The following is an excerpt from Quentin’s section of the William Faulkner novel, The Sound and the Fury:
A sparrow slanted across the sunlight, onto the window edge, and cocked his head at me. His eye was round and bright. First he’d watch me with one eye, then flick! and it would be the other, his throat pumping faster than any pulse. The hour began to strike. The sparrow quit swapping eyes and watched me steadily with the same one until the chimes ceased, as if he were listening too. Then he flicked off the ledge and was gone.
And here is my attempt to turn it into a prose poem:
Being in Time with a Sparrow and Some Clock Chimes
Yesterday, a sparrow slanted across the sunlight, onto the window edge, and cocked his head at me. His eye was round and bright. First he’d watch me with one eye, then flick! and it would be the other, his throat pumping faster than any pulse. As the hour began to strike, the sparrow quit swapping eyes and watched me with the same one. He looked fixedly upon me until the chimes ceased. Then he flicked off the ledge and was gone.
Notice that, apart from tacking on a title, I didn’t change much. Even still, the changes I made to the passage are crucial to my understanding of it as a prose poem and not poetic prose, which I consider the original to be. For me, what keeps the original in the territory of prose is, among a few other things, how the sentence, “The hour began to strike.” abuts the ones around it. It operates neither disjunctively nor fluidly within its context and seems instead to imply in a very basic way that something else—in addition to all the going’s on with the bird—happened. To me, the sentences in a narrative prose poem are always either A) interrupting or challenging the narration of the story in some interesting way or B) helping the speaker to arrive at what his author’s poem is about. My attempt to more closely link the hour’s striking to Quentin’s preoccupation with the fixity of the bird’s looking is an example of the latter.
My point is simple and also one that has been made before: that the line between prose and poetry is often blurry. In order to distinguish between the two, or explain what makes one one and the other the other, though, you might do like I have just done and attempt to turn the one into the other, then account for the changes you’ve made. Give it a try and beware: the accounting for is difficult!
Michael Roche writes poetry in Virginia Tech’s MFA program. His work is forthcoming in Best New Poets: 2012.