The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre

The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre

The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre

The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre


The American prose poem has a rich history marked by important contributions from major writers. Michel Delville's book is the first full-length work to provide a critical and historical survey of the American prose poem from the early years of the 20th century to the 1990s.

Delville reassesses the work of established prose poets in relation to the history of modern poetry and introduces writings by some whose work in the form has so far escaped mainstream critical attention (Sherwood Anderson, Kenneth Patchen, Russell Edson). He describes the genre's European origins and the work of several early representatives of a modern tradition of the prose lyric (Charles Baudelaire, Max Jacob, Franz Kafka, and James Joyce).

By applying a broad range of theory to the history of the prose poem, Delville adds evidence to its reputation as a norm-breaking form by writing within, against, and across existing genres and traditions. He shows that the history of the contemporary prose poem is, in many respects, the record of its efforts to question both the nature of the "poetic" or "lyric" mode and the aesthetic and ideological foundations of a variety of other genres and subgenres.


In this book I offer a critical analysis of the emergence and evolution of a genre that has not yet received the attention it deserves, despite the growing interest it has generated among poets and critics in the last twenty or thirty years. It will be apparent to all who read on that the purpose of this study is not to provide an exhaustive account of the history of the American prose poem. Nor have I even attempted to cover in detail all the poets I consider to be important representatives of a consciously cultivated tradition of poetry written in prose. Given the myriad possible candidates, I have chosen to deal with a limited number of works, each of which epitomizes a crucial pattern of development in the history of the genre.

There are a number of risks involved in this project. One is that one can only deal with poets judged either representative of a certain "trend" or too idiosyncratic to be ignored. Another is that the critic's interest in a particular genre may cause the uniqueness and complexity of individual works to be lost. I have tried to guard against these dangers by grounding my analysis in a series of close readings of individual poems, on the one hand, and in a theoretical discussion of the very notion of genre on the other.

To many readers and critics, the prose poem is a piece of prose that wants to be a poem and derives at least part of its meaning from its ability to defeat our generic expectations. Seen from that angle, its subversive potential--as well as its propensity to transcend traditional distinctions between the lyric, the narrative, the critical essay, and a variety of other genres and subgenres--appears as only one example of what postmodern aesthetics diagnoses as the arbitrariness and instability of generic boundaries. The current popularity of the genre can thus be seen as resulting, at least in part, from its self-proclaimed hybridity and the ensuing sense of freedom afforded to prose poets--a feature the prose poem shares with a number of other centaurial neologisms, such as the "poetic novel," the "lyric short story," or, more recently, the paraliterary works of Barthes, Baudrillard, and Derrida. Needless to add that one of the chief merits of . . .

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