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The Fallacy of Prose Poetry: an Extension of Eliot's "Reflections on Vers Libre"

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Sarah Manguso
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Year

2014
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T. S. Eliot claimed in his 1917 essay "Reflections on Vers Libre" that so-called "free verse" is a fallacious category—that its apparent divergence from so-called "formal verse" is only an illusion. This simplifying engine, a combiner of binary oppositions, is beautifully applicable to other generic categories—particularly that of the prose poem. Per Eliot’s argument, there’s no such thing as prose poetry, either—as its divergence from verse poetry is discernible only via logic’s via negativa, the description of what it isn’t. The category of prose poem is about as useful a sorting tool as the three races into which humans were divided in 1684 by Francois Bernier.

The relentless naming and sorting of contemporary poetries has always suggested to me a group of autistic kids locked in the Quiet Room, trying to organize their way out. Yes, I believe in the possibility of philosopher Ian Hacking’s so-called "dynamic nominalism"—in which, "once you invent a category...people will sort themselves into it, behave according to the description, and thus contrive new ways of being"1—but I don’t think new words bring about new categories of reality as often as some critics (particularly one 500K-word graphomanic blogger) wish they did.

Prose poetry—whatever it is, and however we define it, is fashionable. Anthologies of prose poetry have been coming out of this country’s woodwork at a moderate rate for the past quarter-century. Yet the genre (form?) eludes the assignment of an industry-standard definition. Russell Edson—who, as many readers of poetry know, by hook or by crook, is a prose poet—balked even at the term "form" in his 1976 Parnassus essay "The Prose Poem in America": "I hesitate to use the word form when speaking of prose poems, because for all the interesting poets who have written them, the prose poem has yet to yield up a method." Which immediately recalls Gustave Flaubert’s rule: "To seek to imitate the methods of geniuses is futile. They are geniuses for the very reason that they have no methods."

Flaubert’s countryman Charles Baudelaire is widely recognized as a (if not the) prose poem pioneer of the French language despite the earlier publication date of Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la nuit (1842). The twentieth century saw the American English prose poem gain visibility—though in his introduction to the anthology Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present in 2003, David Lehman notes Shelley’s nineteenth-century observation that "The King James Bible…was a triumph of prose as a vehicle for ‘astonishing’ [English-language] poetry." As any literate person must recognize, the writing of prose poetry certainly preceded its designation as such. Edson may be recognized as the best-known American prose poet writing today, but many other "regular" contemporary American writers of renown have written prose poems at some point: John Ashbery, Charles Simic, James Tate, Fanny Howe, Lydia Davis…and here I trail off because I know at least two of these writers would laugh at the nomenclature.

The so-called prose/verse binary interests me because Edson is one of my favorite living poets; because many contemporary critics have written about the poetics, politics, and philosophies of the apparent genre to which Edson’s writings belong; and because I have been referred to as a "young prose poet." Indeed, I have published some poems sans line breaks. But the aforementioned branding reminds me of one of Marvin Bell’s seminar koans: "How many good poems have to be in the collection for it to be a good collection?" How many prose poems must one write in order to be a prose poet?

Happily, I report the answer to these questions to be any number at all. Eliot exposed free verse as a fallacious category, essentially undifferentiable from whatever sort of verse is touted as its opposite (poetry possessing pattern, rhyme, and meter was Eliot’s best guess). Prose poetry’s differentiation from verse poetry is similarly cosmetic. A dissenter might argue that there exist line breaks in verse poetry and none in prose poetry, but I say: Poems may have relatively many line breaks or relatively few line breaks—or, in the case of some poems, no line breaks at all.


1Acocella, Joan. "Blocked." New Yorker, June 14, 2004.

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