The Idea of an American Prose Poem, Take Two
Constructing a history of American prose poetry from a late-twentieth- century perspective, it might seem natural to give prominence to Stein and Williams in the same way that it seems natural to think of Bertrand and Baudelaire as the first prose poets in France. After all, Tender Buttons and Kora in Hell are two of the very few collections of modernist poetry written entirely in prose, Stein and Williams have become fairly famous, and like Bertrand and Baudelaire, Stein and Williams arguably mark a break with most of the poetry in prose written before them. In comparison with the prose poems of Tagore, Wilde, and Lazarus, Tender Buttons and Kora in Hell seem almost antipoetic. They refuse or use ironically such “high lyric” gestures as addresses to inanimate objects, employ American slang and diction not found in most poems before them, and undermine whatever allegories they inadvertently or purposely elicit. Perhaps most tellingly, the authors themselves thought of their work as something new. Stein presented Tender Buttons as experimental and commented on her techniques in several lectures, while Williams's preface to Kora in Hell distances his “improvisations” from French prose poems and contemporary American poetry.
But such a construction of literary history would be just that, a construction. Whatever value the literary-historical frame possesses lies in the perspective it brings to works like Tender Buttons, Kora in Hell, and the prose poems that come after them. Stein's and Williams's collections are best evaluated in light of other works they wrote and against the backdrop of the period's formal experimentation. Both writers were intensely interested in exploring the boundaries of prose and poetry and deeply concerned with Americanness in literature. In this context, the phrase “American prose poetry” may be more or less inevitable, but the generic label is in the end too generic. Like Bertrand