I wrote last week about how some people (particularly girls, it seems) are paralysed creatively by a need to be perfect. I’ve come across this in several young writers. They have terrible trouble getting started because they’re reluctant to deface a blank page with anything that isn’t flawless.
I had one writer who suffered badly from this, and the problem was compounded by the fact that everything they wrote turned out badly (according to them anyway). Every week they’d fight through the anxiety to produce a little paragraph that didn’t really go anywhere but was nevertheless full of beautiful phrases and interesting language.
I would, of course, praise the language and originality and tell the writer how great they were, and every week, they’d go, ‘Hmm. But it’s not really a story, is it?’ (It wasn’t. It didn’t have a beginning, middle and end). ‘And it’s not a poem.’ (It wasn’t. It had no structure.) ‘It’s not anything, it’s a failure, it’s rubbish.’ Cue head hitting desk dramatically.
This was very distressing for me because I just couldn’t get this writer to believe in their writing and I was very afraid they’d quit altogether.
And then one day I came across an article online about prose poems and it suddenly hit me.
I’d been trying to help by giving advice on narrative so they could develop the failed paragraph into a successful story, or advice on structure so they could turn the failed paragraph into a successful poem.
But it wasn’t a failed anything. This young writer was already writing beautiful, successful prose poetry. But they’d never heard of prose poetry so they assumed it was ‘not anything. A failure.’
Prose poetry is a sort of hybrid form. It doesn’t have line breaks or stanzas like poetry, but it contains lots of poetic features such as metaphor, symbols, repetition, rhyme, poetic language.
It’s not a story, it doesn’t have to have a narrative with a beginning, middle and end (in the same way that poems don’t have to tell stories), it can be fragmentary, but it can also have characters and events or it can be pure description.
Prose poems can be very short, like poems, but they’re written in prose and I think they can be brilliant for allowing a writer to explore language and ideas without committing to a length or form they worry they’ll ‘fail’ at.
They are about creativity and beautiful writing without rules or restrictions. They can be a single, beautifully expressed thought/concept/description/question/moment that doesn’t have to go any further than that, which makes them great for short bursts of creativity.
They’re also great for introducing the idea that writing doesn’t have to fit the formats we’re familiar with. That you can even invent your own form of writing.
I found some examples of prose poems online (Google it, there are loads) and gave them to my young writer. I’m not sure it cured it the perfectionism but at least when they produced a paragraph we could treat it as ‘a thing’, rather than ‘a bit of a thing’. We put them on postcards in our postcard box as finished objects, which felt like success and now we have a little collection of them!
I hope Prose Poetry will inspire some of your young writers!
Some examples I found online:
The Legs of the Sky by René Magritte
The floor, moonlit, the moon behind you, is not enclosed by walls; a patch of sky is hidden by distant trees. But a patch of floor is itself hidden by the sky’s legs, standing on it, and this cannot be the opportunity for useless thoughts.
The Canoeing by Russell Edson
We went upstairs in a canoe. I kept catching my paddle in the banisters.
We met several salmon passing us, flipping step by step; no doubt to find the remembered bedroom. And they were like the slippered feet of someone falling down the stairs, played backward as in a movie.
And then we were passing over the downstairs closet under the stairs, and could feel the weight of dark overcoats and galoshes in a cave of umbrellas and fedoras; water dripping there, deep in the earth, like an endless meditation . . .
. . . Finally the quiet waters of the upstairs hall. We dip our paddles with gentle care not to injure the quiet dark, and seem to glide for days by family bedrooms under a stillness of trees . . .
The Fall by Russell Edson
There was a man who found two leaves and came indoors holding them out saying to his parents that he was a tree.
To which they said then go into the yard and do not grow in the living-room as your roots may ruin the carpet.
He said I was fooling I am not a tree and he dropped his leaves.
But his parents said look it is fall.
Bath by Amy Lowell
The day is fresh-washed and fair, and there is a smell of tulips and narcissus in the air.
The sunshine pours in at the bath-room window and bores through the water in the bath-tub in lathes and planes of greenish-white. It cleaves the water into flaws like a jewel, and cracks it to bright light.
Little spots of sunshine lie on the surface of the water and dance, dance, and their reflections wobble deliciously over the ceiling; a stir of my finger sets them whirring, reeling. I move a foot and the planes of light in the water jar. I lie back and laugh, and let the green-white water, the sun-flawed beryl water, flow over me. The day is almost too bright to bear, the green water covers me from the too bright day. I will lie here awhile and play with the water and the sun spots. The sky is blue and high. A crow flaps by the window, and there is a whiff of tulips and narcissus in the air.
And When My Sorrow was Born by Kahlil Gibran
And when my Joy was born, I held it in my arms and stood on the
house-top shouting, “Come ye, my neighbours, come and see, for Joy
this day is born unto me. Come and behold this gladsome thing that
laugheth in the sun.”
But none of my neighbours came to look upon my Joy, and great was
And every day for seven moons I proclaimed my Joy from the
house-top—and yet no one heeded me. And my Joy and I were alone,
unsought and unvisited.
Then my Joy grew pale and weary because no other heart but mine
held its loveliness and no other lips kissed its lips.
Then my Joy died of isolation.
And now I only remember my dead Joy in remembering my dead Sorrow.
But memory is an autumn leaf that murmurs a while in the wind and
then is heard no more.
Ways of Rebelling by Nathalie Handal
Who needs to be at peace in the world? It helps to be between wars, to die
a few times each day to understand your father’s sky, as you take it apart
piece by piece and can’t feel anything, can’t feel the tree growing under
your feet, the eyes poking night only to find another night to compare it to.
Whoever heard of turning pain into hummingbirds or red birds—
haven’t we grown? What does it mean to be older? Maybe a house with-
out doors can still survive a storm. Maybe I can’t find the proper way to
rebel or damn it, I can’t leave. I want to, but you grow inside of me. And
as I watch you, before I know it, I’m too heavy, too full of you to move.
Maybe that’s what they meant when they said you shouldn’t love a country