June 29, 2019

Prose Poem or Microfiction?

It doesn't matter, does it, whether a piece of writing is labeled a prose poem or a flash or microfiction? Is it the same, apples to apples?  Or is it apples to oranges?

Russell Edson said, “A good prose poem is a statement that seeks sanity whilst its author teeters on the edge of the abyss.”  

As for me, I haven't yet decided. Is there a difference in compression? in the predominance of figurative language? in the music of the language?  Yes. No. 

No end words: 

Poetry yields as many end words as there are lines in the poem. End words are particularly important in poetry. They are usually very important: nouns or verbs. They can be used skillfully to develop enjambment and to increase meaning through a line break and ambiguity. Prose poems have but one end word. This may allow a poet to give the emphasis to the word that ends the prose poem. In microfiction or flash fiction, not much attention is paid to the end word of a paragraph.  Maybe not enough attention.  

Stanzas or paragraphs

Stanzas are poetry's paragraphs. Turns occur between stanzas. Leaps can be made in time and space. In prose, there are transitions, associations, and leaps but the paragraph might be barely noticed. It is easy to conclude that form is less important in prose. One still can use music, rhyme, rhythm, and sound patterns. They are "buried' inside the paragraph.  


The form of a poem might be considered a container. Poetic forms have history, patterns, associations: sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, quatrains, etc.  Prose forms are more loose and flexible. A poem or a prose might be a letter, a list, a story. Content is perhaps more important in prose. The intention might be to entertain, investigate, or illuminate. 


Perhaps the answer resides in which audience one wants. Naming the genre or using a genre form sets up an expectation. In prose, genres are sci-fi, fantasy, murder mystery, romance, western, or nonfiction. Poetry is a genre.  Prose poetry might be blend of genres, a hybrid form. Of course writers of both poetry and prose explore and widen the boundaries.  There is plenty of genre-bending. 


According the Poetry Foundation, "A prose composition that, while not broken into verse lines, demonstrates other traits such as symbols, metaphors, and other figures of speech common to poetry. See the prose poem,"Information" by David Ignatow: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43416/information-56d222285400c

Perrazo and Dal wrote an academic paper examining the differences and similarities between these two forms. They identify criteria: brevity, fragments, ambiguity, and pivots. Either the prose poem or the flash fiction (or microfiction) could be narrative. The difference might be that the microfiction suggests a larger story or is a pivotal moment in a larger story. 


Amy Hempel has written brief fiction.  "Sing To It," in the book of that title, is less than half a page.  Of her writing, Amy Hempel said, “I leave a lot out when I tell the truth. The same when I write a story." In a review of Hempel's work, Ruth Franklin said, "For Hempel, a story often takes place not at the moment of crisis but in its aftermath." Hempel recalls a writing class with Gordon Lish.  For his students’ first assignment, Gordon Lish instructed them to write about their worst secret: the thing they had done that, as he put it, “dismantles your own sense of yourself.”  

Lydia Davis is a master of short fictions. "Letter to a Funeral Parlor" is simply that, a brief and amusing (and poignant) demand for an explanation of the use of the word "cremains."  Davis cites the influence of Russell Edson. She is interested in stories, and she is interested in etymology. In her work, they often come together in ways that are comic and profound.

Diane Williams writes very brief narratives. They are elliptical, associational, and sometimes even musical.  See https://lithub.com/bang-bang-on-the-stair/ and https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/mvx79p/five-very-short-stories-0000667-v22n6, plus http://www.thewhitereview.org/feature/diane-williams-two-stories-and-an-interview/

Peter Orner dislikes the term flash fiction. This form is not new, he says. "How many lines are in the story of Adam and Eve?" he asks. Well, I looked it up. Chapter 3 of Genesis is less than 700 words. Electric Literature has samples of flash fiction.  https://electricliterature.com/7-flash-fiction-stories-that-are-worth-a-tiny-amount-of-your-time/

Nick Ripatrozone wrote an essay examining this question. He says, "...genres are not spouses. Monogamy has no place here: the writer should–and must–be flexible to genre. Genre, mode, form: these considerations are contextual and situational." 

June 12, 2019

Danez Smith: Crowning

The poetry book club meets at Zenith Books June 12 at 5:30 pm.  Come and join us! 

Book Review

The opening poem in Danez Smith's Don't Call Us Dead sings with music. Figurative language vaults the images into myth.  His subject goes right to the heart. There's grief and rage and America right now: violence, race, HIV, gay men. Danez confronts and is confronted by fear, and he uses it for new vision. This is done with a mastery of language and metaphor.

summer, somewhere

somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown
as rye play the dozens & ball, jump

in the air & stay there. boys become new
moons, gum-dark on all sides, beg bruise

-blue water to fly, as least tide, at least
spit back a father or two….”

Poetry is physical and connected to the breath.  In language, adept use of sound creates powerful and moving effects.  In contemporary poetry, the music and rhythm has more movement and freedom.  In Danez's work, an examination of this short excerpt reveals a very interesting rhythm that surprises and pleases the reader.

Traditional ways of analyzing poetic lines involve 'scansion,' or scanning the lines to look at the accented syllables.  In poetry, each unit of metric rhythm is called a "foot." This poem has a wonderful combination of rhythms.  Iambic is a heart beat rhythm ( x / ) with the accented syllable second. Trochaic is the opposite with the accented syllable first.  Dactyl and spondee are the names of three syllable feet (dactyl: (/ x x) and spondee (x x /). However, meter is not the only determination of sound. The actual rhythm might de-emphasize metrics or emphasize some syllables more. 

The language choices are superb: "a trapgod hymn (what a first breath!)" and "sprinkler dancer, i can't tell if I'm crying / or i'm the sky..."  Curious, those interesting shifts from the lower case to the upper case pronoun i/I.  "...fingers always/ dusted cheeto gold..."  The poems vibrate with energy.  Images of birth are combined with death. Images of sex are combined with death.  Images of death are combined with re-birth.  Danez skillfully uses vernacular and language of myth: "if we dream the old world/ we wake up hands up...."

              ...say the word
I can make any black boy a savior//
make him a flock of ravens
his body burst into ebon seraphs.

Danez takes these images and moves them ever higher from metaphor to myth:  "the forest is a flock of boys/ who never got to grow up // blooming into forever / afros like maple crowns."   And once again, a capitalized letter creates a shift in meaning because the word goes from a noun to a name: "  "...watch/ Forest run in the rain, branches // melting into paper-soft curls, duck under the mountain for shelter.  watch// the Mountain & Forest playing..."

If you are reading this book, are you uncomfortable? If you are white, you should be. If you are straight, you should be. This mirror shows us America. Danez's poems reveal a person who is willing to be vulnerable.  Gay sex is visceral in this collection. The poet has been diagnosed with HIV. He's talking about blood.  Blood connects to racial violence in America. He's created a documentation of several incidents of racial violence, lynching and death at the hands of the police.   "crown" is a crown sonnet, a series of sonnets that are linked by a repeated image in last line and first lines. The title also evokes the first moment of birth, crowning. 

The striking thing for me about his collection is the claiming/ naming/ breaking through. The last poems are a prayer and a dream about every black person is standing by the ocean.  The last lines:  "& then one woman, skin dark as all of us / walks to the water's lip, shouts Emmett, spits// & surely, a boy begins/ crawling his way to shore"

The water's lip certainly connects the ocean to the body. Spit, another body fluid, and bit of magic that brings us around from fear of HIV to intimacy. This boy might be Emmett Till, bringing us around from violence to regeneration.  Or this boy might be another, a swimmer and a survivor.  He is being born, crowning, about to emerge.


Read "a poem where I be and you just might" and an excerpt of Danez's thoughts about this poem:

Granta Magazine:  "crown" https://granta.com/crown-smith/

Publisher, Graywolf Press: https://www.graywolfpress.org/books/dont-call-us-dead