The Makings of a Genre
If Baudelaire was somewhat tentative about writing poetry in prose, the generations of poets that followed him were not. Mallarmé was already writing and publishing his first prose poems in the 1860s, before Baudelaire's death. Lautréamont wrote his prose poems in the late 1860s; Rimbaud in the early 1870s. In different journals of the period one can find quite a few works that are arguably poems in prose, some labeled as such and some not. By the mid 1880s, as Suzanne Bernard has shown, the name if not the genre “poème en prose” had established itself in France: from the last decades of the nineteenth to the first decade of the twentieth century, there was a proliferation not only of collections of prose poems, but also of critical discussions of the poème en prose and related experiments in verse and prose forms. 1 When Max Jacob wrote his celebrated preface to Le Cornet à dés (The Dice Cup, 1917), a substantial tradition of prose poetry existed in France with and against which poets could align themselves.
Some of the appeal of the poème en prose in late nineteenth-century France can be attributed to the period's prevailing aesthetic climate. As a self- consciously modern form, the prose poem fit in well with one of Baudelaire's most important legacies, the artistic imperative to be modern. In an age in which music, in particular the synthesis of different media associated with Wagner, represented an ideal of expression, a generically mixed form that called into question boundaries between genres was bound to find its adherents. 2 To decadents like Des Esseintes, the hero of Huysmans's À Rebours (Against Nature, 1884), the prose poem represented the “ozmazome” of literature: a novel concentrated in a few pages, “a delectation offered to delicate people, accessible only to them, ” the essence of an age in decline comparable to the Roman empire before the barbarian invasions. 3 Add a