’ and lacks ‘breathing space’. But is this true?

Hetherington and Atherton use TimeSpace to denote two separate things: (a) the spacing of the text on the page and how this affects reading time, and (b) notions of time and space in the content of the poem. A reader’s experience of a lyric using short lines compared to a page-long prose poem will certainly be very different. But whether a specific prose poem feels compressed or airless surely varies from poem to poem, and depends on the density of the text, the syntax, the length of the poem, and its layout on the page. It is also not self-evident that prose poems are necessarily more ‘compressed’ than very short fiction. How is Lydia Davis’ one-paragraph story ‘Problem’ less compressed than a prose poem by Edson? When it comes to the treatment of time and space within the poem the approaches are as various as prose poets themselves.

FAR MORE PRODUCTIVE are the observations made by Hetherington and Atherton in chapter four about the way the form of the prose poem sets up an expectation on the reader’s part which is then subverted. The poems look like ‘prose’, but then behave differently from the prose we’re generally exposed to. It’s true that most prose poems confound expectations of prose being a medium for giving information. Many prose poems also subvert the conventions of realist fiction. But so does much contemporary literary fiction, including short fiction.

Such strategies have been important to the prose poem, and the authors are right to point this out, but as they themselves go on to note, ‘…in the twenty-first century a lot of contemporary prose poetry is exploring ways of challenging prose poetry’s ubiquitous box shape.’ They give examples of lineated prose poems, each sentence given its own line, long prose poems, and there’s a lengthy and interesting discussion of hydrid forms such as poems imitating the Japanese haibun and zuihitsu, or combining prose and lineated sections. The boundary between lineated verse and prose becomes hard to discern at times. Ocean Vuong’s book-length free-line prose poem Trevor (2016), they say, is ‘as close to free verse as we’re likely to find in a prose poem.’

Hetherington and Atherton note, in passing, that prose poems in long form, or using free lines, or of a hybrid nature are not new. This is true and a topic which might have benefitted from further elaboration. The authors’ historical survey of the development of the contemporary prose poem in English starts with Edson and James Tate in 1960s America. But this misses earlier innovators. Look, for example, at Jack Spicer’s ‘The Unvert Manifesto’ (1955) and ‘A Fake Novel about the Life of Arthur Rimbaud’ (1960), John Ashbery’s hybrid works ‘Europe’ and ‘Idaho’, both published in The Tennis Court Oath (1962), or Kenneth Patchen’s prose poems of the 1950s (which he read to a jazz accompaniment).

New Directions: Prose and Poetry 14 (1953) included ‘A little anthology of the poem in prose’, edited by Charles Henri Ford. This included work by Ford himself, Parker Tyler, Philip Lamantia, e.e. cummings, John Ashbery, James Schuyler and the early Ginsberg poem referred to above.2 Ashbery included a prose poem in his first collection, Some Trees (1956), and continued to write prose poems throughout his life. Hetherington and Atherton only discuss his work Three Poems, which they determine to be ‘poetic prose’ rather than prose poems.3

Kenneth Rexroth, in his 1958 essay ‘The Influence of French Poetry on American’, describes Ford, Tyler and Lamantia as ‘disciples of Breton’s brand of Surrealism’ and places them ‘among the finest non-French Surrealists.’ Hetherington and Atherton devote a chapter to what they call ‘neo-surrealism’, and in particular the influential work of Edson, Tate and Simic. They argue that this style of writing, which has undoubtedly been much imitated, has little to do with surrealism proper. They quote part of a poem by Paul Éluard and comment that contemporary prose poems in the US are very unlike Éluard. This is true of the kind of prose poems they are discussing, but not of prose poems by Lamantia or e.e. cummings. There are obvious links between American prose poetry and French Surrealism, if one looks at the work of authors other than those on which Hetherington and Atherton choose to focus.

THE FINAL SECTION of the book examines specific techniques in prose poetry, the use of imagery and the role of metonymy and metaphor, and two specific contexts influencing the practices of certain writers. These are feminism and the growth of social media. In these chapters the authors offer further argument about the distinctive nature of prose poetry, and about its particular suitability as a form for addressing contemporary concerns. As with earlier chapters there is a great deal of interesting poetry discussed, but also the same tendency to make general claims which are not supported by the diverse range of work quoted.

The discussion of metonymy and metaphor in chapter eight is persuasive, and the authors rightly point to the artificiality of separating these two figures of speech. They refer to the work of the linguist Antonio Barcelona, and quote him: ‘It is well known that metaphor and metonymy often interact with each other, sometimes in fairly intricate ways.’ But again, many of the comments here apply to poetry generally, not just prose poetry. ‘Prose poems have a powerful ability to suggest the shifting infinitudes of language…and to invoke the possibility of endlessly inventive modes of thought,’ the authors say. This is true, but equally true of some lineated poetry.

The chapter on gender is an appeal for more attention to be given to prose poems by women, and Hetherington and Atherton appraise the work of a number of contemporary female writers, many of them well known. Near the beginning of the chapter there is a brief discussion of Language poems, many of which the authors say fall ‘outside of any clear definition of prose poetry and are hard to classify.’ They then discuss Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, a ‘canonical’ Language text, which they characterise as a sequence of ‘prose poems’, though the publisher describes it simply as ‘a poem’ and as ‘an experimental intervention into the autobiographical genre.’ Other ‘experimental’ poets writing long prose poems, prose poem sequences, or using hybrid forms who the authors discuss are Anne Boyers, Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, and Maggie Nelson. The final section of this chapter looks at rape narratives, including the work of Patricia Lockwood, whose well-known poem ‘Rape Joke’ runs to five pages.

This is an interesting chapter, and the work reviewed here is very strong. Many of these poets have received significant critical attention, though Hetherington and Atherton suggest perhaps not as ‘prose poets’; the authors do call these various works ‘prose poems’, but almost none of the work fits their model of the typical prose poem. At times they seem unable to decide whether what they are discussing is prose poetry or something else.

The final chapter discusses the relationship of the contemporary prose poem to the ‘condition of postmodernity’, suggesting that the form is especially suited to responding to a world characterised by information overload, fragmentation and speed. Short-form literary work of all kinds, not just prose poetry, is certainly one kind of creative response to modernity, but only one. An alternative approach is represented by ‘slow cinema’ and what might be called ‘slow fiction’ – long works, full of digressions, in which nothing much happens.4

Also in this chapter, Hetherington and Atherton return to questions of definition and in particular to the differences between prose poetry and micro fiction. One of the reasons this is important, the authors argue, is that without the correct labelling potential consumers won’t be able to find the work, or might be disappointed when an incorrectly labelled product doesn’t meet their expectations. But they go on to quote Lydia Davis saying:

When I first began writing seriously, I wrote short stories, and that was where I thought I was headed. Then the stores evolved and changed but…I would have felt very constrained by trying to label each individual work, so it was simply easier to call everything stories.

Davis doesn’t seem to have suffered unduly from failing to properly label her work. Nor does Claudia Rankine whose poetry books the authors confess ‘often defy categorization’. The authors provide a catalogue of exhilarating recent works all equally as ‘unclassifiable’ as Rankine’s and suggest that it is exactly these kinds of hybrid works which represent the future for the prose poem.

THE RICH VARIETY of work featured in this study provides a hugely valuable sense of just how vibrant the form currently is. But the range of material quoted also clearly demonstrates just how difficult it is to draw clear lines between prose poetry and other literary forms. The boundaries between prose poems and short prose, or between lineated prose poems and lyric poetry are manifestly porous, and indeed many contemporary writers actively exploit these ambiguities in their work.

There is no question that the authors’ motivation is to make a positive and long overdue case for the form — an altogether laudable ambition. But this leads them into a series of broad generalisations which, while often true of certain prose poems, and in some cases even of many prose poems, do not hold for prose poetry as a whole. I don’t personally think a lack of clear boundaries matters. Few practising writers, I suspect, worry about how to label their work, and many actively resist categorisation and commodification as a strategy for dealing with ‘the condition of postmodernity’.

Hetherington and Atherton survey an impressive array of commentary on the prose poem, and the bibliography of Prose Poetry: An Introduction will be an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the form. The historical sections provide a compelling argument for the prose poem as a quintessentially modern literary form. The book’s robust championing of prose poetry in its many manifestations — and the recognition that this is a contemporary literary mode growing in significance — are perspectives to which we ought to attend.

Simon Collings lives in Oxford and has published poems, stories and critical essays in a range of journals including StrideJournal of Poetics ResearchCafé Irreal, Tears in the FenceInk Sweat and Tears, Lighthouse and PN ReviewOut West, his first chapbook, was published by Albion Beatnik in 2017, and a second chapbook, Stella Unframed, was released by The Red Ceilings Press in 2018.  His collection of ‘very brief fiction’, Why Are You Here?, was published by Odd Volumes in 2020. An archive of his work is here. Simon Collings is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review.

More in The Fortnightly Review: Oscar Wilde’s ‘Poems in Prose‘, and further comment on this topic by Peter Riley, Ian Seed, Anthony Howell,  Linda Black, Simon Collings. An extensive selection of prose poetry and short fiction may be found in this extensive sub-index of current poetry and fiction.


  1. From an interview with Edson published in The Prose Poem: An International Journal, Vol. 8, 1999.
  2. Ford also included a long prose poem by the New York-based poet Emilie Glen who was active in the St Mark’s Project and published many prose poems during her life. Her work seems to have attracted limited critical attention. A biographical sketch and a collection of audio files of Glen reading has been published in The Poet’s Press
  3. There is a ‘queer’ perspective on the development of the prose poem which might be explored here, given how many of these poets were gay.
  4. There is an interesting discussion of ‘slow fiction’ by Warren Motte, of the University of Colorado, in his essay in World Literature Review. For an introduction to slow cinema see Tiago De Luca and Nuno Barradas Jorge (eds), Slow Cinema, Edinburgh University Press, 2016.
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