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Brian Clements

Some Generic Notes on Short Prose

Manakin 1278.9 by Roger Camp

NOTE: This essay originally appeared in the October 2005 issue of 88:a Journal of Contemporary American Poetry. All of the literary journals mentioned in the essay, except Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, have since ceased publication. The reference to 150 years of literary history now is much closer to 200 years….

The recent popularity of short prose has generated discussion among readers and writers of prose poems and short short stories about whether there is a difference between the two subgenres and whether there is even any value in distinguishing them. The question is merely an old traveler in new clothes: is it possible to identify distinctive boundaries for genres in any way that is necessary, sufficient, and exclusive?

A session of the 2003 AWP conference on prose poetry and flash fiction led David James to send a rant to Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics:

If the writing is vivid, engaging, and slaps readers in the face when they read it, then what it’s called is of little consequence. The writing works. It moves. It breathes some kind of life into itself and into readers….

Let the writing speak for itself. Whether it’s a paragraph, a page, 500 words or less, it either works or it doesn’t, standing up on its own two feet, regardless of the name placed upon it (130).

James correctly notes that for writers of short prose forms such a distinction is probably moot. They’re going to write what they write and probably won’t put much thought into how what they’re writing is to be defined—thank goodness Charles Simic felt no obligation to fit neatly into any genre when he wrote Dimestore Alchemy, nor Brenda Coultas when she wrote A Handmade Museum.

Discussion on a new email listserv devoted to prose poetry and flash fiction recently touched on this issue in a discussion among Morgan Lucas Schuldt (co-editor of Cue), Peter Conners (co-editor of Double Room), Mark Tursi (co-editor of Double Room), and writer Daryl Scroggins:

Morgan Lucas Schuldt:
…there is way too much hair splitting. Prose poetry, flash fiction, poems in prose, quick fiction, short shorts, proems—perhaps the reason so many are as skeptical as they are has to do with the distraction of name-calling without any real defining. There’s suspicion and rightly so. I can’t help but think all of it is too arbitrary.

Peter Conners:
I also switch between genres on a regular basis (pp/ff, short story, novel, free verse), and definitely feel that it not only keeps my writing fresh by subverting (damn, there’s that word again!) my own “regularities of production,” but offers me new means to investigate admittedly limited avenues of experience and thought. It’s hard for me to say which allows me more artistic freedom, more “unanticipated possibilities” though, simply because I’m always partial to whatever form I seem to be working in at a given time.

Mark Tursi:
It seems as though the pp/ff form is indeed, as Daryl points out, more conducive to the not-knowing that Barthelme writes about.  The definitions (in this discussion and the overall pp/ff discussion) everyone has suggested have emerged via the manifestations of the forms themselves, rather than the other way around.  Perhaps that is one of the most unique things about the pp/ff (at least its emergence in France and America) – i.e. that the form continues to define and redefine itself synchronically and diachronically.  Well, actually, I guess that happens within all literature, but it seems that the pp/ff – because of an underlying tension (is it prose or is it poetry?) that always already exists – there is going to be a sense of artifice, present in every well-written piece.  Also, it will always be self-conscious of itself as working against form in some way.  This contradicts what Lehman says as the prose poem as liberating – in fact – it may be just the opposite; i.e. it forces one to think more thoroughly about generic context than ever before.

Daryl Scroggins:
If I start enumerating required or “owned” features of one of the two forms, the aggressive nature of the process of production will be thus assisted in its persistent aim of negating restriction. This quickly makes “split hairs” take on greater and greater significance, unless the nature of one’s aim to define is retroactively adjusted.

Regardless of claims to the contrary, it is clear that many people are interested in the short short story and prose poetry and in the possible differences between them; otherwise there wouldn’t be conference sessions and listserv discussions devoted to those differences. It seems as though interest in the question depends upon the audience to whom it is addressed. Writers of prose poetry and/or short short fiction seem less interested in the distinction than readers, editors, and critics who need to develop definitions and jargon as a way of getting a handle on and discussing their reading experience. Those who call themselves poets seem to care more than fictionists do; and those who write both fiction and poetry seem to care least of all.

Interestingly, some of the journals that publish both prose poems and short fiction (and now there’s “non-quicktion,” as seen in Dinty Moore’s online journal Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction) seem interested themselves in blurring the line between the prose poem and sudden (non-)fiction. It is hard to tell whether this is programmatic or simply symptomatic of apathy towards the distinction among some doublists; most literary journals are, after all, published by poets and writers who have a vested interest in the furtherance of the scope of the journals they edit—myself no exception. It is necessary for me to distinguish the two, because early in the establishment of Sentence (which I edit), I decided not to publish what I considered to be short short stories. There were already other journals that focused on short narrative, and I felt that the lyrical, essayistic, and experimental traditions of the prose poem were under-represented.

One stock response to the question of difference is that if you’re a fiction writer it’s flash fiction and if you’re a poet it’s prose poetry. It’s a funny jab at those who ask the question, but it’s also a copout. We cop out because it’s a hard question to answer. My stock answer has been that “It’s hard to say what the difference is because there is so much work that sits right on the border and could be called either or both,” and David Lehman concurs in his introduction to Great American Prose Poems when he says that some short prose texts can be both or neither (15).

In order to truly define the prose poem, one would first have to define the poem, which no one has done in a necessary and sufficient manner to this point. To define what is “poetic” one must describe what distinguishes mere verse from poetic verse and distinguishes mere prose from the prose poem. All such attempts inevitably disappear into the fuzz of discussion of music, compression, and “play,” none of which are out of bounds in any degree to long or short fiction. No definition will be both necessary and sufficient to capture everything we have called “poem” (or even “novel”). But perhaps it’s possible to distinguish between the prose poem and the short short story without defining them, just as it’s possible to distinguish a pig and a hippopotamus without providing exhaustive descriptions of either.

One reason we’re doomed to ambiguity while making generic observations about prose poems is that prose poems do so many different things, there are so many different kinds—nearly as many kinds as practitioners, says Michel Delville (1). We can even lay out a spectrum of prose poem types that moves from arbitrary structures like Denise Duhamel’s list poem Mille et un sentiments on one end to the heavily narrative prose poem on the other end, which is the end where we have the most arguments about genre: the point where prose poems leave off and the short short story picks up.

Other difficulties in distinguishing the prose poem from the short short arise because they can look the same, frequently sound very similar, and can use similar strategies of progression. As with all genre, the boundary is a blur. A piece like Richard Garcia’s “Chickenhead” is one of those that sits right on the border.

Chickenhead makes me think of Jesus. Even though Jesus died on the cross for our sins and Chickenhead was just a hood who died hanging from a meat hook. First, take the Romans—Italian, right? In other words, gangsters. Take hanging from a cross and hanging from a meat hook. Both ways, you die slow.

Chickenhead used to shoot the heads off chickens in his backyard when he was a kid. Jesus used to play with birds when he was a kid too. Except, instead of blowing them apart he would put them together.

Chickenhead was a big shot on the block. In more ways than one, since he weighed three hundred pounds. When Chickenhead got in the back of his Cadillac it would tilt to one side. Jesus was big in his neighborhood too. But he was skinny. When Jesus would get on a donkey—maybe it was an old, decrepit, almost dead donkey—that donkey would trot along skimming over stones as if it had wings.

Jesus made people mad. Chickenhead made people mad. Skimming a little off the top is O.K., it’s expected. But after Chickenhead bought that second Cadillac and after what he did to that Gypsy girl in the back room of the cleaners with her dad forced to watch, he had to go.

The Romans had dice. We had dice. The Romans had a wooden cross. We had a meat hook. The Romans had spears and vinegar. We had a bucket of cold water and one of those electric cattle pokers.

Chickenhead hung there. We’d give him a splash and an electric goose once in a while. His whole body would shimmer, all blubbery. Took Jesus three hours. Took Chickenhead three days.

Jesus got famous. First guy to beat Death at his own game. Nobody remembers Chickenhead but me. And if some stranger, a cop maybe, asked, Did I know Chickenhead? I’d play it safe just like Saint Peter when he heard that cock crow, once, twice, three times, and I’d say, I never knew nobody named Chickenhead.

Prose poem? Flash fiction? Short short story? I would argue that it is a prose poem, but am not sure I could argue against its being flash fiction; maybe it’s both. Maybe they’re indistinguishable beyond the writer’s and/or the reader’s frame of mind. But I would argue that it is not a short short story. It is useful to remember that the prose poem and the short short story are subgenres. The short short story is simply a variety of short story, and the prose poem is a variety of poetry (regardless of efforts to deny that there can be such a thing as a prose poem, efforts that tend to come from the same kind of folks who still insist that there’s no such thing as “free verse.” In both cases, you would think 150 years of history would be enough to convince). So any difference is surely related to the fact that one is a brand of short fiction and the other is poetry, which on the surface seems almost too simple to be useful.

This distinction becomes more useful if we make a further distinction between flash fiction and the short short story, which we have to see specifically as a variety of short story if the term is to have any use. The short story has a particular set of defining characteristics (character development, economy of setting, plot); what we call flash fiction is more likely, like the prose poem, to flout those conventions—to refuse plot as too constraining, to focus on idea or playfulness with language at the expense of character development. The short short story and flash fiction have in common that they are fictional; the prose poem may or may not be fictional. Yet I find it virtually impossible to make generic distinctions between some prose poems and some flash fictions; there are no necessary formal distinctions, no necessary distinctions of convention, and (assuming the poem is at least as well written as prose) no distinctions in the kind of language employed. It is not impossible, however, to identify distinguishing characteristics between the prose poem and the short short story, and the distinctions lie in the conventions of the short story.

When fiction uses strategies most frequently developed in poetry and poetry is structured on conventions we’re used to seeing in fiction, when a poet like Ai calls her poems “fictions” and things called stories can be as short as a sonnet, then how do we tell fiction from poetry, especially long narrative poems and long prose (or prosaic) poems? The answer is that the distinction between the prose poem and the short short is not formal—it is structural. By that I mean that the difference is in the way thought moves through the piece and where the thought is headed.

Obviously epic poems have always used narrative. Any poem can use narrative. But the short short story foregrounds narrative, makes the narrative the whole point—the events in question are recounted because there is some value in revealing the difference between where the events start in time and where the events end. That difference, in the short short, is what the story is all about. The duration of the events narrated may vary, but fictional narrative in the short story tradition is always about the difference between point A and point B in time (and perhaps points C and D as well), regardless of whether the narrative marches chronologically or dances episodically between those two points. It is about character revealed over time, whether the character is a person, a landscape, a city, or an abstract being, and about the change in our responses toward that character.

Gordon Jackson’s piece “Billy’s Girl,” for example, might be called “poetic” for its brevity, tone, and attention both to rhythm and image. I would argue that it is a short short story and not a prose poem.

First Billy was on the raft and then he was not. Sun shone on the blue water. Carmine looked for him in the bathhouse, at the popcorn stand where he liked to waste time with Camille, then down by the lifeguard station. But nobody had seen him. If I catch that kid, Carmine said to me in the bathhouse, but I hadn’t seen him either, what could I see from behind the counter there except a little stretch of open water, the sun bright on the big lake, pines in the distance. Occasionally some queenie would stroll by but I hadn’t seen Billy at all, he could still be out there hiding among the big float tanks underneath the boards, his break over, turn up later rake in hand, why, Mr. D’Angelo, I’ve been clearing up this area like you told me to. It would be just like him.

But after a while they called the sheriff and two guys came into the bathhouse behind me and went into the storeroom where they keep the drag lines, these hooks as big as your head. By then it was late afternoon. The sheriff’s guys were out there in their little boat putt-putting around the raft, lines hanging over the stern, when Billy’s girlfriend came down that evening for a swim. When it was completely dark they switched on lights and kept at it.

He’s only kidding, the way he always does, Billy’s girlfriend said to me. She was perched on the edge of my counter swinging her legs, looking real good and knowing it. By then the place was pretty well cleared out. We went behind the rows of wire baskets and started to make out. There was nobody around, it was dark, and we sort of sank down on a pile of wet towels. Right away she stuck her tongue in my mouth. The towels gave off a sour odor. Her suit was still damp around the edges, I noticed. Out on the lake the motor died down again. Every so often they’d had to ease off, something tangled in the lines, seaweed or an old log. But this time it was Billy all right, like a big musky with all the fight gone out of him, hooked right through the eye the deputy said. By then I was into Billy’s girlfriend pretty good, and she was liking it.

Point A: “First Billy was on the raft and then he was not.” Point B: “By then I was into Billy’s girl-friend pretty good, and she was liking it.” As in “Chickenhead,” our opinion of the speaker evolves as we progress through the piece. But that evolution is not the primary concern in “Chickenhead;” we are primarily concerned with the disturbing nature of the compare and contrast between Chickenhead and Jesus. In “Billy’s Girl,” the thrust of the entire piece is revealed in the climactic moment of unconscious confession. In retrospect, Point A seems pregnant with telling attitude—why is the speaker so matter of fact, given that he knows Billy is dead? Both the events and the telling of the events conspire to reveal, in the difference between point A and point B, the nature of the speaker’s character to us.

In the prose poem, narrative is simply a vehicle for getting through the landscape. While the prose poem may traverse the distance from point A to point B, it is not about the difference between them. Rather than foreground the evolution revealed by the narrative, the narrative prose poem turns narrative inward and fixates on the events themselves. Rather than move inexorably toward an exit, the prose poem inhabits the space between those two points. Garcia’s comedic compare-and-contrast strategy in “Chickenhead” is a perfect device for keeping the narrative turned in; the point of the piece is not to reveal an evolution in the speaker, in Chickenhead, or in Christ—it is a revelation of the emotional, symbolic, and intellectual content of a horror that takes place during the span between point A and point B. Our being between those points in virtual time is a function of the language in the poem, and the poem seeks to keep our attention there on those linguistic events.

Another useful way to discuss this might be to consider what the sentence does in the prose poem vs. in the short short. Does the sentence always move us elsewhere in short shorts? Most of the sentences in “Billy’s Girl” move us along towards point B. The more “poetic” moments (“Sun shone on the blue water”) seem pointless during first read, but in retrospect reveal a looking elsewhere by the speaker, a denial of responsibility. In the short short, the sentence moves forward in order to make one point in time loom before us and to shrink another point in the receding distance. Does the sentence always move us elsewhere in the prose poem?  Not in “Chickenhead,” which holds multiple time frames on equal ground. In the short short, the narrative is the meaning of the piece; in the prose poem, narrative is simply a space within which many other things can happen. In many prose poems (Edson’s, for example), the narrative itself is not generative of the meaning of the piece; it is a stage—the content comes through just as well in Edson’s short plays as it does in the prose poems. Narrative is simply a wrapper.

The prose poem differs from verse (and free verse) in that it does not have the line against which to play the sentence to generate tension. Tension, then, in the prose poem must come from elsewhere; frequently it comes from absurd situations, from surrealist imagery, from unusual compositional methodologies, from dark humor, from syntactic manipulation, or from cognitive/associative leaps. All of these can be found in verse and free verse, of course, but they become more noticeable in the prose poem because they must take on the full weight of the responsibility of generating tension. It is in fact, the generation of that tension that is the point of the prose poem.

Obviously, the short short and flash fiction are also without the benefit of the line to generate tension; but the short short has a readily available source—dramatic tension. Early in the short short we are made aware of a situation that has the potential for change, or whose outcome is in doubt. “First Billy was on the raft and then he was not.” The entire point of the story is to get us through to the end of the events, perhaps for the purpose of implying a broader statement or perhaps simply for the sake of telling the story. Prose poems frequently pose as purveyors of dramatic tension; but it’s a ruse. Their concern is elsewhere. Edson’s prose poems, for example, frequently start out with a similar statement of conflict:

A) “A man had just married an automobile.” (“Automobile,” 101)

B) “A scientist has a test tube full of sheep.” (“Sheep,” 135 )

C) “There was a man who wanted to be an amateur animal.” (Amateur, 403)

In Edson, though, the subsequent narrative rarely evolves finally into anything it wasn’t at the beginning.

A) “Father and Mother watch an automobile with a just married sign on it growing smaller in a road.” (Automobile, 101)

B) “He puts them under a microscope and falls asleep counting them…” (Sheep, 135)

C) “Are you sure you’re not an extinct professional?
.                                             I swear.” (Amateur, 403)

The point here is not to direct the reader through an evolution but to place the reader into a field of conflicts. Edson himself has said that he frequently composes prose poems by thinking up an impossible situation then trying to write his way out of it. Usually, the way out is a stepping back rather than a stepping out.

In the prose poem, we don’t care so much about what happens, about the progress of events, though a progress of events can be used to great effect; we care about the experience of what is happening to us as we read the poem. The tension in the prose poem comes not from our anticipation of what’s going to happen in the narrative, but from our anticipation of what’s going to happen in the language. The meaning of the short short is in its telos; the meaning of the prose poem is in its dialogue with the reader.

That is, all meaningful tension in the short short is dramatic tension; all meaningful tension in the prose poem is linguistic/structural. The experience of reading a short short story is an experience in virtual temporality; the experience of reading a prose poem is metatemporal, because the prose poem views the world of the poem from outside time.  The short short story views narrative as first and foremost a representation of time, while the prose poem is a manipulation of time. This is perhaps what Jack Spicer meant when he said the poet is a time mechanic.

Maybe, then, this discussion has stumbled across a possible distinction between poetry and fiction? Could it be that poetry is language that moves in multiple directions, but is held together by formal/structural tension, whereas fiction (as a genre distinct from poetry) is narrative that threatens to move off in various directions but is held together by dramatic tension? If nothing else, observations about these subgenres have suggested ways of framing the discussion and using these terms that may make more clear exactly what we mean when we say “prose poem,” “flash fiction,” or “short short story.” If there are useful differences, distinctions, and definitions, then why should we ignore them?

Another stock answer about the difference between poetry and fiction that gets applied in this discussion of difference is that the prose poem is more musical and more focused on the individual word than the short short. My response is that I can name half a dozen novels that are more musical than many, many prose poems. In fact, I could list many prose poems that are consciously a-musical. So the music of the language isn’t really a useful distinction.

Barry Silesky says of narrative in prose poems: “Either images or events—events being the common currency of prose, mixed with, and/or reinforced by images—occur in some order.  The order is flexible, however, and the flexibility is one of the key features enlivening much of the work.”


Works Cited

Conners, Peter, with Morgan Lucas Schuldt, Daryl Scroggins, and Mark Tursi. PP_FF discussion group at .

Coultas, Brenda. A Handmade Museum. Coffee House Press, Minneapolis: 2003.

Delville, Michel. The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre. University Press of Florida, Gainesville: 1998.

Duhamel, Denise. “Mille et un sentiments.” Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics, #1: 2003.

Edson, Russell. “The Fall,” “The Automobile,” “The Amateur.” The Tunnel: Selected Poems. Oberlin College Press, Oberlin: 1994.

Garcia, Richard. “Chickenhead.” Best of the Prose Poem: An International Journal. Peter Johnson. White Pine Press, Buffalo, NY: 2000.

Jackson, Gordon. “Billy’s Girl.” Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories. Robert Shapiro and James Thomas. Gibbs M. Smith, Inc., Layton, UT: 1986.

James, David. “Another Voice in the Wind: A Brief Rant on the Difference Between Prose Poems and Short-Shorts.” Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics, #1: 2003.

Lehman, David. Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present. Scribner, New York: 2003.

Silesky, Barry. “Structure in Prose Poems?” Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics, #2: 2004.

Simic, Charles. Dimestore Alchemy. Ecco Press, New York: 1992.

Spicer, Jack. The Collected Books of Jack Spicer. Black Sparrow Press, Los Angeles: 1975.


About the writer:
Brian Clements is an American poet who is the author or editor of fifteen collections of poetry, including the anthology  An Introduction to the Prose Poem, volumes of poetry from Quale Press, Texas Review Press, and Meritage Press, and of some unique and compelling projects online.

Image: Manakin 1278.9 by Roger Camp (contemporary). Fine art photograph. No technical information specified. 2021. By permission. Roger Camp is the author of three photography books including the award-winning Butterflies in Flight, Thames & Hudson, 2002 and Heat, Charta, Milano, 2008. His documentary photography has been awarded the prestigious Leica Medal of Photography. His photographs are represented by the Robin Rice Gallery, NYC. His work has appeared in The New England Review, Southwest Review, Chicago Review and the New York Quarterly. More of his work may be seen at

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