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

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

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

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

Synopsis

For all its recent popularity among poets and critics, prose poetry continues to raise more questions than it answers. How have prose poems been identified as such, and why have similar works been excluded from the genre? What happens when we read a work as a prose poem? How have prose genres such as the novel affected prose poetry and modern poetry in general? In Invisible Fences Steven Monte places prose poetry in historical and theoretical perspective by comparing its development in the French and American literary traditions. In spite of its apparent formal freedom, prose poetry is constrained by specific historical circumstances and is constantly engaged in border disputes with neighboring prose and poetic genres.

Monte illuminates these constraints through an examination of works that have influenced the development of the prose poem as well as through a discussion of genre theory and detailed readings of poems ranging from Charles Baudelaire's "La Solitude" to John Ashbery's "The System." Monte explores the ways in which literary-historical narratives affect interpretation: why, for example, prose poetry tends to be seen as a revolutionary genre and how this perspective influences readings of individual works. The American poets he discusses include Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and Ashbery; the French poets range from Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stephane Mallarmé to Max Jacob. In exploring prose poetry as a genre, Invisible Fences offers new perspectives not only on modern poetry, but also on genre itself, challenging current theories of genre with a test case that asks for yet eludes definition.

Excerpt

I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. and next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way. —John Ashbery, Three Poems

By now every critic knows how to introduce his or her work: with an apology for what could not be taken into consideration. Even in an age that looks with suspicion on the comprehensive treatment, with all of its diagnostic, medicinal, and positivistic connotations, most of us still feel the need to excuse ourselves for our lack of it. What I have to say here is no exception to this rule. in its most general trajectory, my work places prose poetry in historical and theoretical perspective by comparing the form's development in French and American literature. Needless to say, I discuss only a tiny fraction of the prose poetry of the two literatures, but an international comparison is crucial to the sorts of claims I make about how generic and literary-historical frameworks influence readings of individual works. With regard to literary history, for example, a comparative study helps one avoid reading a given author or poem from within a single narrative of development. and comparing prose poems written in different times and places forces one to be more circumspect about describing what constitutes prose poetry as a literary kind.

From the moment I began working on Invisible Fences, I have been repeatedly asked two related questions: “What is prose poetry?” and “Is X— the questioner's pet text—a prose poem?” I do not attempt a direct answer to either of these questions anywhere in my discussion. This may strike the reader as odd; for me, it is the frequency with which I have been asked the questions that is significant. Rephrasing my aims from a skeptical perspective may help here: understanding prose poetry as a genre means exploring the interpretive consequences of reading what has been called the poème en . . .

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