For the past hundred and fifty years, as poets stretched the boundaries of the poem, they came to some limits. One of those limits was that the poem is an artifact with rhyme and meter. Well they got rid of rhyme hundreds of years ago with blank verse. Shakespeare did that in some plays. Then they got rid of set meter with Old Testament influenced works like those of Walt Whitman and then finally in the twentieth century with Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Amy Lowell and American free verse. As Pound said, “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave.” But still poetry was in lines, in verses.
Well now we have done away with that also, and there is this thing called “the prose poem.” The prose poem is a poem in that it is a verbal construction that has a kind of heightened emotional charge like poetry, but it is prose in that it is written in paragraph form. The prose poem is often narrative—that is, it tells a story or part of a story. It is very closely connected to a speaking voice or a speaking voice thinking out loud. Like a narrative, it very often moves from a conflict to a climax to a resolution. But it is all very short, by story standards. Usually a prose poem is one paragraph. So in a prose poem everything is distilled, made as potent and powerful as it can be in the form of prose.
The poems “Late Night” and “A Dream of Grace” are all from a group of thirty poems about the birth of my second son. In that group of poems I tried to stretch the boundaries of the poem as far as I could. In places, my poems were just like lists. All the music removed, but I feel that they are still poems in that the reader is required to piece together meaning, to ask what the relationship of one word is to another. In some poems I try to make the reader do what a poet does when he/she creates a metaphor. I can write, “Her belly is like a mound.” Or I can just write “Belly” “Mound” and force the reader to make the metaphor. Therefore, I can also write “Baby sleeps” and “Heath Insurance” next to each other and force the reader to make the connection.
My task in “The Laying on of Hands” was easier than all that. I wanted to condense the three-hour period of the labor that brought my second son, Jacob, into this world into one paragraph/stanza. I wanted to catch the poetry of the event, but I did not want to turn it into “My Poem.” I didn’t want to turn it into some sweet moment. I needed the pace of a prose poem, the openness of a prose poem, to allow certain ideas onto the page. I needed a swiftness and a flow and a directness that are not available even in the free verse lyric, which is such an internal, meditative form.
There are many writers of prose poems: Robert Bly, W. S . Merwin, Carolyn Forche (read her “The Colonel”), Charles Baudelaire.
Writing Assignment: Write a prose poem about a moment or brief period of time. Speed up or slow down the time of the poem as needed by your sentence structure. Think of the prose poem as a short short story all condensed powerfully in the little can of a single stanza.