How To Tell Prose Poetry Apart from Flash Fiction

Prose poetry and flash fiction are conjoined twins; they share so much in common in terms of structure and internal organs that they are inseparable. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean they are indistinguishable.

Generally speaking, the base component of a poem is the line (and line break), which culminates in an image, whereas the base component of a short story is the sentence and its big brother, the paragraph, which convey character(s) and character development. Since prose poems don’t have line breaks and both the prose poem and flash fiction are predicated on the paragraph, this leads to some awkward first encounters.

At a bookstore, a young patron mistakes Prose Poetry for Flash Fiction, and tells him how much he loves Kim Chinquee’s work. Prose Poetry smiles sheepishly and Flash Fiction looks away before clearing her throat and informing the ill-informed fan that while Chinquee’s work is indeed top-rate, it’s probably best to classify it as flash fiction, not prose poetry.

She explains that the base unit of the prose poem is still the image, whereas flash fiction, is about character and character development.

Perhaps this is why Prose Poetry is definitely the wackier of the pair. His sanity has been questioned on a few occasions. Like at his senior high prom, which took place on a riverboat. Much to the chagrin of his conjoined sibling, he showed up in as much pirate regalia as he could wear on his half of the body. He’d been swigging rum for hours beforehand, so he could barely manage to light the long fuses he’d woven into the long, black locks on his side of their shared head.

Due to the alcohol Prose Poetry had imbibed, Flash Fiction—dressed in half of a lovely white gown—spent the night inadvertently drunk too, and they spent the night lumbering around the dance floor, friendless and frowned upon by the more popular kids (the Essay, The Ode, and so on).

That is to say, Prose Poetry is some of the funniest—and strangest—writing you’ll find anywhere. It lends itself to the comic, and the absurd. Maybe humor is easier to convey in a sentence than in a line break. If you think I’m kidding, read some Russell Edson, some Daniel Pinkerton, some Dag Straumsvag, some James Tate, some Lee Stern (I will send up a full post about him soon), or some Mark Vinz.

By comparison, Flash Fiction is the more staid of the pair. That’s not because Flash Fiction is boring, but because Prose Poetry often only focuses on humor and the comic image. (This should be viewed as a problem, as prose poetry can do more. I’ve seen this in my own work. Too often my prose poems are funny, but they are throwaways, good only for a few readings.) Really, it’s easy to simply be funny. All you need is a good juxtaposition or two, a walrus, some good verbs, and you’re on your way.

Flash Fiction is something else, as it’s about character (and change), and it’s therefore more difficult to pull off in such a short space. (Hell, some people can’t pull it off in a short story or even a novel; hence the ever-present complaint “nothing happens in this story…”)

So we should give mad props to folks who can pull it off; some contemporary folks who come to mind for me are Kim Chinquee, Paul Lisicky, Mabel Yu, and Steve Almond.

I’ll end with a question: So who are your favorite contemporary prose poets and flash fictionistas?

Prose Poetry and Flash Fiction

Prose poetry and flash fiction are conjoined twins; they share so much in common in terms of structure and internal organs that they are inseparable. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean they are indistinguishable.

Generally speaking, the base component of a poem is the line (and line break), which culminates in an image, whereas the base component of a short story is the sentence and its big brother, the paragraph, which convey character(s) and character development. Since prose poems don’t have line breaks and both the prose poem and flash fiction are predicated on the paragraph, this leads to some awkward first encounters.

At a bookstore, a young patron mistakes Prose Poetry for Flash Fiction, and tells him how much he loves Kim Chinquee’s work. Prose Poetry smiles sheepishly and Flash Fiction looks away before clearing her throat and informing the ill-informed fan that while Chinquee’s work is indeed top-rate, it’s probably best to classify it as flash fiction, not prose poetry.

She explains that the base unit of the prose poem is still the image, whereas flash fiction, is about character and character development.

Perhaps this is why Prose Poetry is definitely the wackier of the pair. His sanity has been questioned on a few occasions. Like at his senior high prom, which took place on a riverboat. Much to the chagrin of his conjoined sibling, he showed up in as much pirate regalia as he could wear on his half of the body. He’d been swigging rum for hours beforehand, so he could barely manage to light the long fuses he’d woven into the long, black locks on his side of their shared head.

Due to the alcohol Prose Poetry had imbibed, Flash Fiction—dressed in half of a lovely white gown—spent the night inadvertently drunk too, and they spent the night lumbering around the dance floor, friendless and frowned upon by the more popular kids (the Essay, The Ode, and so on).

That is to say, Prose Poetry is some of the funniest—and strangest—writing you’ll find anywhere. It lends itself to the comic, and the absurd. Maybe humor is easier to convey in a sentence than in a line break. If you think I’m kidding, read some Russell Edson, some Daniel Pinkerton, some Dag Straumsvag, some James Tate, some Lee Stern (I will send up a full post about him soon), or some Mark Vinz.

By comparison, Flash Fiction is the more staid of the pair. That’s not because Flash Fiction is boring, but because Prose Poetry often only focuses on humor and the comic image. (This should be viewed as a problem, as prose poetry can do more. I’ve seen this in my own work. Too often my prose poems are funny, but they are throwaways, good only for a few readings.) Really, it’s easy to simply be funny. All you need is a good juxtaposition or two, a walrus, some good verbs, and you’re on your way.

Flash Fiction is something else, as it’s about character (and change), and it’s therefore more difficult to pull off in such a short spa

Prose Poetry and Flash Fiction

Prose poetry and flash fiction are conjoined twins; they share so much in common in terms of structure and internal organs that they are inseparable. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean they are indistinguishable.

Generally speaking, the base component of a poem is the line (and line break), which culminates in an image, whereas the base component of a short story is the sentence and its big brother, the paragraph, which convey character(s) and character development. Since prose poems don’t have line breaks and both the prose poem and flash fiction are predicated on the paragraph, this leads to some awkward first encounters.

At a bookstore, a young patron mistakes Prose Poetry for Flash Fiction, and tells him how much he loves Kim Chinquee’s work. Prose Poetry smiles sheepishly and Flash Fiction looks away before clearing her throat and informing the ill-informed fan that while Chinquee’s work is indeed top-rate, it’s probably best to classify it as flash fiction, not prose poetry.

She explains that the base unit of the prose poem is still the image, whereas flash fiction, is about character and character development.

Perhaps this is why Prose Poetry is definitely the wackier of the pair. His sanity has been questioned on a few occasions. Like at his senior high prom, which took place on a riverboat. Much to the chagrin of his conjoined sibling, he showed up in as much pirate regalia as he could wear on his half of the body. He’d been swigging rum for hours beforehand, so he could barely manage to light the long fuses he’d woven into the long, black locks on his side of their shared head.

Due to the alcohol Prose Poetry had imbibed, Flash Fiction—dressed in half of a lovely white gown—spent the night inadvertently drunk too, and they spent the night lumbering around the dance floor, friendless and frowned upon by the more popular kids (the Essay, The Ode, and so on).

That is to say, Prose Poetry is some of the funniest—and strangest—writing you’ll find anywhere. It lends itself to the comic, and the absurd. Maybe humor is easier to convey in a sentence than in a line break. If you think I’m kidding, read some Russell Edson, some Daniel Pinkerton, some Dag Straumsvag, some James Tate, some Lee Stern (I will send up a full post about him soon), or some Mark Vinz.

By comparison, Flash Fiction is the more staid of the pair. That’s not because Flash Fiction is boring, but because Prose Poetry often only focuses on humor and the comic image. (This should be viewed as a problem, as prose poetry can do more. I’ve seen this in my own work. Too often my prose poems are funny, but they are throwaways, good only for a few readings.) Really, it’s easy to simply be funny. All you need is a good juxtaposition or two, a walrus, some good verbs, and you’re on your way.

Flash Fiction is something else, as it’s about character (and change), and it’s therefore more difficult to pull off in such a short space. (Hell, some people can’t pull it off in a short story or even a novel; hence the ever-present complaint “nothing happens in this story…”)

So we should give mad props to folks who can pull it off; some contemporary folks who come to mind for me are Kim Chinquee, Paul Lisicky, Mabel Yu, and Steve Almond.

I’ll end with a question: So who are your favorite contemporary prose poets and flash fictionistas?

ce. (Hell, some people can’t pull it off in a short story or even a novel; hence the ever-present complaint “nothing happens in this story…”)

So we should give mad props to folks who can pull it off; some contemporary folks who come to mind for me are Kim Chinquee, Paul Lisicky, Mabel Yu, and Steve Almond.

I’ll end with a question: So who are your favorite contemporary prose poets and flash fictionistas?

5 Comments

  • Sam Ligon says:

    I’m not sure flash fiction is always about character. I think it’s often not, in fact, and that’s what so cool about it. It can be more moody — evocative. That’s what Kim Chinquee’s so good at. And it seems so hard to do well.

    A lot of writers have written about the form:

    Joyce Carol Oates: Very short fictions are nearly always experimental, exquisitely calibrated, reminiscent of Frost’s definition of a poem—a structure of words that consumes itself as it unfolds, like ice melting on a stove. The form is sometimes mythical, sometimes merely anecdotal, but it ends with its final sentence, often with its final word … they are highly compressed and highly charged.

    Mark Strand: Its end is erasure.

    C. Michael Curtis: The shorter the story, the more both writer and reader have to depend on hard moments of discovery, flashes of illumination that provide, in their suggestiveness and aptness, what other writers struggle for pages to make clear.

    Leonard Michaels: A short story has value insofar as it comes close, in one or another way, to being a poem. Short-short stories can seem to come very close to being poems, since they depend immensely on implication. In suggesting a poem, and not being a poem, a short-short can seem merely disgraceful.

    Charles Baxter: In the abruptly short-short story, familiar material takes the place of details … We’ve seen that before. We know where we are. Don’t give us details; we don’t need them. What we need is surprise, a quick turning of the wrist toward texture, or wisdom, something suddenly broken or quickly repaired.

    Gordon Weaver: The short-short presents a fiction writer a very profound challenge: in how small a space can he create the felt presences that animate successful stories …the shorter the fiction, the greater become the odds against the success of the endeavor. That is why, I think, most short-shorts fail.4

    John L’Heureux: A really good short-short, whatever else it may be, is a story we can’t help reading fast, and then re-reading, and again, but no matter how many times we read it, we’re not quite through it yet.

    I often can’t tell the difference at all, though I like the fact that you’re making distinctions. Hempel’s short shorts – like In a Tub — often rely on image for their movement. And, to reiterate, I think many many short shorts simply aren’t primarily interested in character development. Some are — but many just don’t operate that way. Some have a kind of narrative drive. Many don’t.
    Voice can do more of the work. And that turn at the end is often so important.

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