prose based poetry

When free verse lacks rhythmic patterning, appearing as a lineated prose stripped of unnecessary ornament and rhetoric, it becomes the staple of much contemporary work. The focus is on what the words are being used to say, and their authenticity. The language is not heightened, and the poem differs from prose only by being more self-aware, innovative and/or cogent in its exposition.

Nonetheless, what looks normal at first becomes challenging on closer reading — thwarting expectations, and turning back on itself to make us think more deeply about the seemingly innocuous words used. And from there we are compelled to look at the world with sharper eyes, unprotected by commonplace phrases or easy assumptions. Often an awkward and fighting poetry, therefore, not indulging in ceremony or outmoded traditions.

What is Prose?

If we say that contemporary free verse is often built from what was once regarded as mere prose, then we shall have to distinguish prose from poetry, which is not so easy now. Prose was once the lesser vehicle, the medium of everyday thought and conversation, what we used to express facts, opinions, humour, arguments, feelings and the like. And while the better writers developed individual styles, and styles varied according to their purpose and social occasion, prose of some sort could be written by anyone. Beauty was not a requirement, and prose articles could be rephrased without great loss in meaning or effectiveness.

Poetry, though, had grander aims. William Lyon Phelps on Thomas Hardy's work: {1}

"The greatest poetry always transports us, and although I read and reread the Wessex poet with never-lagging attention — I find even the drawings in "Wessex Poems" so fascinating that I wish he had illustrated all his books — I am always conscious of the time and the place. I never get the unmistakable spinal chill. He has too thorough a command of his thoughts; they never possess him, and they never soar away with him. Prose may be controlled, but poetry is a possession. Mr. Hardy is too keenly aware of what he is about. In spite of the fact that he has written verse all his life, he seldom writes unwrinkled song. He is, in the last analysis, a master of prose who has learned the technique of verse, and who now chooses to express his thoughts and his observations in rime and rhythm."


"If the work fails to survive, it will be because of its low elevation on the purely literary side. In spite of occasional powerful phrases, as

What corpse is curious on the longitude
And situation of his cemetery!

the verse as a whole wants beauty of tone and felicity of diction. It is more like a map than a painting."


"Yet as a whole, and in spite of Mr. Hardy's love of the dance and of dance music, his poetry lacks grace and movement. His war poem, "Men Who March Away", is singularly halting and awkward. His complete poetical works are interesting because they proceed from an interesting mind."

Note the hallmarks of poetry then: transports us, possession, soar away, unmistakable spinal chill, beauty of tone, felicity of diction, grace and movement. Some of those excellences are also to be found in Phelp's own commentary. Prose only, of course: the piece does not lift into imaginative reveries, shadow forth spiritual mysteries or explore the wellsprings of our human natures. But it makes some telling points, and the writing is flexible, urbane and sensitive.

Of course, it's also rather dated. The engaging manner hides a good deal of literary artifice — suspicious to our minds: verging on oratory, attempting to win us over in advance of the facts, assuming what should be questioned more closely.

But that was no doubt the literary style of the time, a quieter version of the poetry that Phelps holds up to our admiration:

O Lily of the King! low lies thy silver wing,
And long has been the hour of thine unqueening;
And thy scent of Paradise on the night-wind spills its sighs,
Nor any take the secrets of its meaning.
O Lily of the King! I speak a heavy thing,
O patience, most sorrowful of daughters!
Lo, the hour is at hand for the troubling of the land,
And red shall be the breaking of the waters.

From Lilium Regis by Francis Thompson

Contemporary Poetry Examples

How very different is generally the poetry of today. The three examples below come from The Academy of American Poets, {2} which spreads the net wide, but does try to present the best of modern and contemporary work. Copyright restrictions allow us only a few lines, but each poem can be read in entirety by clicking on the link.

Sex with a Famous Poet

I had sex with a famous poet last night
and when I rolled over and found myself beside him I shuddered
because I was married to someone else,

From The Star-Spangled Banner by Denise Duhamel. Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.


Your Catfish Friend

    "I wonder
if there are any catfish in this pond?
It seems like a perfect place for them."

From: The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster by Richard Brautigan, published by Houghton Mifflin. Copyright © 1989 by Richard Brautigan.


This Is a Photograph of Me

It was taken some time ago.
At first it seems to be
a smeared
print: blurred lines and grey flecks
blended with the paper;

From: The Circle Game by Margaret Atwood. Copyright © 1998 by Margaret Atwood.

What can we say of these styles: appropriate, unaffected, a trifle flat? Close to prose, in fact. Remove the line arrangements and the sentences would slip unnoticed into a contemporary short story. Something like: "I wonder if there are any catfish in this pond? It seems like a perfect place for them," she said, glancing up at the man who was now trying to retrieve the ball from the tangle of weeds into which it had fallen.

Story Telling

And that may be their intention. The poems tell a story, present a situation, extract something from a world familiar to us. Modest in their aims, the poems show things as through plain glass: life without overt shapings into grand narratives or marked by portentous underlinings. That is how life is, we admit, the way we are. We can read more into the incidents, but are not compelled to do so. Sympathetic observation of character, an ear for dialogue, creation of scene through telling detail — that is what we look for: the storyteller's art. Hardy showed the way, and Margaret Atwood is also a celebrated novelist.

But is this really all that poetry aims at? Wouldn't we be better off with the full story or magazine article of which these seem pared-down versions? We absorb prose at a more comfortable rate than poetry, and contemporary poetry is hardly popular. Why restrict the readership still further?

Because poetry today, or this type of poetry, focuses on the word itself. Just the word, without ornament or emotional shading, or any regimentation with rhetorical devices. And for these, among other reasons:

  1. Heritage: the way Modernism poetry has developed through Thomas Hardy's occasional pieces, Ezra Pound's interest in Chinese ideograms, Wallace Stevens's Symbolist credo and William Carlos Williams's homespun philosophy.

  2. Honesty: to avoid the corrupting influence of language in business, politics and advertising. Words are a bedrock, whose plain use guarantees sincerity.

  3. Originality: being avant garde, the poetry must oppose the establishment, rejecting the products of a priviledge or extended education.

Click the links have these attitudes discussed. They are not built on sand, but they do make large assumptions.

But there is a further point. Even supposing these reasons were compellingly self-evident, the poetry would fail if it were simply as we have supposed: pared-down articles, filleted short stories. But it isn't. Once free of conventional usage, words can adopt new strategies.

Prose-Based Strategies

Here are a few, with sources on the click-through:


  1. spacings that allow words or phrases their proper significance. Jackson Mac Low: Circulation. And long long /Mind every/ Interest Some how mind and every long

  2. switches in mid line or stanza that disrupt or reverse expectations. Elini Sikelianos: Thus, Speak the Chromograph

  3. abrupt changes in viewpoint or of characters speaking. Hayden Carruth: now content with mystery simple/ and profound you /in the night

  4. variety in pace or attack: there is no metre to be negotiated. Mark Strand: the coming of love, the coming of light./ You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,

  5. fresh expression: John Canaday: I dream of grass so green it speaks.

  6. make large leaps in sense: Lucille Clifton: water waving forever/ and may you in your innocence/ sail through this to that

  7. phrasing based on units of sound rather than syntax: Cole Swenson: (the night has houses)/ and the shadow of the fabulous/ broken into handfuls NNA

  8. repetition of words or phrases that reiterate but make no comment: E.M. Schorb : young, old, men women.

  9. antithesis as structure, not argument: Shel Silverstein: Everything's wrong,/ Days are too long,/ Sunshine's too hot,/ Wind is too strong.

  10. extended personification: Charles Simic: How much death works,/ No one knows what a long/ Day he puts in.

  11. inconsequential remarks linked by common tone: James Wright: We prayed for the road home./ We ate the fish./There must be something very beautiful in my body,/ I am so happy.


It is these strategies, and many others, that account for the modest successes of this style. A small sample:

1. At Pleasure Bay by Robert Pinsky

2. Adultery by James Dickey

3. Flight by Pamela Alexander

4. Six O'Clock News by Tom Leonard.

5. Statement by Paul Blackburn

6. Metonymy as an Approach to a Real World by William Bronk

7. Women Don't Riot by Ana Castillo

8. The Perch by Galway Kinnell

9. Meditations at Lagunitas by Robert Hass

10. Manifest Destination by Adrian C. Louis

11. Mockingbirds by Mary Oliver

12. If Not, Not by Michael Palmer

13. Mirror by Sylvia Plath

14. The Lobster by Carl Rakosi

15. You: XVIII by Ron Silliman

16. At Tower Peak by Gary Snyder

17. Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry by James Wright

Could these be phrased in more tradition forms? Yes, but they wouldn't be the same poem: their rightness depends on the way they reflect the awkwardness and general untidiness of life.

Shortcomings 1: Emotional Charge

Now for the debit side: what could be the shortcomings of so plain a style?

A first point to stress is the variety in the work, the very different themes, aims and levels of accomplishment in contemporary poetry. We cannot reasonably corral such abundance under one heading, and then stamp it with marks of approval or disapproval. Nonetheless, there remain two elements that readers may find largely absent: an emotional depth and a compelling truth.

Here, to introduce the first, is an anthology piece of a century back:

"Let us consider, too, how differently young and old are affected by the words of some classic author, such as Homer or Horace. Passages, which to a boy are but rhetorical commonplaces, neither better nor worse than a hundred others which any clever writer might supply, which he gets by heart and thinks very fine, and imitates, as he thinks, successfully, in his own flowing versification, at length come home to him, when long years have passed, and he has had experience of life, and pierce him, as if he had never before known them, with their sad earnestness and vivid exactness. Then he comes to understand how it is that lines, the birth of some chance morning or evening at an Ionian festival, or among the Sabine hills, have lasted generation after generation, for thousands of years, with a power over the mind, and a charm, which the current literature of his own day, with all its obvious advantages, is utterly unable to rival. Perhaps this is the reason of the medieval opinion about Virgil, as if a prophet or magician; his single words and phrases, his pathetic half-lines, giving utterance, as the voice of Nature herself, to that pain and weariness, yet hope of better things, which is the experience of her children in every time." {3}

Is this prose? In one sense, yes, but possibly poetry too. What it says is a commonplace, but readers may sense in it an emotional power that is largely missing from contemporary poetry. With its playfulness, its variety of subject matter and width of social register, poetry today has accomplished what no one will wish to undo. But with the populist tone has also come an unwillingness to take risks, or construct a heightened awareness of ourselves and surroundings.

Shortcomings 2: Larger Truth

Now what we might call a compelling truth. The somber splendour of the Newman passage does not lie wholly in the rhetoric, but what the passage says. We have to accept its meaning to admit the power. Literary wizardry can certainly set content off to its best advantage, but it cannot wholly create that content — not unless we accept that old jibe about poetry:

"Poetry is something which appeals to the emotions and feelings. The Quran, on the other hand is designed to inspire by arousing consciousness, conscience and will. When did poetry create a world movement, a civilization and empires? Orientalists who read the Quran as if it were poetry are worse than those who pick up a text book on science and read it as if it were a novel." {4}

Many novels are entertainments, creations where we can explore the possibilities of human behaviour without crippling responsibility, but they are not serious. Nor is much contemporary poetry. Original and entertaining in small doses, the poems can tire us in the end with their formulaic cleverness and connections too easily made — as in these examples from The Academy of American Poets:

Palea by Tory Dent (ic, v)

Homage to Sharon Stone by Lynn Emanuel (v, t)

Hymn to the Neck by Amy Gerstler (ic, v)

Monologue for an Onion by Suji Kwock Kim (IC, v)

The Blue Cup by Minnie Bruce Pratt (v)

Last Night I Dreamed of Chickens by Jack Prelutsky (n)

The Cities Inside Us by Alberto Ríos (v, ic)

Nearing Autobiography by Pattiann Rogers (v, ic)

Formulaic cleverness? These are the shortcomings, as I see them, of the poems tagged:

fc. formulaic cleverness: the piece follows the well-honed formula of presenting some incident and then of drawing a conclusion beyond any possible significance of the incident.

t. trite: a bald observation is tacked on rather than developed through the poem, making the ending trite and unconvincing.

ic. intellectual conceit: the intellectual framework is arbitrary and extended beyond what is illuminating.

v. vacuous: the poem ends up saying nothing of importance.

t. trivial: the subject or theme is not novel, or developed in any interesting way.

c. clichéd: a language not merely undistinguished but too clichéd for even a local newspaper.

n. naïf: not childlike but purposefully childish.

Perhaps their authors have written better, when the fault lies with the selections — those in Modern American Poets {5} seem better — but the shortcomings are common to this style of writing, which the very directness cannot hide. The subject matter is not the problem. When we turn to Academy poems that deal with truly harrowing themes, we are met with the same flat reportage:

racial discrimination: Worms

racial slurs: Niggerlips NNA

religious intolerance: Looking for Omar

bodily change: Mastectomy

revenge: Lucky

Are we being fair? We have asked for a faithful representation of life, and these, their authors and editors might claim, provide exactly that. They tell it straight. The poems don't make emotional capital out of the incidents but leave facts to speak for themselves.

Yes, but then the difficulties start:

  1. They are not 'the facts', but information/opinions/feelings that have been created, selected and presented. We can reasonably ask why, and judge the effect of that presentation.

  2. Their tone may be fairly neutral, but is a tone all the same, establishing some relationship between author and reader. We take our cue from that tone.

  3. Why should we want to read them anyway? Newspapers report on real life, on people or events important to us. Novels generate interest through plot and character conflict. Neither can be claimed for these poems, and any 'universality of theme' is ruled out by their modest statements.

The poets concerned are serious, well read in English literature, the winners of numerous grants and prizes, and often run courses or workshops at postgraduate level. Unless the poetry world is a gigantic hoax run for and by a self-perpetuating priesthood of incompetents, is there not something we are missing?

Perhaps an older view of poetry. We have characterized a prose-based poetry as one stripped of unnecessary ornament and rhetoric. In fact, it may be better to think of one rhetoric, that of classical poetry with its elitist and cumbersome devices, as having been replaced by another more appropriate to everyday use. Out has gone artifice, rhythmic subtlety and grand statements, and in its place is the authentic speech of real people in real situations. What is heightened about this language? Nothing: it is not heightened or literary, indeed the very opposite. What distinguishes it from what we use every day of our lives? That is its strength. It is rooted in quotidian usage and draws its strength and raison d'être from that usage. Language rooted in current social discourse, in current concerns. True, it looks back to past heroes for its styles, but these only saw more clearly what was really needed.

Pros and Cons

We might therefore say that the style has these advantages:

  • versatile, accommodating most themes and approaches.

  • unpretentious: speech of real people in real situations.

  • contemporary, unhindered by outmoded forms or preoccupations.

  • easy to write (though possibly difficult to achieve outstanding results).

And these disadvantages:

  • elementary in literary skills, and apt to be unmemorable.

  • prosaic in thought and/or themes, sometimes trivial.

  • more clever than genuinely moving.

  • ineffectual in translating older (formal) poetry.

In summary: if these styles aim at what prose at its best once achieved, they do so by very different routes. And that we have to bear in mind when we ask: Do they engage our interest and sympathies? Do they fittingly express themselves? Do they say something in the end worth saying? Have they achieved something difficult or impossible in any other form?


Theory doesn't help us here. It is by puzzling out what these poems are saying that we are led into probing a world that we have hitherto too much taken for granted. I am not myself persuaded that this is the case, but its adherents would argue that a prosaic style is a decided advantage, as a heightened language would only bewitch us in the old ways of poetry. Just as Wittgenstein's philosophy tried to untangle the conundrums of language used beyond its proper remit, it the contemporary poet's task to look at life squarely, without the swelling orchestra of feelings. {6} Hence also the interest in deconstruction, which stresses the arbitrariness of language, and the corresponding need to look carefully at individual words and how they are used in a particular text.

But are the results poetry? Obviously so, in the sense that the installations etc. of contemporary painters and sculptors are art: they try to understand the visual world in a fuller but nonscientific sense. It may be that this poetry is not very popular, with the public {7} or even academia, {8} drawing its acclaim from small groups of enthusiasts. The poetry generally lacks overt emotional appeal, and does not provide — and is not intended to provide — readers with a sense of beauty or their significance in the world. Uncompromising, playful or intellectually austere, the poetry can also need the exegesis of literary theory to fully appreciate. Is too much is read into these simple structures and apparently trivial statements? Their advocates say no: these very features become the placeholders for searching questions we are provoked to ask: of social issues, human relationships, and — most of all — language itself. {9}

References and Internet Resources

1. The Advance of English Poetry in the Twentieth Century. William Lyon Phelps. 1919.
2. The Academy of American Poets. Eclectic listing of 450+ poets, with biographies, sound clips and much else. Also note Perloff's review of the accompanying book:
3. John Henry Newman. Grammar of Assent. (1870). Chapter 4.2.
4. Answers to Questions & Criticisms of Islam.
5. Modern American Poets. Scholarly and popular teaching resource for modern American poetry, with essays, information and selected work of some 150 poets.
6. Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary. Marjorie Perloff.
7. What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Poetry: Some Aporias of Literary Journalism. Marjorie Perloff.
8. Crisis in the Humanities. Marjorie Perloff.
9. The Poetics of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Bruce Andrews. Sep. 2001. Talk/poem delivered at White Box in New York City.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.