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

By Steven Monte | Go to book overview

1.
Origins of the Prose Poem and Theories of Genre

Who among us, in his ambitious days, hasn't dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose? —Baudelaire, dedicatory letter to Arsène Houssaye

Prose poetry may be a relatively recent literary phenomenon, but the idea of poetry in prose is not new. 1 The term “poème en prose” dates from at least the beginning of the eighteenth century, where it gained currency in a debate over the genre of Fénelon's Télémaque (1699). 2 Near the end of the first part of Don Quixote (1605), Cervantes has the canon remark to the curate, “the epic may be written in prose as well as verse.” 3 The conversation between the curate and the canon is itself an allusion to and commentary on another debate—the Tasso-Ariosto controversy of the late sixteenth century—and that debate, like the later dispute over the genre of Télémaque, is a variation on the theme of ancients versus moderns, a quarrel that, in one form or another, goes at least as far back as the arguments concerning the use of the vernacular in fourteenth- century Italy. More and less ambiguous references to poetry in prose appear in works pertaining to each of these literary controversies, and the possibility of the poème en prose is arguably implicit in even earlier critical writings, such as Longinus's On the Sublime, where literature is evaluated more by the impact it produces on the reader than by formal criteria. In fact (but isn't this always the case with histories of ideas?), one can trace the notion of poetry in prose to a passage or two in Aristotle if one chooses to do so. 4

The eighteenth-century poème en prose—to say nothing of its more remote ancestors—is admittedly very different from the modern literary kind, but it would be a mistake to consider the prose poem's early incarnations and the first usages of the term as unrelated to what followed. The mere fact that some version of the prose poem came into being during the querelle des anciens et des modernes is significant: perhaps the most persistent claim

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

Table of contents

  • Invisible Fences - Prose Poetry as a Genre in French and American Literature *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgments *
  • Note on Terminology *
  • Introduction *
  • 1. - Origins of the Prose Poem and Theories of Genre *
  • 2. - A Wide Field of Prose Possibilities *
  • 3. - Poetry in a Prosaic World *
  • 4. - The Makings of a Genre *
  • 5. - The Emergence of Prose Poetry in English *
  • 6. - The Idea of an American Prose Poem, Take One *
  • 7. - The Idea of an American Prose Poem, Take Two *
  • 8. - Negative Dialectics *
  • Conclusion *
  • Notes *
  • Bibliography *
  • Index *
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