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Prose Poetry vs Flash Fiction

What's the difference?

By Teresa RentonPublished 7 months ago Updated 3 months ago 5 min read
Image by Teresa Renton (author)

Because this question comes up often, and because I struggle with this too, I wanted to address it in a post. Rather than answer individually, I'm putting my take on things here for you all.

How to tell if my piece is prose poetry

Prose poetry takes its place among contemporary free verse companions. It's focus is on stunning, impactful imagery and lyricism. As with all poetry, prose poetry seeks to create impact through evocative language. It pulls out all the tools--metaphor, symbolism, rhythm, alliteration, assonance, consonance, euphony.

Prose poetry has no obligation to tell a story--although it can if it wants--but it serves more to paint images, to explore, to evoke emotions. It doesn't necessarily care for narrative structure. However, while it goes rogue with its ideas, language, lack of narrative structure, it's disciplined in its ability to wow you with carefully crafted emotionally stirring language.

Prose poetry could be a stream-of-consciousness monologue without anything happening or changing. It may unpack emotions, describe emotions or a state of mind, with skillful poetic craftsmanship. It may paint vivid pictures in your mind and cause you to ask existential questions. You're unlikely to see a scenario where you want to ask, what next? what did you do? what happened? did you stay? leave? take the bait? etc.

You will most likely be left with a feeling--whether that be joy, melancholy, distress, satisfaction, or peace. Perhaps, all of those. To demonstrate, let me suggest you read Light as a Dandelion. Or, if you want a harder punch in the gut, A Postcard on the Restorative Effects of Sea Air After a Nervous Breakdown.

As you can see if you read Ellora Sutton's poem above, prose poetry happily breaks syntactic rules to get you to feel. It will use whatever deviance it wants, to shake you, stir you, and punch you in the stomach until it hurts. Disjointed sentences? One-word sentences? Words used for how they sound, as well as what they mean? Bring it all on says the PP.

Its relationship to narrative is interesting. If you want to write a narrative poem–with a beginning, middle and end, within the protocols of a narrative structure – then it’s unlikely to be a prose poem. You’d be better off writing a piece of flash fiction. The prose poem form doesn’t exist for a narrative purpose.

- Karen McCarthy Woolf in Mslexia

Read the entire article on prose poetry in Mslexia, by poet, writer, and editor, Karen McCarthy Woolf, here.

Veering towards flash fiction

Although flash fiction draws on these poetic devices, it does so while moving the story on. Yes, flash draws on poetic devices and plays with language, but never a the expense of narrative--even if the narrative is subtle and suggested.

In flash fiction, there'll be a crucial point of tension. A point where you can sense a change in your character. It can be as subtle as someone choosing to press send on a text message, yet you realise the enormity of that decision. It could be life-changing, or life-affirming.

My flash piece below probably sails close to the edge of prose poetry.

I don't normally explain my poems or flashes, unless specifically asked. But for this piece, I thought it might be helpful if I showed you my thought processes. In my assessment Liminal, I justify it as flash for the following reasons:

Although it is a flow of thoughts, those thoughts tell a story. They're not just describing what the narrator feels. An overarching sense of a declining relationship runs through. The story emerges of a desire, and of what must have been an affair. Finally, the narrator has clearly made a decision, because of how she chooses to address her desire. It's not the final action, but the decision that drove her to the action, despite her feelings, that is the point.

Is my piece flash fiction or prose poetry?

For me, when I write something on the blurred edge of prose poetry or flash, I ask a few questions.

  • Does it depict a feeling, emotion, or state of mind as its priority? Or does it seek to tell a story as well?
  • Does narrative play a part? Is there a crucial point at which something or someone changes?
  • Is there a sense of an ending to that episode?
  • What about the language? Does it lean towards prose? Or is it more poetic and adheres less to prescriptive grammar? Is the piece driven by lyrical language, imagery, and symbolism?
  • Was my main intention to enable the reader to see and feel what I see and feel?
  • There may well be a story; there often is, but am I telling the story (flash) or the impact of the story (poetry)?

This one below is where I had to think hard about those questions. Eventually, I decided it was a prose poem, because of my answer to the final question above. You may disagree:

Final thoughts on flash fiction vs prose poetry

Art is freedom. Being able to bend things most people see as a straight line.

- Yoshitomo Nara

I can only describe what I've learnt so far. It's an area that interests me and I'm still on a hunt to discover more. My stance is that as with everything in life, there are continuums. There is black, and there is white. Left and Right. However, sometimes beauty and innovation lie in the seams between things.

The work of Lydia Davis is worth considering in this context. She writes short pieces of text that could be classed as either flash fictions or prose poems. People find them thorny because they don’t sit comfortably in either category, but seem to occupy a liminal space – not between the two categories, but actually operating in both categories simultaneously.

- Karen McCarthy Woolf in Mslexia

You'll read obvious flash fiction stories, and beautiful writing that is unequivocally a poem. But that doesn't mean it's always clear what is what. There will be that blurry grey middle where many of us will struggle to differentiate. Ultimately, you decide what your writing is. If anyone disagrees, discuss it with them, talk it through, or simply say, 'fine'.


About the Creator

Teresa Renton

Inhaling life, exhaling stories, poetry, prose, flash or fusions. An imperfect perfectionist who writes and recycles words. I write because I love how it feels to make ink patterns & form words, like pictures, on a page.

Reader insights


Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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Comments (3)

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  • Mackenzie Davis7 months ago

    I am finding your essays on specific types of literary writing incredibly useful, Teresa. I hope you don’t stop. This one is fantastic. I feel like I’m starting to identify which of my "flash" pieces are really just poems, and I’m making a synaptic pathway for myself to always have that moment of character change in those stories. I learned this at college, but sometimes it’s hard to let go of an intention you have at the outset of writing a piece, and the way it evolves, perhaps into a completely different genre. I agree with you that your flash piece "Liminal" is not prose poetry; I view it as incredibly masterful flash fiction, the kind that balances narrative with poetic devices. Along the same lines as "Bullet in the Brain" by Tobias Wolff, my quintessential flash fiction story. This checklist is invaluable. (Particularly "Am I telling a story or the impact of a story?) I am saving this in my resources. Thank you so much!!

  • Kendall Defoe 7 months ago

    This is interesting. I rarely worry too much about these distinctions, but you do raise certain points I should consider. Many thanks!

  • Matthew Fromm7 months ago

    I appreciate you putting these together! It helps me understand what I'm looking at in my own writing when I put something together and go, "well, what's the point of this?"

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