Object Lessons: Rantings of a Lone Pamphleteer
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Poetry or Prose?

I often have difficulty describing what it is, exactly, that Sarah and I do during our weekly writing meetings. We discuss poetry. Plan our careers. Crack the motivational whip and give each other deadlines.

But here is one essential example of what we discuss: Sarah asked me:

Did we ever decide if there is a distinction between the incredibly short-short-story and the long prose poem? I have written something which began as a poem... transmuted into a story. Of course, there was always a story hidden in the poem...and in my efforts to flesh it out, I have created a monster.

My reply:

I think the difference is cohesive, cogent narrative (S Story), versus the free-est form of poetry (proem). A proem does not necessarily have a narrative, or anything "form"ulaic; proems break out of the poetry form altogether by excluding the linebreaks, but include poetics in other ways (language, style). The distilled language poetry requires is essential for writing a super-short (25 words or less). A short story weighs in at 2,000 words or less, about 5 pages, single-spaced. A proem falls in between; I've never seen one longer than 500 words, although I'm sure a few exist.

Even a super short is still a story, requiring all the same elements of plot, character, narrative, etc. that a story needs no matter it's length. I suspect that the elemental forces are pared down to their most essential "forms", i.e., that a super-short would have only dashes of the points that may be expounded upon in a longer SS, and it must perforce include the narrative thread, no matter how reduced. Character might be reduced to a few well-chosen, overly expressed dialogue. Plot is minimized to a moment -- 8 second -- an encounter between two characters, even if one of those characters is not human; the second character could be inanimate, even. Imagine a story of a woman trying to open a can without a can opener. In short, an SS still tells a story, no matter how briefly related, while a prose poem need not.

Likewise, the proem must have the same basic structure of
poetry -- beginning, middle, and the "couplet" or "aha" ending that leads the reader to some emotional conclusion along with the narrator. Thought the line blurs when one considers a narrative poem, I think it's clear that a proem can be most easily distinguished from an SS by virtue of its tone. That is, a proem includes a directness, a connection to its reader, which should reach out and grab you by the lapels and not let you loose until it's done with you. A poem is like an attack of the reader in a way, shining a light into those unwashed issues hiding in humanity's dark closets.

My feeling is that short fiction, no matter how short, is less....
accesible, in another sense of the word. It's further away from the reader or the writer by virtue of its form: character displaces narrator, setting usurps place, chronology and story-telling replace reflection and exposition.

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