The Colorado Poet, #20, Fall 2012

On the Nature of Prose Poetry: Hummingbird or Paragraph?

(Kathryn Winograd)

In prose, sentence follows sentence till they have had their say. Poetry, on the other hand, spins in place.
Charles Simic

In Ohio, they never touched ground, hovered just beyond, their hearts thin as dimes, until their slotted wings vibrated into whirr and whistle.  We believed this about hummingbirds: that death stalked their stillness, that to sit or sleep was as foreign to them as to the sharks that hulked beneath our primitive dreams of fish and flotsam.  But here the mountain hummingbirds, migrated by star or fireweed, hover momentarily, then spin into each other, territorial, sharp-needled, vanquishing each other from the sugar water I boil each time I come here.  And then they sit, at times leisurely, tiny points of their beaks, infinitesimal tongues dipping into sweet water.

When Charles Simic won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for his book, The World Doesn’t End: Prose Poems, he said of the controversy that surrounded his win of a prize once argued by the poet Louis Simpson as “designed expressly to honor verse” that the prose poem was “a monster-child of two incompatible impulses”¾the propulsion of the narrative and the “freeze” of the image (Lehman, p. 11)—the hummingbird’s, I’ll dare say it even now, dart and hover.  Enter a new millennium of continued genre blur and brevity¾sudden fiction, lyric essay, cross-genre hybrid¾and the general reader questions once more: What is prose? What then poetry?

Perhaps some may find refuge in the simplest conclusion of editors Brian Clements and John Dunham in their anthology, An Introduction to the Prose Poem: “There are no rules for the prose poem[,]the only requirements are that it be written in prose and be presented in the context of poetry” (4).  So genre ¾poetic imperative, narrative impetuous¾becomes a matter of intent¾the poet and the prose writer jockeying between the publishing accolades of, say, Poetry and Brevity.   

Yet I have to go back to my visiting Broad-tailed and Rufous. The Mayan believed the hummingbird pierced the tongues of kings. And when the blood was spilled upon the ancient scrolls and set fire, appeared the divine. I can hearken back to the Psalms, (Here my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come unto thee . . .For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned as an hearth.  My heart smitten and withered like grass . . .), translations of Hebraic lyrics that eschewed line breaks, and check off the heightened language elements that can infuse both poetry and lyrical prose: parallel structure, repetition of words, sound, and syntax, internal rhyme exact and slant, alliteration and assonance, figures of speech and imagery highly concrete, sensory, and metaphoric¾all these meter, emotion, and music makers beyond the line break.  

But there is that Mayan divine and its hummingbird pollinator of resurrection.

But there is that Mayan divine and its hummingbird pollinator of resurrection.  How do we account for the closing of Simic’s prose poem, My Mother was a Braid: “The high heavens were full of little shrunken deaf ears instead of stars”?  Or Rimbaud’s culminating images in Common Nocturne, “And, whipped through the splashing of waters and spilled drinks, send us rolling on the barking of bulldogs  . . .”? Or the ending of Trakl’s prose poem, A Winter Night, translated by Bly:  “. . . and your forehead is white before the ripe desire of the frost;//Or else it bends down silently over the doze of the nightwatchman, / Slumped down in his wooden shack”? Epiphany arises beyond human logic in these lines, the muse, it seems, conjured out of smoke and blood, this the function of poetry, not paragraph.  Simic in his essay, “Prose Poetry,” says, “All poets do magic tricks.  In prose poetry, pulling rabbits out of a hat is one of the primary impulses.” Perhaps it was those rabbits editors Friedman and Young recognized when they distinguished prose poems from paragraphs by excluding from their anthology lyrical passages taken out of prose: “No nifty prose passages out of other contexts, however tempting” (19).

When Calliope, beautiful-voiced, eldest Mousai of music, song, and dance, and namesake of our smallest and rarest July hummingbird, came to sing the funeral dirge for Akhilleus after the fall of Troy, she spoke of the birds that dart through air on rushing wings and warned, Let not thy soul be crushed by dark grief.  The French Symbolists, predecessors to our modern prose poem, in protest against the traditional forms and techniques of the time, gave the cathartic evocation of mood and emotion in their poetry precedence over narrative and statement, rendering not the outer world but the inner world of dream and emotion.  The Surrealists followed suit, epiphany working through associative logic that relies on how language shifts and gathers greater meaning through the sudden juxtaposition of images, hence Simic’s shrunken deaf ears instead of stars. Here, language darts then freezes.In the prose poem, prose has been called the “expansive tool” that allows “narrative and free-form meditation into the poem” (Clements 2). Yet without the kick of the magic rabbit, or the hummingbird’s pendulum dive, spin, and stasis, we lose the sweetness of true prose poetry: to “take pleasure,” as James Longenbach says in The Resistance to Poetry, “in language that we may not need fully to understand . . .the place where all poems dwell” (39).


Clements, Brian and Jamey Dunham, eds.  An Introduction to the Prose Poem.  Firewheel Editions.
Friebert, Stuart and David Young, eds.  Models of the Universe: An Anthology of the Prose. Oberlin College Press.
Lehman, David, ed.  Great American Prose Poems, From Poe to the Present. Scribner.
Longenbach, James. The Resistance to Poetry. The University of Chicago Press.
Simic, Charles.  “Prose Poetry.” Poetry International Web (

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Which one of us, in his moments of ambition, has not dreamed of a miracle of poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience?
Charles Baudelaire