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Mutable Boundaries: on Prose Poetry

Written by

Karen Volkman
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Year

2005
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Why the prose poem should appear under the category of polemic is something of a puzzle. Perhaps its ambiguity is key– is it a form? A genre? What differentiates it from such recently coined categories as flash fiction or the short short? How can it be a poem at all, lacking that seemingly essential formal marker of poetry, the line-break?

Historically, the prose poem dates back over 150 years, to the poet Aloysius Bertrand, whose book Gaspard de la Nuit, first published in 1842, is widely recognized as its pioneering work. Arranged in a series of sections, Gaspard is composed of brief, highly imagistic prose passages, their taut sentences offering glimpses of scenes from a Dutch town as half-dreamt through paintings (the book is subtitled "Fantasies on the themes of Rembrandt and Callot"). The more grotesque passages concern a strange dwarf named Scarbo, and the book itself is attributed in its preface to a certain Gaspard of the Night, revealed to be none other than the devil. A peculiar, unclassifiable work, Gaspard set the basic formal strategies for the prose poem—terse, musical sentences, with paragraphs functioning as stanzas, and syntactic recurrence providing shape and cadence as rhyme or metrical recurrence might in a formal poem—as well as revealing its malleable, lawless quality. Poised between the genres of poetry and prose, the prose poem could also flirt with painting, history, tales of the fantastic and grotesque, and whatever matter it chose to draw into its mutable boundaries.

Though neither a popular or critical success in France, Gaspard made a deep impression on the poet Charles Baudelaire. Intrigued by Bertrand’s innovation, Baudelaire wrote a series of prose poems eventually collected under the title Spleen de Paris, which he termed "petites poemes en prose". As in Gaspard, the poems of Spleen range from the fantastic to the meditative to poems of urban life and Baudelaire’s characteristic concern with the sordid and debauched. Though not published till after the poet’s death, Spleen had a powerful impact on the generation of poets who followed, including Arthur Rimbaud and Stephane Mallarme. Among Rimbaud’s great works are the two very different prose poem series A Season in Hell—a sequence of meditative, fantastic confessions—and Illuminations—brief, dense, and dream-like near-visions. These two works alone reveal an extraordinary range of possibilities for a form mere decades old.

The prose poem would be taken up with renewed vigor by the Surrealist poets of the early 20th century, inspired by Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and the rediscovered dark writings of Isidore Ducasse, who wrote as the Comte de Lautreamont. Embraced by many of its greatest poets, the prose poem formed an important part of the canon of French poetry, and spread to other European writers through their influence. So why is the form, in its American counterpart, still viewed as aberrant by many readers of American poetry? The answer most likely falls under this very question of canon formation. Unlike the great French nineteenth century innovators, who extended and transformed poetic possibilities for their literary inheritors, our radical poets of the nineteenth century, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, didn’t gravitate toward the prose poem; their formal inventions occurred through radical remaking of the poetic line. With the singular exception of Gertrude Stein, who worked extensively in prose poetry, our Modernist innovators also broke new ground primarily within verse and line, however exploded and fragmented those concepts may have become for them. It was not until the post-War period, over a hundred years after its French debut, that the prose poem was actively taken up by American poets; in the American tradition of innovation, it’s a latecomer, with its first great boom occurring in the seventies. This may explain its continued status as shady and suspect to the mainstream poetry world—some of the form’s primary proponents are experimental poets such as Ron Silliman, whose The New Sentence articulated the prose poem’s goals in Marxist terms, and Rosmarie Waldrop, who recently coined the term "gap-gardening"to describe the disjunctive moment between prose sentences as provoking the kind of leap or turn a line-break would in a lineated poem.

Though slow to arrive and gain acceptance, the American prose poem is finally flourishing—the very ambiguity which gives rise to the perplexing, ultimately unanswerable questions about its nature also provided a fertile field of creative inquiry for a range of current writers. Major poets such as John Ashbery, Lyn Hejinian, Charles Simic, and James Tate have done important work in the form, with younger poets such as Thalia Field, Harryette Mullen, and Elizabeth Willis extending the structural and tonal range. The prose poem has also been the focus of a number of anthologies: twenty years after Michael Benedict’s important The Prose Poem: An International Anthology (1976) came Stuart Friebert and David Young’s Models of the Universe (1995), followed a few years later by Peter Johnson’s selection of work from his long-running journal, And just in 2003, two anthologies, David Lehman’s Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present and Ray Gonzalez’ 24 American Prose Poets presented a broad range of work. Several journals devoted to the form are alive and well, with two, Cue and Sentence, beginning publication within the last two years. While still a trickster of a form, full of leaps and wiles, the prose poem seems poised to take its place as part of an ever-evolving American poetics.

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