Invisible Fences: Prose Poetry as a Genre in French and American Literature

By Steven Monte | Go to book overview
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2.
A Wide Field of Prose Possibilities

The haze surrounding the origins of prose poetry is typical of that surrounding any genre or simple abstraction. Whether due to some postmodern condition or a critical environment that calls attention to the untidiness of life, indeterminacy has become the expected result rather than the exception with inquiries into origins. From a pragmatic point of view, indeterminacy is not so much a source of frustration or exhilaration as it is a call to shift interpretive efforts elsewhere. For if literary kinds exist only in relation to other kinds, understanding prose poetry as a genre necessarily involves establishing the field of generic possibilities from which it emerges and in which it continues to exist. Such a project is open-ended and potentially encyclopedic in scope. For purposes of interpretation, however, an examination of even a dozen or so genres that relate to the prose poem, if only as counterexamples, provides much of the necessary literary-historical context. In this chapter, I discuss various classes of prose works from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in an attempt to delineate some of the shifting and indefinite boundaries of prose poetry in the period. To resist a linear narrative of events, I do not exclusively examine works that influenced later prose poetry, although I frequently make comparisons to Baudelaire's prose poems. A knowledge of the roads not taken by the poème en prose is important not only in determining which roads and which byways prose poetry did take but also in clearing up some matters of reception—among other things, how novel or revolutionary prose poems would have seemed to contemporary readers.

As with attestations of the term “poème en prose, finding examples of poems in prose that predate Baudelaire's Petits Poëmes en prose is relatively easy. Suzanne Bernard and John Simon have in fact shown in some detail that there

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