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Poetry
The Prose Poem: Poetry In Motion
By Christopher Teague
June, 2006, 10:30

Prose poetry offers opportunity for writers to safely land in a new genre error free.
T
he prose poem offers the writer an interesting blend of poetry and prose. A popular form of free verse, it often contains a narrative line similar to a short story; however, the dramatic mood is usually more important than the plot. Sometimes called a vignette, the prose poem differs from a short piece of fiction. Its syntax, style, typography, use of sparse imagery and understatement share a closer relation to poetry than to sheer prose. The prose poem lends itself to any subject and theme, but you will find that its format is especially suited for writing the dramatic, narrative poem with a tragic figure, more often than not, the sports poem.

One of my all-time favourite sports poems is by one of my all-time favourite novelists, John Updike. The poem is about a former star high school athlete who now pumps gas for a living. It contains character, setting, plot, and conflict, and it is full of the kind of pathos one might expect from a Shakespearean tragedy.

The Ex-Basketball Player
by John Updike

Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot,
Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut off
Before it has a chance to go two blocks,
At Colonel McComsky Plaza. Berth's Garage
Is on the corner facing west, and there,
Most days, you'll find Flick Webb, who helps Berth out.

Flick stands tall among the idiot pumps
Five on the side, the old bubble-head style,
Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low.
One's nostrils are two S's, and his eyes
An E and O. And one is squat, without
A head at all more of a football type.

Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.
He was good: in fact, the best. In '46
He bucketed three hundred ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty
In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.

He never learned a trade, he just sells gas,
Checks oil, and changes flats. Once in a while,
As a gag, he dribbles an innertube,
But most of us remember anyway.
His hands are fine and nervous on the lug wrench.
It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though.

Off work, he hangs around Mae's Luncheonette.
Grease-gray and kind of coiled, he plays pinball,
Smokes those thin cigars, nurses lemon phosphates.
Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods
Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers
Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.

From the collection The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures (1958)

The Try Out by Charles Ghigna is another prose poem that presents a tragic sports figure. This poem is similar to The Ex-Basketball Player in its use of character, plot, setting, and conflict, but it has the extra ingredient most often found in fiction the use of dialogue. In The Try-Out, the athlete's tragedy is the result of how one moment of miscommunication can change a life forever.

The Try-Out
by Charles Ghigna

The All-State boy from Alabama
faked, leaped, drifted, and shot
for the New England coach
and his dollar cigar.
A scholarship, apartment, new car,
and a name rode on his mid-air act.
But the ball and the boy were buddies,
and again his try was good.
Without missing a beat,
he took the one-bounce rebound,
spun into a lay-up, grabbed it
coming through the strings,
raced low to the opposite court,
faked, leaped, drifted, and shot.
Again the strings played his song.

On a silent count of three,
the one-man audience
pulled the unpuffed cigar from his mouth,
his silver-dollar eyes
already on the championship.
"Where'd ja learn that stuff?"
The All-State boy from Alabama
spun, dipped, jumped, and said,
"High school."
Through the boy's thick drawl
and the gym's hollow acoustics,
the coach misheard it as "I'ze cool."
Pale, he called the boy, "boy,"
preceded it with "hey,"
and followed it up with
"That's all."

From the collection A Fury of Motion: Poems for Boys (2003)

Notice how both of these poems focus the reader's attention on detail. What is not stated is as important as what is stated. A few well-chosen images (nouns) and strong well-chosen verbs present a striking scene in which we learn of the athlete's all-consuming relationship to the ball. The basketball becomes the symbol of the youth's life. When it stops, so does the athlete.

Perhaps you are a writer more comfortable with fiction, and so you have shied away from writing poetry because you thought there were too many rules. If this is the case, you might find the prose poem the perfect format for putting your own poetry into motion.

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A graduate of Sarah Lawrence and a haunter of old bookstores, Christopher Teague is a freelance writer living in a hovel overlooking Central Park. He is currently at work on his third unpublished novel, a series of prose poems about the tempestuous and often torrid relationship between Sara Teasdale and Vachel Lindsay. Email: cteague@fastmail.fm


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