"[A] prose poem is a poem written in prose. [N]ot unlike [the term] 'free verse,' the oxymoronic name ['prose poem'] captures the complex nature of a beast bred to challenge conventional assumptions about what poetry is and what it can do." "The prose poem is a composition printed out as prose that names itself as poetry, availing itself of the elements of prose, while foregrounding the devices of poetry."
A prose poem appears as prose, reads as poetry, yet lacks [the] line breaks associated with poetry but uses the latter's fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. Prose poetry shares with poetry symbols, metaphor, and figures of speech.
Prose poetry should be considered as neither primarily poetry nor prose but essentially a hybrid or fusion of the two, and accounted a separate genre altogether. On the other hand, the argument for prose poetry belonging to the genre of poetry emphasizes its heightened attention to language and its prominent use of metaphor. Yet prose poetry can often be identified as prose for its reliance on prose's association with narrative and on the expectation of an objective presentation of truth..
In 17th-century Japan, Matsuo Bash? originated haibun, a form of prose poetry combining haiku with prose. It is best exemplified by his book Oku no Hosomichi, in which he used a literary genre of prose-and-poetry composition of multidimensional writing.
In the West, prose poetry originated in early-19th-century France and Germany as a reaction against the traditional verse line. The German Romantics Jean Paul, Novalis, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Heinrich Heine may be seen as precursors of the prose poem. Earlier, 18th-century European forerunners of prose poetry had included James Macpherson's "translation" of Ossian and Évariste de Parny's "Chansons madécasses".
At the time of the prose poem's establishment as a form, French poetry was dominated by the Alexandrine, a strict and demanding form that poets starting with Maurice de Guérin (whose "Le Centaure" and "La Bacchante" remain arguably the most powerful prose poems ever written) and Aloysius Bertrand (in Gaspard de la Nuit) chose, in almost complete isolation, to cease using. Later Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé followed their example in works like Paris Spleen and Les Illuminations. The prose poem continued to be written in France into the 20th century by such writers as Max Jacob, Henri Michaux, Gertrude Stein, and Francis Ponge.
Throughout the nineteenth century, Germany and Austria produced a large body of prose poetry, without calling it that.
In Poland, Boles?aw Prus (1847-1912), influenced by the French prose poets, had written a number of poetic micro-stories, including "Mold of the Earth" (1884), "The Living Telegraph" (1884) and "Shades" (1885). His somewhat longer story, "A Legend of Old Egypt" (1888), likewise shows many features of prose poetry.
Other writers of prose poetry have included Fenton Johnson, Amy Lowell, Hans Christian Andersen, Rainer Maria Rilke, Stefan George, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Maeterlinck, Turgenev, Kafka, Georg Trakl, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Clarice Lispector.
Poets elsewhere explored the form in Spanish, Japanese, and Russian. Octavio Paz worked in this form in Spanish in his Aguila o Sol? (Eagle or Sun?). Spanish poet Ángel Crespo did his most notable work in the genre. The postmodern Spanish-language poet Giannina Braschi wrote a trilogy of prose poems, El imperio de los sueños (Empire of Dreams, 1988). Translator Dennis Keene presented the work of six Japanese prose poets in The Modern Japanese Prose Poem: an Anthology of Six Poets. Adrian Wanner and Caryl Emerson described the form's growth in Russia in their critical work, Russian Minimalism: From the Prose Poem to the Anti-story.
The writings of Syrian poet and writer Francis Marrash (1836-73) featured the first examples of prose poetry in modern Arabic literature. From the mid-20th century, the great Arab exponent of prose poetry was the Syrian poet Adunis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber, born 1930), a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize in literature.
The Modernist poet T. S. Eliot wrote vehemently against prose poems. He added to the debate about what defines the genre, writing in his introduction to Djuna Barnes' highly poeticized 1936 novel Nightwood that it could not be classed as "poetic prose" as it did not show the rhythm or "musical pattern" of verse. By contrast, other Modernist authors, including Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson, consistently wrote prose poetry. Canadian author Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945) is a relatively isolated example of mid-20th-century English-language poetic prose.
Prose poems made a resurgence in the early 1950s and in the 1960s with American poets Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Russell Edson, Charles Simic, Robert Bly, John Ashbery, and James Wright. Edson worked principally in this form, and helped give the prose poem a reputation for surrealist wit. Simic won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his 1989 collection, The World Doesn't End.
Since the late 1980s, prose poetry has gained in popularity. Journals have begun specializing in prose poems or microfiction (see External links, below). In the United Kingdom, Stride Books published a 1993 anthology of prose poetry, A Curious Architecture.
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Contemporary writers of prose poetry include Cassandra Atherton, Alan Baker, Giannina Braschi, Charles Bukowski, Brendan Connell, Paul Dickey, Stephen Dunn, Russell Edson, Kimiko Hahn, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Louis Jenkins, Diane Louie, Tom Mandel, Cormac McCarthy, Campbell McGrath, Sheila Murphy, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mary Oliver, John Olson, Marge Piercy, Claudia Rankine, Maurice Riordan, Bruce Holland Rogers, Mary Ruefle, Aaron Shurin, Ron Silliman, Robin Spriggs, Matthew Sweeney, James Tate, Rosmarie Waldrop, Thomas Wiloch, and Gary Young.