Prose poem

In the October 31st New Yorker, this poem by Charles Rafferty, reprodced here photographically:


On its own website, the poem looks like this (again, reproduced photographically):


And when I copy this to my computer files, it looks like this (once again, photographically reproduced)”


Why the differences? Because “Attraction” is a prose poem.

The differences between #1 and #2 are quite small, in one sense: only the last three lines differ in the words in them. But #1 and #2 look strikingly different from one another: the lines in #1 are right-justified as well as left-justified, so the material looks like text in a book, magazine, or newspaper, while the lines in #2 are left-justified only, so the material looks like the text of a poem or a typed message (on a typewriter or in a computer message).

So #1 is visibly prose, while #2 could be poetry — long-line free verse, maybe. So could #3, though it’s obviously just formatted for longer lines than #2 is. The content of the text in both cases is “poetic” — compressed, allusive, with striking images juxtaposed, largely without explicit connections — but the line divisions make no poetic sense (since they’re just mechanically determined).

Here’s the same text turned into something more like a poem, using just the division into clauses and (orthographic) sentences, plus a higher-level thematic division:


But that isn’t what Rafferty wrote, which is #1.

Wikipedia on prose poetry:

Prose poetry is poetry written in prose instead of using verse but preserving poetic qualities such as heightened imagery, parataxis and emotional effects.

“The simplest definition is that a prose poem is a poem written in prose….But, not unlike “free verse,” the oxymoronic name captures the complex nature of a beast bred to challenge conventional assumptions about what poetry is and what it can do” [Brian Clements and Jamey Dunham (eds.) An Introduction to the Prose Poem. (2009]. ‘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’ [Robert Hirsch, A Poet’s Glossary (2014)].

Technically a prose poem appears as prose, reads as poetry, yet lacks line breaks associated with poetry but uses the latter’s fragmentation, compression, repetition and rhyme, and in common with poetry symbols, metaphor, and figures of speech.

Prose poetry is like other “mixed genres” — for instance, language art, in which artistic materials are used to create images of linguistic elements (words, phrases, sentences); and words-only cartoons and other things I’ve posted about as “texties”. In most of these cases, a work is usually seen as primarily of one genre, but with significant characteristics of another: language art is primarily art, but it depicts linguistic elements; texties are primarily cartoons, but lack relevant images (just as wordless cartoons lack a text); free verse is primarily poetry, but (like prose) lacks systematic phonological regulation (rhyme, alliteration, assonance, whatever) and often metrical regulation as well; lyrical prose is primarily prose, but with substantial imagery and other figurative elements; and prose poetry is primarily poetry, but without some of the trappings of poetry.

But in at least some cases, we’ll want to say that a work belongs to two genres at once. From my 12/31/15 posting “The Crew with packages and boxes”:

… while there are prose poems and pieces of lyrical prose, sometimes it’s a mistake to insist that a bit of writing with mixed features must always be classified as [primarily] one or the other. Long-line free verse, I would say, is usually both.

Examples of long-line free verse in that posting. But #4 would be a candidate too.

Now, on Rafferty. On the IndieBound site, an interview with Rafferty by Gavin J. Grant, not dated (but datable on outside evidence as from about 2002: the interview fell between Rafferty’s 2001 book Where the Glories of April Lead and his 2003 chapbook A Trayful of Brimming Martinis; and his poem “On My Forty-Second Birthday” dates from 2008):

Charles Rafferty’s first book of poetry, The Man on the Tower, was published by the University of Arkansas Press in 1995 after winning the Arkansas Poetry Award. His latest book is Where the Glories of April Lead [2001] …. He has several chapbooks out and has published poems in an impressive array of journals, as well as in an anthology published by Carnegie Mellon University Press: American Poetry: The Next Generation. … He currently works as an editor for a technology consulting firm. He lives with his family in Connecticut.

Do people actually make a living writing poetry?

I suppose some people do, but I’m not one of them. If I’m lucky, my poetry will earn enough money to make a mortgage payment per year, but even this is rarely from direct sales of poetry. Most of the money is from grants or contests or reading fees — not actual royalties from books. It’s really quite humiliating (I mean this in a good way). Last year, the University of Arkansas Press refused to give me my royalty check because it wasn’t worth the money to go through with the transaction. I think I made a dollar that year. The book came out in 1995 and sold well at first, but has declined steadily each year thereafter. I suppose people are more likely to make money off their poetry indirectly — by getting a good teaching position.

As far as I can tell from the record, Rafferty’s move towards prose poetry is first evident in his 2013 book of short stories Saturday Night at Magellan’s (coming after ten years of poetry books). The publisher’s blurb on

Charles Rafferty works in miniatures. These short short stories explore the small disasters of desire. They investigate the problems that ensue when, inevitably, his characters get what they wish for and what they deserve.

There followed a book of poems The Unleashable Dog (2014) and a chapbook of prose poems Diminution (2016). Now he has a book of prose poems The Smoke of Horses announced for publication in 2017 (presumably with #1 in it). The title poem from Diminution appeared in the February 17th & 24th, 2014 New Yorker. I don’t know how it was set on the pages of the magazine, but here’s how it looks on the website:


Five lines of very unequal length. Starting out in a singsongy schoolroom tone, shifting to a more elevated lecture-like style, and then breaking out in a flurry of enjambment and extraordinary juxtapositions of images, with magnetic berries as the culminating point.

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