The Prose Poem and the Ideology of Genre
Verse is everywhere in language where there is rhythm, everywhere, except on posters and page four of the newspapers. In the genre which we call prose there is verse of every conceivable rhythm, some of it admirable. But in reality there is no prose: there is the alphabet, and then there are verse forms, more or less rigid, more or less diffuse. In every attempt at style there is versification.Since its first official appearance in nineteenth century France with Charles Baudelaire's celebrated Paris Spleen (begun in 1855 and first published in full in 1869), the prose poem, "the literary genre with an oxymoron for a name" (M. Riffaterre 117), has not ceased to puzzle readers and critics alike. In his famous preface to the collection, Baudelaire himself nevertheless sought to put forward a first definition of the genre as "the miracle of a poetic prose, musical though rhythmless and rhymeless, flexible yet rugged enough to identify with the lyrical impulses of the soul, the ebbs and flows of revery, the pangs of conscience" (Poems 25). Baudelaire's Paris Spleen was one of the first significant attempts by a major representative of the Western canon to question the then widely accepted formal and phonic premises of poetry, namely the presence of rhyme and meter. In the English-speaking world, the prose poem and other forms of "poetic prose" were later cherished by the British Decadents as an ideal form in which to fulfill their craving for syntactic intricacies and stylistic mannerisms. Since then, the prose poem in English has veered off in various directions as antipodal as Gertrude Stein's Cubist vignettes in Tender Buttons, Sherwood Anderson's Whitmanesque hymns in Mid-American Chants and, more recently, Robert Bly's "Deep Image" poems or the postgeneric experiments of the new American avant-garde known as the "Language poetry" group. Baudelaire's generic enfant terrible now seems to have developed almost as many trends as there are poets practising it, so that any attempt at a single, monolithic definition of the genre would be doomed to failure.
--Stéphane Mallarmé, "Réponses à des enquêtes"
All that is not prose is verse,
and all that is not verse is prose.
--Molière, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme
As suggested by the diversity of stylistic, modal and methodological approaches to the genre represented in this study, the history of the contemporary prose poem in English is, to a large extent, the history of the successive attempts by poets to redefine the parameters governing our expectations of what a poem (or a prose poem) should look or sound like. If we turn to specialized reference works, such as the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, we find the following detailed description of what a prose poem should and should not be:
PROSE POEM (poem in prose). A composition able to have any or all the features of the lyric, except that it is put on the page--though not conceived of--as prose. It differs from poetic prose in that it is short and compact, from free verse in that it has no line breaks, from a short prose passage in that it has, usually, more pronounced rhythms, sonorous effects, imagery, and density of expression. It may contain even inner rhyme and metrical runs. Its length, generally, is from half a page (one or two paragraphs) to three or four pages, i.e., that of the average lyrical poem. If it is any longer, the tensions and impact are forfeited, and it becomes--more or less poetic--prose. The term "prose poem" has been applied irresponsibly to anything from the Bible to a novel by Faulkner, but should be used only to designate a highly conscious (sometimes even self-conscious) art form.
Other definitions in the same vein include Martin Gray's description of the genre as a "short work of poetic prose, resembling a poem because of its ornate language and imagery, and because it stands on its own, and lacks narrative: like a lyric poem but not subjected to the patterning of metre." For M. H. Abrams, Baudelaire's Paris Spleen, Rimbaud's Illuminations and a number of "excerptible passages" from Pater's prose essays "approximate the form that in the nineteenth century was called the prose poem: densely compact, pronouncedly rhythmic, and highly sonorous compositions which are written as a continuous sequence of sentences without line breaks."
The common denominator of these various definitions is a conception of the prose poem defined from the perspective of poetry, one which brings forward two distinct but interrelated assumptions concerning the nature of "the poetic." The first of these assumptions, to which we will turn later, relies on an all-too-common equation of poetic language with the lyric; it postulates that a poem should be a relatively short piece of writing concerned primarily with the expression of feelings. The second hypothesis posits that the degree of stylistic and imagistic "density" of poetry allegedly distinguishes it from the dull, commonplace, matter-of-fact language of prose. Since poetry, as Ursula K. Le Guin memorably put it, is "the beautiful dumb blonde, all words," and prose the "smart brunette with glasses, all ideas" (109), the first task of a prose poet should be to reproduce the rhythmic, sonorous and stylistic richness commonly associated with poetic language through the medium of prose.
According to such a view, poetic language is primarily characterized by a more "vehement" usage of the same stylistic devices present in literary prose. As Roland Barthes argues in Writing Degree Zero, these strictly stylistic considerations still rely on the classical conception of poetry as merely an ornamental variation of prose which is felt to be "a minimal form of speech, the most economical vehicle for thought." In the following double equation, Barthes uses the letters a, b, c for "certain attributes of language, which are useless but decorative, such as meter, rhyme or the ritual of images:"
Poetry = Prose + a + b + cIn the classical period, Barthes comments, the difference is clearly not one of essence but one of quantity, as poetry and prose are "neither more nor less separated than two different numbers, contiguous like them, but dissimilar because of the very difference in their magnitudes" (Reader 53). This conception of poetry as a measurable degree of stylistic and imagistic "decorativeness" always already present in any literary work--whether written in prose or in verse--has remained, until recently, a basic tenet in contemporary literary criticism. As Jean Cohen claims in Structure du langage poétique, "prose is only a moderate kind of poetry." Poetry, by contrast, is seen as "the most passionate form of literature, the paroxysmic degree of style. Style is one. It comprises a finite number of figures, always the same. From prose to poetry and from one state of poetry to another, the difference is only in the audacity with which language employs the processes virtually inscribed within its structure" (149).
Prose = Poetry – a – b – c
As we will see, Cohen's notion of poetic language, a relativistic variant of Coleridge's "homely definitions of prose and poetry" ("prose = words in their best order; poetry = the best words in their best order"), cannot do justice to the history of the contemporary prose poem, the subversive potential of which is certainly not based exclusively on an attempt to emulate the stylistic fertility of traditional "poetic" language. However, the most problematic aspect shared by Cohen's theory and the aforegoing definitions of the prose poem as a piece of "poeticized" prose is that traditional categories associated with the "poetic" --including metaphorical density, stylistic sophistication and lyric intimacy--have long ceased to be the convenient hallmarks which, at the time of Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater, enabled one to separate the wheat from the chaff by making the difference between "poetic prose" and the undecorative, utilitarian matter-of-factness of "prosaic" prose. Now that ordinary language and diction have gained acceptance into the canon of American poetry, one is entitled to wonder about the possible survival of widely accepted formal, phonic or thematic standards of poeticity in view of the progressive narrowing of the contemporary poetry reader's "horizon of expectations," to use Hans Robert Jauss' famous expression.
How are we to approach a prose text labeled as poetry at a time when traditional notions of poetic language have become so problematic? Despite the advent of free verse and the subsequent obsolescence of metric and stylistic criteria for distinguishing poetry from prose, the prose poem has paradoxically continued to be regarded by many as a rather disturbing, if not downright illegitimate mode of literary expression. Though it would no longer seem necessary to refute essentialist notions of genre, the relatively unexpected commotion caused in the poetic and critical Establishment by Charles Simic's 1990 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of prose poems, The World Doesn't End, suggests that a number of prescriptive norms about the formal premises of poetry continue to prevail, even in a country which was among the first to free poetic expression from both stylistic sophistication and prosodic convention. At a time when verse and poetry are no longer necessarily synonymous, the survival of a certain number of formal expectations and prescriptive boundaries between literary genres nonetheless remains the uncertain ground from which the prose poem still manages to draw a significant part of its subversive and, some would argue, political potential. What is more, the recent renewal of interest by both writers and critics in the prose poem, a "formless" genre par excellence, has greatly contributed to relegitimizing debates concerning the specific attributes of poeticity resisted or transgressed by prose poets. As the following chapters will show, the allegedly "genreless" or "postgeneric" space of the prose poem has given a new significance and a new relevance to the notion of genre itself.
The prose poem was first introduced to the English-speaking public by Stuart Merrill's Pastels in Prose, a collection of French prose poems in English translation published in New York in 1890. In the years that followed the appearance of Merrill's anthology, the prose poem began to arouse the interest of a whole generation of British Decadent writers. The main representatives of the British prose poem in the final years of the nineteenth century included Ernest Dowson, the Scottish author William Sharp (a.k.a. Fiona Macleod) and Oscar Wilde, whose parable-like Poems in Prose (1894) are the first instance of a consciously cultivated tradition of the prose poem in English. In the general climate of self-conscious Aestheticism that characterized the work of these writers in the 1880s and 1890s, the prose poem--which was then viewed as barely distinguishable from other experiments with "poetic prose," such as the "artistic" prose of Walter Pater's essays on Renaissance art--almost naturally became a preferred form for the kind of painstaking artifice and stylistic sophistication favored by the fin-de-siècle generation. The typical Decadent prose poem combines a colorful, heavily stylized vocabulary with a deceptively simple, self-consciously archaic diction often inspired by the King James Bible. Like many prose poems written at the heyday of British Aestheticism, William Sharp's "Orchil" also makes use of a number of formal features, such as the use of repetitions and alliterations, which were meant to approximate the musical quality of traditional verse:
I dreamed of Orchil, the dim goddess who is under the brown earth, in a vast cavern, where she weaves at two looms. With one hand she weaves life upward through the grass; with the other she weaves death downward through the mould; and the sound of the weaving is Eternity, and the name of it in the green world is Time. And, through all, Orchil weaves the weft of Eternal Beauty, that passeth not, though her soul is Change.One of the first critical responses to such a conception of the prose poem as a piece of stylized and "poeticized" prose (Ernest Dowson's 1899 collection of prose poems was quite appropriately named Decorations in Prose) was voiced by T.S. Eliot in 1917. In an essay entitled "The Borderline of Prose," Eliot reacted against the prose poems of Richard Aldington, which he saw as a disguised attempt to revive the stylistic preciousness and technical "charlatanism" ("Borderline" 158) of the Decadents. In contrast with the prose poems of Baudelaire's Paris Spleen and the "pure prose" of Rimbaud's Illuminations, which he admired, Aldington's hybrid prose poems were condemned by Eliot on the ground that they "seem[ed] to hesitate between two media" (159). As became clear in a second essay on the subject, published in 1921, Eliot did not object so much to the prose poets' endeavors to create a hybrid genre as to the terms prose poem and prose poetry themselves, to which he preferred the more neutral expression short prose ("Prose and Verse" 6). That Eliot's fierce condemnation of the formal hybridity of the prose poem did a lot to discourage other early modernist poets from even trying their hands at the genre is beyond any doubt--if Eliot had been the lesser poet, and Aldington one of the most respected and influential men of letters of his time, the history of the contemporary prose poem in English may have taken a totally different turn. Be that as it may, Eliot cannot be blamed for dismissing a tradition which, besides Aldington's rather undistinguished "impressionistic" sketches, had so far produced little more than a handful of neo-Ossianic hymns and Wildean poetic parables. Indeed, one of the more positive implications of Eliot's rejection of Aldington's prose poems was that the modern prose poem needed to rid itself of the stigmata of the Decadent school and its reliance on "outward" attributes of poeticity.
This is my comfort, O Beauty that art of Time, who am faint and hopeless in the strong sound of that other Weaving, where Orchil, the dim goddess, sits dreaming at her loom under the brown earth.
As we will see, an alternative to the stylistic "charlatanism" of the Decadents can already be detected in Eliot's one published prose poem, "Hysteria" (1915), the matter-of-fact tone and unlyrical content of which distinguish it from any previous tradition of the prose poem in English and make it an interesting precursor of the so-called fabulist trend examined in Chapter 3. However, the process of emancipation of the contemporary prose poem from its fin-de-siècle heritage was a slow and difficult one. A typical example of the ambivalent relationship of early modernist writers with the prose lyric was Amy Lowell's polyphonic prose, which was based on "the long, flowing cadence of oratorical prose" (xii) and whose poetic quality relied on "the recurrence of a dominant thought or image, coming in irregularly and in varying words, but still giving the spherical effect . . . imperative in all poetry" (xv). The circular, contrapuntal patterns of Lowell's polyphonic prose (which first appeared in the volume Can Grande's Castle in 1918 and was originally inspired by Paul Fort's experiments with "rhythmic prose") made it, to a large extent, a continuation of, rather than a departure from, the Decadent tradition of the prose poem, which amounted to a transposition of metrical and phonic constraints of verse onto the medium of prose--like its fin-de-siècle counterparts, Lowell's polyphonic prose still aspired to the "musical" condition of the verse lyric.
Lowell's insistence on "the absolute adequacy of the manner of a passage [of polyphonic prose] to the thought it embodies" (xi), however, also makes Can Grande's Castle an early example of an American variation on the Baudelairian project to create a prose supple enough to be able to reproduce "the lyrical impulses of the soul, the ebbs and flows of revery, the pangs of conscience" (Spleen 24). At a time when British and American novelists became increasingly interested in registering the full spectrum of mental life (what William James had described in his Principles of Psychology (1890) as "the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life" [Bradbury 197]), it is hardly surprising that the first genuinely modern experiments with the short prose lyric were carried out by two major representatives of the stream-of-consciousness novel: James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. As is shown in the prologue to this study, Joyce's early "dream epiphanies" (1900-1904) constitute the first modern attempt to use the prose poem as a vehicle for approaching the capricious "flow" of consciousness and the process of subjective experience from the side of the lyric.
"What is?" laments the disappearance of the poem--another catastrophe. By announcing that which is just as it is, a question salutes the birth of prose.If most modernist writers still regarded the prose poem as a rather marginal phenomenon and a mere curiosity for Francophiles, a recent "revival" of the genre in the United States is attested to by the publication, over the past twenty-five years, of numerous volumes of prose poems, notably by some of America's most distinguished poets, such as Robert Bly, Rosmarie Waldrop or Charles Simic. Still, it is only recently that American critics started to show an interest in the prose poem as a genre. Unfortunately, the two studies published so far on the prose poem in English, Stephen Fredman's Poet's Prose and Margueritte Murphy's A Tradition of Subversion, focus on a very limited number of contemporary writers who are by no means representative of the wide variety of works currently published and received as prose poems in countless collections and poetry magazines. With the exception of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons, William Carlos Williams's Improvisations and Robert Bly's The Morning Glory, the great majority of the works dealt with in the present study--and which are nevertheless generally credited with having given the prose poem in English its lettres de noblesse--have been consistently neglected by literary criticism, both in Europe and in the United States, even by the few critics who have so far written on the genre.
--Jacques Derrida, "Che cos'è la poesia"
In addition to providing an analysis of several canonical or noncanonical collections all too often ignored by critics, I offer a general survey of the contemporary prose poem in English in the course of which the work of numerous "minor" or occasional contemporary writers of prose poems--including such established writers as Sherwood Anderson, Kenneth Patchen and W.S. Merwin-- are dealt with more briefly. My intention, however, is not to produce an exhaustive chronological account of the development of the modern prose poem in English but, rather, to describe a number of important directions taken by the genre, as it has been defined and redefined by its practitioners throughout the twentieth century. In this respect, I will approach the notion of genre itself as an historical rather than a theoretical category--that is, by drawing inductively on an existing body of contemporary works labeled, marketed or simply received as prose poems, rather than by establishing a prescriptive construct which would precondition my attempts to come to terms with the texts themselves. Whenever possible, the following chapters privilege the issue of "generic intentionality" through an investigation of the various creative and theoretical approaches the prose poets themselves apply to their own work and the work of others.
With the exception of Stephen Fredman in his groundbreaking Poet's Prose: The Crisis in American Verse, the critics who have so far attempted to account for the potential for innovation of the prose poem as a genre have done so by referring to a single, synthetic system of interpretation. Michael Riffaterre, for instance, defines the text's relation to a selected "intertext" as the single, invariant constitutive feature of the genre; Jonathan Monroe in A Poverty of Objects and Margueritte Murphy in A Tradition of Subversion rely on Mikhail Bakhtin's theories on the novel in emphasizing the prose poem's inherently "dialogical" and "heteroglot" nature. Both studies describe the genre as the locus of convergence or conflict of various discourses which in turn reflect a variety of extradiscursive realities, including a number of specific social, political and ideological agendas. Ultimately, they suggest that the prose poem exists mainly by reference to other genres which it tends to include or exclude, subscribe to or subvert.
To some extent, this emphasis on the inherently intertextual and heteroglot dynamics of the prose poem is indispensable in the context of a form whose very name suggests its ambivalent status as a genre writing across other genres--a self-consciously deviant form the aesthetic orientation and subversive potential of which are necessarily founded on a number of discursive and typographical violations. One way of coming to terms with the inherent duality of the prose poem therefore consists in attending to the specific generic conventions alternately introduced and negated by the genre. Instead of resorting to a single interpretive strategy, however, in the present study I consider the contemporary prose poem--approached in the light of its multiple love-hate relationships with dominant aesthetic and extra-aesthetic discourses--as representative of how individual works can subvert the very codes and narratives by which they exist and can expose them as the product of specific historical moments. Consequently, the prose poem is also addressed as emblematic of how literary genres conceal traces of their own underlying aesthetic contradictions, including the fact that such metagenres as "poetry," "narrative" and the "lyric" are always already contaminated by the traces of other generic categories they tend to subscribe to or exclude. Special attention is also given to the various transgeneric experiments carried out by contemporary prose poets in the context of a simultaneous move in twentieth century literature toward a hypothetical degree zero of genre. In this respect, also, traditional generic categories and labels pertaining to "prosaic" as opposed to "poetic" works (including the elusive distinction between newcomers like the "short short story" or "sudden fiction" and a certain kind of prose poem with a strong narrative line) appear as just another familiar narrative the prose poem tends to subvert and deconstruct by virtue of its own shamelessly hybrid modalities.
In a recent study entitled The Power of Genre, the critic Adena Rosmarin claims that "a genre is chosen or defined to fit neither a historical nor a theoretical reality but to serve a pragmatic end" (49-50). Rosmarin's subsequent call for a revised theory of genre as a critical instrument and a tool for the interpretation of individual texts is symptomatic of the current crisis of legitimization undergone by genre theory and criticism. At a time when the notion of "generic instability" has become an accomplished fact in both postmodern aesthetics and poststructuralist theory, the taxonomic logic often associated with genre studies indeed appears still to be caught in the throes of its former existence as a prescriptive discourse. The retrieval and revaluation of forgotten, minor and marginal genres, the preoccupation with intertextuality and pastiche, and the desire for cross-cultural and cross-discursive forms all testify to a new network of complications, contradictions and paradoxes not easily containable within the symmetrical hierarchies and paradigms of traditional genre theories.
In the midst of this postgeneric chaos, the prose poem remains a relatively young genre still in the process of self-definition, a formal abstraction whose changing methods and ambitions are exceptionally difficult to define and formulate. By testing the validity of our assumptions concerning the nature and function of both poetic and prosaic language, the prose poem inevitably leads us to investigate a number of specific postulates underlying the act of defining genres and, above all, of tracing boundaries between them. In the absence of any transhistorical definition of the prose poem, descriptive--and essentially modal--orientations will be preferred to the prescriptive generic taxonomies of mainstream genre theory, which, more often than not, still stubbornly perpetuates the sacrosanct poetry/verse/lyric triad. More generally, I here consider the notion of genre itself as necessarily founded on a semi-arbitrary link between a label and its "content." As Tzvetan Todorov reminds us, there is no "pure" (or even purely "lyric," "epic" or "dramatic") genre, and even a "new" genre automatically exists by reference to one or several previously existing ones (Genres 15). Since a particular genre does not exist exclusively by virtue of its own constitutive features, but also--and above all--in terms of its relationship with other norms, labels or discursive conventions, a literary work always possesses a given generic value both within and without each of the genres, sub-genres and modes of representation it belongs to, "straddles," or subverts.
Whoever acknowledges the necessity to recognize the specific norms transgressed or eluded by the prose poem will easily identify the underlying contradiction of a number of recent theories proclaiming the alleged "post-" or "nongeneric" nature of the genre. In this respect, neither Michael Davidson's "nongeneric" prose ("After Sentence" 3), nor Stephen Fredman's description of the prose poem as "a kind of 'last genre'" purporting to effect what Octavio Paz calls "the mixture and ultimate abolition of genres" in Western literature (Fredman 5), can adequately account for the subversive potential of the works discussed in this study, which can be regarded as so many creative transactions at work both within and against a specific set of generic and discursive conventions.
As suggested above, an alternative to both traditional generic systems and Fredman's theory concerning the postgeneric status of the prose poem consists in seeing beyond the existence of generic boundaries as such in order to look for similarities and differences between individual works. As Paul Hernadi writes, arguing for a radical reconsideration of the basic axioms of genre theory, "things may be similar in different respects" (4). This relativistic concept of similarity, which Hernadi himself inherited from Karl R. Popper's Logic of Scientific Discovery, provides a useful methodological starting point for a descriptive study of generic features present, to a certain extent, in any literary work. Heeding Popper's advice, critics confronted with such an elusive genre as the prose poem will cease to rely on the claims to universal validity of traditional generic distinctions. Instead, they will seek to account for the rhetorical gesture(s) involved in the act of composing and labeling a piece of prose as a prose poem, as well as for the complex interplay between its synchronic and diachronic position in the history of modern literature.
Jonathan Monroe defines the literary and historical significance of the prose poem as "above all that of a critical, self-critical, utopian genre, a genre that tests the limits of genre" (16). The prose poem, he adds, "aspires to be poetic/literary language's own coming to self-consciousness, the place where poet and reader alike become critically aware of the writer's language" (35-36). By putting the accent on the genre's status as a self-consciously deviant form, Monroe raises the issue of the possibility of a mise en abyme of genericness by an individual literary work. The question, according to Jacques Derrida, becomes whether a writer is actually practicing a genre, so to speak, "from within" or "from without:" "What are we doing when, to practice a 'genre,' we quote a genre, represent it, stage it, expose its generic law, analyze it practically? Are we still practicing the genre? Does the work still belong to the genre it re-cites? But inversely, how could we make a genre work without referring to it [quasi-]quotationally, indicating at some point, "See, this is a work of such-and-such a genre"? Such an indication does not belong to the genre and makes the statement of belonging an ironical exercise. It interrupts the belonging of which it is a necessary condition" (Reader 259).
Seen from that angle, the act of writing and labeling a literary work is always already inscribed in a network of differential relationships between signifiers that are constantly quoting and requoting themselves and each other, sometimes--but not always--in a subversive or parodic fashion. Since a particular genre always exceeds the very formal, thematic, and presentational restrictions that generate it, the supplemental quality of generic labels themselves necessarily makes them subject to an ironical treatment within the individual work. With the interplay of such ironical citations as its object, genre theory, once it has been redefined into a differential practice, can derive new heuristic strategies from the ashes of its now obsoleted prescriptive foundations. In the context of the present work, what Derrida calls the "law of genre"--a "principle of contamination, a law of impurity, a parasitical economy" (Acts 227) denying the self-contained integrity of any discourse--seems an adequate model for a descriptive approach of the prose poem, a genre which, more than any other genre, constantly gestures to its own constructedness and, more broadly, to what poststructuralism generally diagnoses as the arbitrariness and undecidability of boundaries.
As we will see, however, a full investigation of the genre-testing potential of the prose poem cannot limit itself to describing its intertextual and interdiscursive strategies without accounting for the exact circumstances of its composition and reception. Among my major aims here indeed is to demonstrate that one method of coming to terms with such hybrid "boundary works" (Morson 48) as the prose poem consists in speaking of genre not as a given "thing" but as the expression of a relationship between a reader and a text. Only in such a way can one hope to redefine the taxonomic categories of traditional genre theory into a genuine instrument of exegesis, one which remains justified and valuable if it facilitates continuing insight into the art itself.
As the following chapters make clear, the various intergeneric transactions at work in the contemporary prose poem in English often involve the reclamation of a number of nonlyric and nonliterary modes and discourses. Jonathan Holden has provided a convincing analysis of the possibility of reclaiming for poetry the right to explore the syntactic and semantic possibilities of public, utilitarian prose from the point of view of verse. His thought-provoking The Fate of American Poetry examines the different ways in which verse forms can or cannot investigate a number of functions, modes and subject matters which seem to be monopolized by prose genres. After exploring the didactic and storytelling orientations of American poetry, as well as how these specific orientations distinguish themselves from their equivalents in didactic prose and prose narratives, Holden proceeds to discuss the potential for discursiveness of verse poetry as opposed to that of "nonfiction prose." Comparing a passage of expository prose with a verse adaptation of it, Holden contrasts the self-contained isolatedness of the lineated version with the contextual discursiveness of the prose original. "The rhetorical markers and the diction of prose," he concludes, "have the effect of subtly qualifying each proposition by placing it in a larger context than would be implied by the verse version:"
The urbanity and sense of wisdom that the best prose affords derives, in large part, from its unhurried and generous admission into discourse of other possible contexts. That is the opposite of lyric poetry. When Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria, argues that in poetry "every passion has its proper pulse," he is assuming that the subject matter of poetry deals, in large part, with "passion." But "passion," it would seem self-evident, is a state of mind in which the subject rules out all possible actions except one, in which mental activity proceeds in a drastically limited context. It becomes obsessive. The speaker of an impassioned lyric does not pause to put things into perspective. In fact, a condition for the success of lyric, and of song, is that it convince the audience, during the interval of the song's duration, to forget any other perspectives. As Barbara Herrnstein Smith put it memorably, in Poetic Closure: "A poem must carry its own context on its back." (117)Holden's approach--which is strictly limited to verse and does not acknowledge the existence of generic hybrids as such--is based on a formal and comparative analysis of the structural and rhetorical potential of lineated poetry as opposed to that of prose. His examination of functional negotiations between verse and prose forms, however, can be profitably extended to the question whether generic, functional or modal (as opposed to merely structural) categories like "poetry" or the "lyric" can reterritorialize other genres, functions and modes which have come to be associated more or less exclusively with prose literature. As the works of Russell Edson, Michael Benedikt and other neo-Surrealist prose poets demonstrate, the admission of narrative development or abstract discursiveness into a lyric format is still typical of a lot of prose poems written in the United States today. These prose poems, which question a number of basic assumptions concerning the self-contained "presence" of the lyric mode, also tend to develop affinities with short discursive or narrative forms, whether literary or nonliterary, such as the fable, the parable, the dream narrative, the aphorism, the journal entry, the pensée, the dictionary definition or even the stand-up comedy joke--at the end of these various intergeneric negotiations, what may have resulted in a sort of "anti-genre," or a shapeless polymodal jumble, generally emerges as a self-conscious and creative compromise between two or several conflicting sets of linguistic codes and conventions.
The notion of a unified and self-present lyric discourse--impervious to its social, political, psychological context or simply to its very textual or linguistic premises--is also challenged, in various ways, by most of the prose poets discussed in the present study. As Jonathan Monroe has argued, referring to the potential of the genre for dialogizing what Bakhtin called the "monological" tendency of the lyric, the prose poem "stands in direct opposition to the notion of a pure, self-contained 'poetic' speech that would betray no sense of historicity or of the social determinations of its own language" (Monroe 35). The range of methods used by prose poets in order to achieve this reintegration of the lyric into a larger constellation of literary and extra-literary contexts is as diverse as that of the various skills and ambitions displayed by the literary periods, movements, writers and individual prose poems discussed here. Despite an enormous diversity of styles and approaches to the genre, a number of major methodological trajectories nevertheless emerge from the polymorphous and often rather sporadic history of the contemporary prose poem in English. Besides a general tendency to destabilize traditional generic boundaries, these recurrent features include a taste for (self-)parody, an awareness of the necessity to reinscribe the lyric self into a network of personal or public narratives, as well as a desire to turn the act of writing and the workings of consciousness itself into objects of investigation.
Even though they were published posthumously and therefore cannot be granted a historically central or founding place within the genre, James Joyce's "lyrical" epiphanies (1900-1904)--examined in the prologue-- emerge an early attempt to move the prose lyric away from the stylistic intricacies of the British Decadents and to carry out Baudelaire's project to reproduce the complex and discontinuous rhythms of consciousness. Considered in the light of Stephen Daedalus' theory of genres in A Portrait and of Barthes' notion of the romanesque, Joyce's posthumous Giacomo Joyce also enacts the formal struggle between lyric (self-)presence and narrative continuity that was to characterize the genre throughout the twentieth century. By withholding the pressures of both narrative linearity and poetic closure, Joyce's prose fragments eventually result in a "writerly" variant of the traditional lyric, one which attends to nothing less than the movement of desire itself.
Early representatives of a modern, post-Decadent tradition of the American prose lyric are examined in part I. In this respect, also, Joyce's interest in the dialectics of the conscious and unconscious mind makes his "dream epiphanies" an interesting forerunner of the Surrealist "dreamscapes" favored by the transition poets discussed in chapter 1. In the absence of a powerful alternative to the epigonic exercices de style of the neo-Decadents, the only hope of revitalizing the prose poem had to come from outside the English-speaking world. Indeed, it was not until the advent of a real international avant-garde, influenced by the aesthetics of French Surrealism, that the prose poem in English started to win its credentials. In particular, the birth of the Paris-based English-language magazine transition (1927-1938), which published all of the major French Surrealists in translation, coincided with a renewal of interest by American writers in the prose poem. Since the Surrealist movement attracted little attention in Anglo-Saxon literary circles before the late 1930s, transition also became a unique interface between the French Surrealist movement and a number of expatriate writers then part of literary Paris. At a time when the individual consciousness itself began to be perceived as increasingly fragmented and self-divided, Eugene Jolas' "Proclamation" of the "Revolution of the Word" (1929) favored an approach to the lyric characterized by discontinuity and associational transitions such as were used, in the realm of fiction, in the so-called stream-of-consciousness novel. Long after écriture automatique had become somewhat old-fashioned even within the circles of French Surrealist pioneers, the work of a number of writers published in transition continued to retain some of the original impulses of Les Champs magnétiques (1920) which included, besides a renewed attention to the workings of the subconscious mind, a sense of "writing as process" insisting not so much on the content or subject-matter of the poem as on what André Breton called "the actual functioning of thought" (Manifestos 26).
More than fifteen years before Jolas' manifesto of the Revolution of the Word, Gertrude Stein, another member of the American community in Paris, had already perceived that another, perhaps even more radical way of renewing the strength of poetry lay in a discovery of the "poetic" potential of descriptive and argumentative syntax. Her early portraits and still lifes laid the foundations of a self-conscious critique of the claims to transparency of mimetic and utilitarian prose, which paved the way for the postlyric mode recently developed by the so-called Language poets. A precursor of a certain form of postmodern poetry rather than a typical representative of the modernist avant-garde, Stein's Tender Buttons (1914) argues both for a total reexamination of the use-value of prose and a radical questioning of the aspirations to figurativeness of poetic language.
My discussion of Sherwood Anderson's Mid-American Chants (1918) in Chapter 2 provides the terms for an analysis of the development of a popular (or "low modernist") tradition of the prose poem represented by a number of texts largely written out of the canon of American literature. Whereas Anderson's prose "chants" seek to accommodate a vision of the collective self and the expression of subjective feelings, Kenneth Patchen's dissonant stylistic medleys in The Famous Boating Party (1954) prefigure the playful intergeneric fantasies which were to become the hallmarks of the absurdist "narratives of consciousness" of Russell Edson and Michael Benedikt. Patchen's first experiments with the prose poem in the late 1940s can also be seen as a kind of "missing link" in the history of the contemporary prose poem, which vanishes almost completely from the Anglo-American literary scene after the heyday of Jolas' transition, only to reappear in the United States in the 1960s.
Part II is devoted to some of the best-known representatives of this so-called "American prose poem revival," including pioneers such as Russell Edson, Robert Bly and Michael Benedikt, as well as a number of newcomers such as Charles Simic and Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. Chapter 3, which centers on the fabulist (or Jacobean) trend of the prose poem made famous by Russell Edson, begins with a theoretical examination of the relationship between the narrative prose poem and recent generic neologisms such as sudden fiction and the short short story. I then proceed to consider to what extent the metapoetic foregrounding of discourse and writing-as-process which characterizes the fabulist prose poem is linked with an understanding of poetic language as a deviant use of the language of rational logic and of a number of specific conventions underlying discursive or narrative genres. In this perspective, special attention will be given to how the didactic aims and moral certainties traditionally attached to the fable and the parable become engulfed in the turmoil of Edson's poetics of metafictional fabulation and "paradox." Margaret Atwood's prose poems and "short shorts" use a number of other parodic and metapoetic strategies in order to debunk the various socio-linguistic assumptions underlying diverse literary and nonliterary narratives. Her more specifically feminist concern with the textual and existential constraints imposed upon the feminine self argues for an approach to both genre and gender as cultural formulae lodged at the intersection of literary and ideological discourses.
Bly's "thing poems," discussed in chapter 4, are emblematic of the preoccupation with objects which characterizes the work of a number of major representatives of the contemporary prose poem, such as Gertrude Stein and Francis Ponge. Unlike the majority of the works discussed in this study, however, the work of Robert Bly displays a strong distrust of abstraction and discursiveness. The assumptions of artlessness and immediacy which constitute the premises of Bly's poetics of the "Deep Image" also distinguish his work from the fabulist trend of the American prose poem which on the whole tends toward the foregrounding of artifice and of the text's self-consciousness.
Charles Simic's 1990 Pulitzer Prize-winning The World Doesn't End, examined in chapter 5, is one of the most recent, and also one of the most accomplished, avatars of the American neo-Surrealist prose poem. Even though Simic's prose poems share some of the defining features of the fabulist prose poem (including a taste for black humor and tragicomical absurdities), their most important feature is an ability to create a successful blending of lyric, philosophical and critical material. In Dime-Store Alchemy, a double homage to the art of Joseph Cornell and to the city of New York, Simic regards the modern city as a new spatial model for a redefinition of the poetic, which becomes a means of "making strange" objects or events we tend to perceive as trivial or prosaic.
Throughout the twentieth century, the prose poem has often been used as a means of questioning and redefining the methods, aims, and ideological significance habitually attributed to both poetry and prose. Nowhere in recent years has this tendency been more apparent than in the experiments of the so-called Language poetry movement. The language-centered dynamics of Ron Silliman's "New Prose Poem," examined in the final section of this study, are directly inspired by the work of Gertrude Stein. Like many other Language poets, Silliman indeed shares Stein's skepticism about the implicit relationship of language to reference and the transparent "naturalness" of descriptive and argumentative syntax. In the larger context of the development of postwar American poetry, Silliman's "New Prose Poem" also seeks to deconstruct Charles Olson's speech-based "open field" and to redefine it into a primarily scriptural medium. More generally, the Language poets' creative and theoretical project as a whole--which echoes Derrida's critique of Western logocentrism and the poststructuralist deconstruction of literary subjectivity--rejects any conception of poetry as a spontaneous, "natural" utterance and provides the terms for a lyric mode "with a difference," one which puts the accent on the inherent textuality of the lyric self. In the course of my analysis of the rejection of mimesis and referentiality advocated by the Language poets, I also look upon their deconstructive practices as an ambitious (if not altogether successful) reorientation of poetic practice towards social and political analysis. Finally, I consider the emphasis the Language movement lays on theoretical discussion and how it eventually leads to the erasure of traditional divisions between creative and utilitarian forms of writing. By deconstructing the very notion of genre as just another dominant "narrative" and by calling into question the naturalness of accepted boundaries between prose and poetry, the lyric and the narrative, or the literal and the figurative, the New Prose Poem emerges as the methodological culmination of the transgeneric experiments dealt with in the preceding chapters.
Bio NoteMichel Delville teaches at the University of Ličge, Belgium. He is author of a study of J. G. Ballard and of articles on contemporary English and American literature. "The Prose Poem and the Ideology of Genre" is taken from his book, The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre (U P of Florida, 1998), which won the 1998 SAMLA Studies Award.