Introduction to The American Prose Poem
(Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1998).
Michel Delville (University of Liège/ CIPA)
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.
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" and 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 + c
Prose = Poetry – a – b – c
In 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).
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, whose subversive potential 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 above-quoted 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. William Carlos Williams' famous lyric, "This Is Just To Say" (1934), is a classic example of how ordinary language has gained acceptance into the canon of American poetry:
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
Williams' "This Is Just to Say" is as close as a poem can get to a literary equivalent of art trouvé. Even though Williams' poem effectively transgresses accepted boundaries between artistic and utilitarian discourses, its status as "poetry," however, relies all the more heavily on the ironic contrast between the matter-of-factness of the language and its lineated and stanzaic arrangement, a last remnant of traditional metrics. To a reader familiar with the poetry written in the United States and elsewhere in the last fifty years, the discrepancy between poetic form and colloquial language (or, in the case of Williams' "This Is Just To Say," between outward signs of poeticity and a predominantly factual diction and content), while remaining interesting and effective, has ceased to be controversial. One is therefore entitled to wonder about the possible survival of widely accepted formal, phonic or thematic standards of poeticity in view of the progressive narrowing of, to use Hans Robert Jauss' famous expression, the "horizon of expectations" of the contemporary reader of poetry.
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
21990 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 which 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
3alliterations, 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.
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.
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" of the Decadents ("Borderline" 158). 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.
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), whose matter-of-fact tone and unlyrical content 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 the opening chapter of this study will show, 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.
--Jacques Derrida, "Che cos'è la poesia"
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
4published 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 very few critics who have so far written on the genre.
In addition to providing an analysis of several canonical or noncanonical collections all too often ignored by critics, the present study offers 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--will be 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
5its 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
6precondition 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.