A Tradition of Subversion: The Prose Poem in English from Wilde to Ashbery

A Tradition of Subversion: The Prose Poem in English from Wilde to Ashbery

A Tradition of Subversion: The Prose Poem in English from Wilde to Ashbery

A Tradition of Subversion: The Prose Poem in English from Wilde to Ashbery


From its inception in nineteenth-century France, the prose poem has embraced an aesthetic of shock and innovation rather than tradition and convention. In this suggestive study, Margueritte S. Murphy both explores the history of this genre in Anglo-American literature and provides a model for reading the prose poem, irrespective of language or national literature. Murphy argues that the prose poem is an inherently subversive genre, one that must perpetually undermine prosaic conventions in order to validate itself as authentically "other". At the same time, each prose poem must to some degree suggest a traditional prose genre in order to subvert it successfully. The prose poem is thus of special interest as a genre in which the traditional and the new are brought inevitably and continually into conflict. Beginning with a discussion of the French prose poem and its adoption in England by the Decadents, Murphy examines the effects of this association on later poets such as T.S. Eliot. She also explores the perception of the prose poem as an androgynous genre. Then, with a sensitivity to the sociopolitical nature of language, she draws on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin to illuminate the ideology of the genre and explore its subversive nature. The bulk of the book is devoted to insightful readings of William Carlos Williams's Kora in Hell, Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons, and John Ashbery's Three Poems. As notable examples of the American prose poem, these works demonstrate the range of this genre's radical and experimental possibilities.


Mon cher ami, je vous envoie un petit ouvrage dont on ne pourrait pas dire, sans injustice, qu'il n'a ni queue ni téte, puisque tout, au contraire y est á la fois tête et queue, alternativement et réciproquement. Considérez, je vous prie, quelles admirables commodités cette combinaison nous offre á tous, á vous, á moi et au lecteur. Nous pouvons couper oú nous voulons, moi ma réverie, vous le manuscrit, le lecteur sa lecture; car je ne suspends pas la volonté rétive de celul-ci au fil interminable d'une intrigue superflue.

Charles baudelaire,

Dedication to Arséne Houssaye, Petits poémes en prose (1862)

(My dear friend, I send you a little work of which one couldn't say, without injustice, that it has neither tail nor head, since all of it, on the contrary is at once head and tail, alternatively and reciprocally. Consider, I ask you, what an admirable convenience this combination offers us all, you, me, and the reader. We can "cut" wherever we like, I my reveries, you the manuscript, the reader his reading; because I do not hang the latter's restive will on the interminable thread of a superfluous plot.)

In nineteenth-century France, there arose a poetic genre that seemed, by definition, to take poetry as far beyond its conventional boundaries as possible. This genre, the prose poem, was a genre formed in violation of genre, a seeming hybrid, in name a contradiction in terms. the first important exponent and practitioner of the prose poem was Charles Baudelaire, although he acknowledges Aloysius Bertrand's Gaspard de la Nuit (1842) as the mystérieux et brillant modéle for his own collection, Petits poémes en prose. Baudelaire's

Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.

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