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