Though the name of the form may appear to be a contradiction, the prose poem essentially appears as prose, but reads like poetry. In the first issue of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, editor Peter Johnson explained, "Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels."
While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. 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.
History of the Prose Poem Form
Though examples of prose passages in poetic texts can be found in early Bible translations and the Lyrical Ballads of William Wordsworth, the form is most often traced to nineteenth-century French symbolists writers. The advent of the form in the work of Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire marked a significant departure from the strict separation between the genres of prose and poetry at the time. A fine example of the form is Baudelaire's "Be Drunk," which concludes:
And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”
The form quickly spread to innovative literary circles in other coutries: Rainer Maria Rilke and Franz Kafka in Germany; Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz in Latin America; and William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein in the United States. Each group of writers adapted the form and developed their own rules and restrictions, ultimately expanding the definitions of the prose poem.