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

By Steven Monte | Go to book overview

5.
The Emergence of Prose Poetry in English

Among other things, this chapter and the next reflect on historical contingency. Why does prose poetry become an important part of the French poetic tradition by the turn of the twentieth century and yet emerge so sporadically in English? One answer, not easily bettered, is “because it did.” The happenstances of history cannot always be explained in terms of inevitabilities or even probabilities, and when faced with less than inevitable developments, we fall back on phrases like “contingent on many circumstances.” But since contingency can quickly become a catchall explanation, a metaphor for the inexplicable that does not acknowledge itself as such, it begs its own explanations in the end. If a set of historical contexts fails to account for cultural differences, one should neither halt nor infinitely defer exploring the reasons for the differences but rather, as the next chapter will argue, reexamine the comparison. In the meantime, this chapter provides some of the background necessary for a comparison between the developments of the poème en prose and the prose poem. The first half continues the history of the term “prose poem” begun in chapter 1 with “poème en prose.” The second half parallels chapter 2 in that it provides examples of prose poems and prose- poem-like works written before prose poetry gained something approaching name recognition among poets. Though oriented toward American prose poetry, the historical overviews of this chapter are not limited to American authors and works. In order to come to terms with prose poetry in America, it is necessary to refer to the French literary tradition and discuss British authors. In what follows I will do both, beginning with the usage of “prose poem.”

The earliest reference in the OED to a variant of “prose poem” occurs in a passage written by Anthony, earl of Shaftesbury in 1711:

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