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FREEDOM TO BREATHE: MODERN PROSE POEMS FROM BAUDELAIRE TO PINTER, edited by Geoffrey Godbert, 130pp, £11.95, Stride

 Freedom to Breathe is an anthology overview and reference source-book of the prose poem, comprising numerous examples introduced and selected by Geoffrey Godbert.

     The anthology itself, a companion volume to Stride’s A Curious Architecture (1996), is preceded by an introduction discussing continuities and links between key prose poets and their precursors. These include nineteenth century Romantic exponents of ‘poetic prose’ such as Hugo and De Quincey and the Romantic-Symbolist tradition of Nerval, Poe, Baudelaire and their successors. There is also consideration of more recent, twentieth century American writers such as E. E. Cummings and Jack Kerouac. The anthology itself consists of over eighty individual pieces, selected from the works of thirty authors. The texts are organised in chronological order, from Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la Nuit of 1842 (written circa 1830) to Harold Pinter’s Various Voices of 1998. We are thus presented with the historical development of the modern prose poem from its earliest beginnings to the present day.

     Of the thirty authors included, eleven represent French literature from Betrand to Char via Max Jacob and Michaux. There are eight Americans, including Whitman, Djuna Barnes, Cummings and Gertrude Stein. We have three representatives of Russian literature (Turgenev, Bely and Solzhenitzyn) and two Irish (Synge and James Joyce). The remainder of the collection comprise two English writers and a loose group of what might be termed, for the sake of convenience, ‘other Europeans’: Rilke, self-styled ‘Futurist Aeropoet’ F. T. Marinetti, George Seferis and Tristan Tzara. It is perhaps indicative of a cultural question arising from, or posed by, this anthology that only Virginia Woolf and Harold Pinter represent English literature. Judging by this geographical distribution we are lead to the conclusion that the prose poem (however defined) is essentially a French and American phenomenon, with – in this collection – the French outnumbering the Americans by eleven to eight.

     Geoffrey Godbert’s ‘Introduction’ provides an outline sketch of developmental factors and various theoretical issues. He begins by reviewing some dictionary definitions and highlighting the distinction between ‘poetical prose’ and the ‘prose poem’. For example P. Mansell Jones in Modern French Poetry argues that ‘the distance between poetical prose and the prose poem is one of degree rather than kind…’, whereas The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms differentiates between the prose poem proper as a ‘self-contained work usually similar to a lyric’, and the intermittent occurrence of ‘poetic prose’ passages in longer prose works. He then moves on to discuss the origins of the prose poem, restating the familiar link between Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris and Bertrand’s Romantic, pictorial prose-ballads (‘little ballads in prose’ as Sainte-Beuve described them at the time). Godbert follows Mansell Jones in pointing to the ‘impassioned prose’ of Thomas De Quincey, with its charged close-textured musicality, as an immediate forerunner. Subsequent developments are discussed with reference to Max Jacob’s critical comments on some of his predecessors in the French tradition, including Lautreamont, Rimbaud and Mallarme.

     Outside the nineteenth century French lineage, some passing attention is paid to Edgar Allan Poe, whose Eureka: A Prose Poem of 1848 is quoted at length. The Introduction then moves on to mention ‘twentieth century guises’ of the form, briefly looking at the ‘epiphanies’ of James Joyce, the ‘condensed prose’ of E. E. Cummings and Jack Kerouac’s jazz-inspired theory of ‘spontaneous prose’. The conclusion leaves us with W.B Yeats’s thoughts on Walter Pater’s aesthetic evocation of Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’. Yeats transposed this prose text into vers libre for the Oxford Book of Modern Verse inspired by the possibility of a poem that ‘could arise out of its own rhythm’.

     Historically, the modern prose poem as a distinct form, or genre, emerged in the mid-nineteenth century as part of the transition from Late Romanticism to Post-Romantic early Modernism. This was the same process of cultural change that produced Impressionism in painting and vers libre in poetry, culminating in Abstract Art, Dada, and a progressive deconstruction of the continuous prose narrative as fictive discourse. The transformation of prose fiction paralleled and overlapped with the evolutionary development of prose poetry throughout the period covered by Freedom the Breathe – roughly from 1830 to 1964. Thus, Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves (1931) has been described (by Stephen Spender) as a prose poem.

     Derived from obscure, multi-factorial origins in the prose translations of foreign poetry, ‘Biblical’ prose, and verse-to-prose transmutations of pre-existing lyrics, the form was pioneered by Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841), Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883), Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). Although Baudelaire was the youngest of this group, it is generally acknowledged that his collection of fifty pieces, Le Spleen de Paris (Petits Poemes en Prose) is the most distinguished example of early Post-Romantic prose poetry.

     Written in the late 1850s ands early 1860s, Le Spleen de Paris predated both Turgenev and Whitman, whose collections did not appear until the 1880s, and, to a great extent, defines the ‘modern’ prose poem as we now know it. It is a point of literary history that Baudelaire had published at least two ‘prose poems’ before this, transcriptions of pre-existing verses. Furthermore he did not apply any method devised by Aloysius Bertrand for Gaspard de la Nuit. As can be seen from the examples included in this anthology, Bertrand tried to create a formal prose-paragraph, strophic stanza structure for his cycle, but in fact abandoned the method in the midst of composition. Baudelaire made no attempt to use this technique. In a letter dated 1852 the critic Jules A. Barbey d’Aurevilly referred to prose poems as ‘intermediate creations’, in emulation of prose translations. The more ‘experimental’ avant-garde possibilities of the form was further developed by Arthur Rimbaud, in his Illuminations and Une Saison en Enfer (both represented here) in the 1870s.

     The Introduction to Freedom to Breathe draws attention to the continuing difficulty in defining the ‘prose poem’ as such. This is because of two factors. Firstly the loose use of the term in different contexts, for example, in his introduction to the 1908 Everyman edition of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination Padriac Colum stated that ‘‘Ligeia’ is less a tale than a prose poem; it is a reverie, a meditation…’. This raises the issue of the difference between the ‘tale’ as a form of narrative (or a certain kind of tale, as distinct from the short story) and the prose poem.

     Colum, following the French critic Ferdinand Brunetiere (1849-1906), categorised the ‘tale’ as a marginal narrative dealing with exceptional phenomena. Like the closely allied ‘intermediate’ form of the prose poem, of which it is one of the literary progenitors, the ‘tale’ may well exclude the exposition of mundane facts or other social detail. Tales should only deal with ‘things that happen on the margin’, or ‘out of the border of existence’, they can be ‘reveries’, experienced at the further reaches of sanity or on the frontiers of the unconscious. The indeterminate and self-contradictory nature of the short prose poem, as a modern literary form (including the requirements of brevity and compression) reflects retrospectively back to the enigmatic world of the ‘tale of mystery’ and ‘atmosphere’. The primeval world of parables and fables connects with Modernism via Poe’s The Poetic Principle (1850, translated into French by Baudelaire), a statement of method that disparaged didacticism and demanded brevity as the one of the chief criteria of pure poetry.

     Further, in stricter usage it is possible to usefully distinguish between two sub-forms or variations on the prose poem as a literary category. It is possible to speak of the ‘short prose poem’, in the manner of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, and the ‘extended prose poem’, in the manner (perhaps) of Lautreamont’s Maldoror, or a later work like Breton and Soupault’s Magnetic Fields (1919). It might seem that the extended prose poem blurs the boundary between the self-contained, lyrical poetic ‘piece’ and the closely related idea of ‘poetical prose’ or even the ‘lyrical novel’. In the Post-Modern era prose poems and extended prose poems also arise from the hybridisation of factual (or pseudo-factual) prose narratives and poetry. This, one of the most recent developments in the genre, can be seen in the work of J.L. Borges, or Lud Heat (1974-1975) by Iain Sinclair, an elaborate, composite text combining quasi-documentary prose passages, open field strophic lyrics and the occasional carmen figuratum in one extended work.

     This blurring of boundaries is further complicated by the widespread practice of organising prose poems into cycles, sets or sequences exemplified by Rimbaud’s Illuminations, Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris and Betrand’s Gaspard. There are numerous later examples of prose poetry conforming to this overall pattern of sequential clustering or structuring, for instance: Proust’s Regrets, Reveries and Changing Skies (1896), Kandinsky’s Sounds (1910-1912), the Fantastic Prayers (1916) of Richard Huelsenbeck, Samuel Beckett’s Texts For Nothing (1945-1950) and the three sequences grouped under the title Eagle or Sun? (1949-1950) by Octavio Paz. The brevity of individual prose poems often needs to be offset by the overall, cumulative effect of such sequential or cyclic meta-structures.

     Closer analysis of classificatory possibilities illustrates a further source of confusion, namely the existence of numerous micro-forms and idiosyncratic sub-categorisations within the genre. One might mention the following intriguing sub-variants on the idea of the prose poem: the ‘verse-into-prose transposition’, the ‘reverie’, the ‘meditation’, the ‘mood piece’, the ‘sketch’, the ‘vignette’ and others – all of some interest – for instance the ‘poetical (or lyrical) essay’, the parable, the fable and the much-maligned ‘purple passage’.

     Another level of confusion arises from the tendency of many individual authors to coin their own personal jargon terms. These would include ‘dream fugue’ (Thomas De Quincey),‘epiphanies’ (James Joyce), ‘routines’ (William Burroughs), ‘poems in the rough’ (Paul Valery), ‘condensed prose’ (E. E. Cummings), ‘residua’, ‘fizzles’ or foirades (Samuel Beckett), siloquies (Alfred Jarry), and the use of the term ‘fragment’ by various authors, including Jorge Luis Borges.

     If one adheres to the idea that a ‘prose poem’ is primarily a short, self-contained piece in an evocative, lyrical, rhapsodic style then a number of works usually categorised as ‘short stories’ or ‘tales’ can be included within the genre. An interesting offshoot of these developments in the nineteenth century was the furtherance of the form within popular modes such as Gothic and Fantasy. Like the highbrow, avant-garde, poem in prose, the popular form can be traced back to the ‘tales’ of Edgar Allan Poe. Although Poe himself used the term as sub-title for his poetic, cosmological essay ‘Eureka’, the popular version of the prose poem (or ‘mood piece’) can actually be traced to some of his other short prose narratives such as ‘Shadow – A Parable’, ‘Silence – A Fable’, or ‘The Island of the Fay’. Later exponents of this kind of atmospheric prose-poem-cum-tale include W. B. Yeats (The Celtic Twilight), Kafka (Description of Struggle and Other Stories) and Lord Dunsany, whose Gods of Pegana (1905) inspired the more fantastical, poetic micro-narratives of H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith during the period 1919-1939. Significantly, Lovecraft’s ‘Hypnos’ (1922) incorporates a quote from Baudelaire as an epigraph.

An extract from The Waves (1931) by Virginia Woolf is included in this anthology, presumably as an example of English modernist lyrical fiction: as mentioned earlier, it is noticeable that, if the Irish are excluded from the discussion, British – one should say English – authors are noticeable by their absence. Nevertheless, The Waves exemplifies the tangential relationship between extended narrative prose fiction and prose poetry.

     It is easy to agree with Mansell Jones that, in the modern era, there is a theoretical spectrum of literary experimentation and the prose poem and the extended prose fiction narrative (including its mutations) occupy different points of reference on the same spectrum of possibility. This is apparent from Virginia Woolf’s own comments, as recorded in her critical essay ‘Modern Fiction’ (circa 1919) and other notes, where she observed that her objective was to get away from ‘facts’, to produce work that was ‘free yet concentrated; prose yet poetry…’. Woolf was partly influenced by Henry James, whose later novels – for example The Golden Bowl (1905) – also provide instances of extended ‘poetic prose’ narrative, in her reaction against the ‘materialist’ approach of contemporary mainstream Edwardian novelists like Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy.

     Virginia Woolf’s alternative to the plodding, orthodox ‘and-then-and-then’ linearity of conventional fiction was her own style of concentrated prose. She developed a form of Post-Aesthetic ‘Impressionist’ lyricism by which the writer sought to capture the ‘myriad impressions’, trivial, fantastic, evanescent ‘or engraved with the sharpness of steel’ that, to her perception, surrounded her life like a ‘luminous halo, a semi transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end…’. Her psychophysical aesthetic theory tended to focus on ‘the moment’ that emerges from the phenomenon of ‘atoms shaping themselves’, on the intensity of present experience; on the necessity of creating a two-way membrane between the inner and the outer worlds.

     One is reminded, reading Woolf’s rhapsodic descriptions of her literary objectives that her mode of Modernism is in fact an extension of Romanticism in its most rarefied and attenuated form, of the primal urge to extend the frontiers of expression.

It was Novalis who said in 1798:


‘to romanticise is nothing other than an exponential heightening…’


This theme, or imperative, of ‘exponential heightening’ is intrinsic to early twentieth century Modernist writing practice, from Joyce and his ‘epiphanies’ to the syntactical distortions and compressions of E. E. Cummings and the Surrealists’ cult of Convulsive Beauty. It is common to both the pure poetry of Mallarme and Paul Valery and the Aesthetic texts of Walter Pater which had such an influence on the ‘Nineties ‘tragic generation’ of poets, including Oscar Wilde and W.B Yeats. It is the origination of a progressive deconstruction of the novel that culminated in such works as Burrough’s Interzone fictional ‘language mosaics’ (1953-1958) or earlier, in E. E. Cummings’ A Book Without a Title (1929-1930) and other of his prose experiments, some examples of which are included here. In 1944 Cyril Connolly observed ‘Flaubert, Henry James, Proust, Joyce and Virginia Woolf have finished off the novel. Now all will have to be re-invented as from the beginning.’

     One of the earliest advocates of the prose poem was the novelist J-K Huysmans who wrote in Against Nature (1884):


‘Of all literary forms, the prose poem was the one which Des Esseintes preferred. In the hands of an alchemist of genius, it should, he believed, contain within its small compass…the power of the novel, while eliminating its tedious analyses and superfluous descriptions…conceived thus, and thus condensed into one or two pages, the novel would become a communion of thought between a magical writer and an ideal reader, a spiritual collaboration of a handful of superior beings scattered through the universe…’


Huysmans describes an imaginary anthology of prose poetry in his hero’s library.

The contents comprised some works included in Freedom to Breathe, specifically the Mallarme pieces ‘Le Demon de l’analogie’ and ‘Pauvre Enfant pale’. Other items in this ideal collection are selections from Betrand’s Gaspard (‘that strange Aloysius Bertrand who transposed Leonardo da Vinci’s methods to prose…’), Vox Populi, a short story by Villiers de l’Isle Adam, and extracts from the Livre de Jade by Judith Gautier. There are five other pieces by Mallarme hailed as ‘among the masterpieces of prose poems’. Mallarme’s elliptical pieces set the pattern for most subsequent ‘pure’ prose poetry until the period of High Modernism in the nineteen twenties. But Huysmans’ selection also highlights the overlap between the prose poem proper and the fictional narrative, be it ‘short story’ or ‘tale’.

     The guiding principle behind the aesthetic philosophy of Against Nature was the Poesque requirement for an ‘aura of strangeness’ – a ‘decadent’ use of language ‘hinting at depths of the soul which no words could satisfy…’. The ecriture artiste of the Aesthetes and Decadents disclosed a ‘disturbing ambivalence’, and ‘complex deliquescences of language’. For Huysmans the prime exponents of this bizarre linguistic adventure were the Brothers Goncourt and Gustave Flaubert, the Flaubert of Salammbo (1862) and The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), those verbal equivalents to the encrusted paintings of Gustave Moreau. The modern quasi-myth of a ‘deliquescence of language’ is simultaneously a continuing manifestation of the ‘exponential heightening’ described by Novalis and one of the early phases of the Modern/Post-Modern literary enterprise.

     It is apparent that the ambiguous and marginal status of prose poetry provided one of the key focal points for an early fusion, on the theoretical plane at least, of extended fictional prose narrative with the techniques of lyric poetry. The emergence of vers libre was to make the distinction between ‘prose’ and ‘verse’ even more elusive and indefinite by the end of the nineteenth century. This is demonstrated by some of the American examples in the present anthology, for example Elizabeth Smart’s ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept’, Agee’s ‘Knoxville: Summer 1915’or the pieces by Djuna Barnes.

     It was Rimbaud who said ‘Inventions of the unknown require new forms.’ And it was Rimbaud who, with his cycle of forty-two short prose poems Les Illuminations (c.1873-1874) extended the possibilities sketched out by Baudelaire in his letter to Arsene Houssaye. Of all the examples in Freedom to Breathe the work of Rimbaud has probably been the most influential. Les Illuminations was a turning point, a transitional work, a radical shift away from the last vestiges of poetic formalism (many of these texts can be shown to incorporate techniques of vers libre) to an organicist spontaneity dependent upon nothing but the cumulative effect of vivid, often obscure, images. The imagery of Les Illuminations is a direct outcome of the application of the formula of ‘systematic sensory derangement’ as outlined in the letter quoted by Geoffrey Godbert in his Introduction; transpositions of real-life scenes subjected to radical aestheticisation; zutiste anarchism applied to the rarefied world of literature. As Rimbaud’s biographer Graham Robb explains: ‘when the depiction exactly matched the appearance, reality itself was surreal.’ It is thought that many of the urban scenes used in Les Illuminations derive from Rimbaud’s stay in London, then the largest city in the world and more industrialised than Paris.

On the thematic plane Rimbaud’s poetry embodied an obsessive fixation with issues of identity and liberation – sub-themes of revolt, mad love, mystical rebirth and disillusion – that continued to exert a fascination well into the twentieth century. The pieces included here (‘Flowers’, ‘Being Beauteous’, ‘Mystic’ and ‘Morning of Drunkenness’) all derive from the semi-mystical aspect of Rimbaud’s work and do not give an idea of the diversity of Les Illuminations. Rimbaud’s influence, together with that of Antonin Artaud, permeated Pop Culture and can be found at work in such recent texts as The Lords: Notes on Vision (1971) by Jim Morrison, and Patti Smith’s 1978 hybrid volume of extended prose poetry sequences and Beat style free verse, Babel.

     The examples from Rimbaud included here illustrate two opposing tendencies within the prose poetry genre. Firstly, a tendency toward extreme compression and minimalist condensation (the ‘short prose poem’ as defined by Baudelaire and continued by Mallarme) and, secondly, a counter-tendency towards more fragmented and, perhaps, more complex, longer textual forms (versions of what might be called the ‘extended prose poem’ and its hybrid offspring).

     The latter tendency can be traced to Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) a sequence of eight proto-expressionistic psychic testimonies, preceded by an introductory preface. The section  ‘Ravings II: Alchemy of the Word’, a small part of which is included here, has served as an emblematic touchstone of radical poetic practice, a step on the path towards both Surrealism and poetic abstraction.

The true inheritors of Rimbaud’s innovations were the Dadaists and the Surrealists, and, partly resulting from Surrealist influence in the USA during and after the Second World War, subsequent generations of Anglo-American Beat and Pop poets. For example the list of inspirational source objects, including such items as ‘absurd pictures’, ‘inn-signs’, ‘cheap coloured prints’, ‘pornographic books…empty refrains, simple rhythms’, can correctly be understood as a prefiguring the kind of street level, anti-highbrow, Sub-Modernist ‘trash aesthetic’ associated with more recent art movements. One thinks of Nouveau Realisme (Niki de Saint Phalle, Arman), Pop Art (Peter Blake, Hamilton, Warhol, Koons) or even Punk (Patti Smith): Rimbaud plus Dada equals Pop.

     Rimbaud’s ‘verbal alchemy’, the idea of a new ‘poetic language accessible, some day to all the senses’, a poetry of ‘instinctive rhythms’, of vowel-colours and of rules for the ‘form and movement’ of consonants, prefigured the ultra-Modernist New Art aesthetic of the early twentieth century. This was the period of the Simultaneists and Cubo-Futurists manifest in the poetry of Apollinaire, Reverdy, Max Jacob and Blaise Cendrars. Interpreted by many as continuing a form of ‘impressionism’, experimental poets from this era are represented here by Marinetti, E. E. Cummings, Gertrude Stein, Perse, Fargue and Max Jacob. One of the classic texts of this phase of literary history is Stein’s Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms (1911).

     Stein’s work in general, and Tender Buttons in particular, has been hailed in recent times as a precursor of ‘language-centred poetry’, although this appropriation has also been criticised as a misreading of Stein’s intentions.

     Her portrait piece ‘Picasso’, an attempt to render in prose the effect of the Cubist space-time continuum using the technique of accumulating ‘repetition-with-variation’, also dates from this time, but shows a different technique from the ‘still life’ prose poems of Tender Buttons.

     In his essay ‘The New Art’ (1915) E. E. Cummings said of Gertrude Stein ‘Her art is the logic of literary sound painting carried to its extreme.’ It is intriguing to see how, writing so close to the New York Armory Show of 1913 (that great point of transition in American Modernism) Cummings’ main point of reference was Marcel Duchamp’s painting ‘Nude Descending Staircase’. He explained that Stein’s method of ‘subordinating the meaning of words to the beauty of words themselves’ takes ‘impressionism’ to its logical conclusion. ‘Impressionist tendencies are reduced to absurdity’, he said, ‘Here we see traces of realism, similar to those which made the ‘Nude Descending Staircase’ so baffling…’

     In contrast, Gertrude Stein herself defined her technique as ‘looking at anything until something that was not the name of that thing but was in a way that actual thing would come to be written…’. Her use of language in relation to her actual ‘subject’ was so subordinated to private perceptions of metaphorical similarity as to be rendered inscrutable. The loss of conventional syntactical rules and the perceived esoteric idiosyncrasy of the analogical modus operandi in Stein’s work (and other poetry of the period) created an overall effect of ‘contextual deficiency’, an effect that has come for many to signify the very essence of Modernism. The gulf between the normative artistic mainstream and the radical avant-garde suddenly became very apparent; the general readership became increasingly dissociated from both the practice and consumption of ‘modern poetry’. A problem, if problem it is, that is still with us.

     There is a fundamental interrelationship between historical literary movements or cultural tendencies and aesthetic forms. Poets and artists often traverse different movements and theoretical affiliations, exploring diverse forms and genres, either sequentially (the diachronic) or simultaneously (the synchronic), in a dynamic process that is acted upon, and acts upon, the prevailing cultural ‘era’ or weltenschauung. In this context the artist evolves his or her own individual path of progression.

The ‘prose poets’ of this anthology are a representative cross-section (with some omissions) that charts the continuing paradigmatic mutation of modern prose poetry; its emergence from late Romanticism and Gothic (Poe, Bertrand, Baudelaire) and its revitalisation in the Ultra-Modernist Cubo-Futurist Simultaneism of the early twentieth century (Marinetti, Cummings, Stein). It has been a cumulative experience of rejection as well as innovation. Rejection of conventional narrative modes and traditional poetic forms, or rejection of previously understood normative social roles. For example, Baudelaire not only celebrated the ‘heroism of modern life’ in his prose poems (the new urban order of the modern city, both magical and sordid) but was also among the first to recognise the de-classed, disestablished position of the modern poet, the Post-Romantic retreat from a public role.

     The consequent abandonment of the classical Aristotlean mode of cultural high seriousness embodied in epic and tragedy is one of the key factors in the emergence of ‘intermediate’ literary forms such as the prose poem. In Le Spleen de Paris and Les Fleurs du Mal it is the estranged, the unacknowledged and the rejected, the uncanny shadow-side of desire, that provides the foundational basis for ‘modernity’ and, after the 1870s (after Rimbaud, after Impressionism), for Modernism itself. Poetic prose is the ideal medium for the expressing our new, emerging universe of indeterminacy, dimly foreshadowed in the 1850s.

     Even though this anthology takes its title from a piece by near contemporary Alexander Solzhenitsyn, his prose poems seem uninspired, even banal and sentimental, compared to earlier work by the Ultra-Modernists, or the Russian Symbolist Andrei Bely. In Bely’s work as a whole can be detected many strands of modernist innovation and radical change, not only in prose poems such as ‘The Dramatic Symphony – Part One’, included here, but also in his ‘Cubist’ novel Petersberg (1913) and in his prescient theories of language. Immersed in Russian neo-gnostic, messianic ‘occultism’ and the Anthroposphical doctrines of Rudolf Steiner, Bely based his poetic practice on a language-centred theoretical system, both an anticipation of recent linguistic philosophies and a resurgence of primeval, animistic conceptions of the mythical ‘word’ and the symbolic power of names.’

     ‘Language’, he wrote, ‘is the most powerful instrument of creation…if words did not exist, the world would not exist either…’.

     In these and other statements from a lecture given in 1909, Bely shows how late twentieth century tendencies towards a language-centred epistemology are rooted in ancient conceptions of the world, perhaps the most primeval conceptions of the word-world. Literary Post-Modernism is an intensification of, and an extension of, Post-Romantic Modernism, even if cloaked in the jargon of Speech Act Theory.

The period of High Modernism lasted until approximately the mid nineteen twenties when it was superseded by Surrealism which developed out of the Dada anti-art movement in the years immediately following the First World War. In this anthology there are three authors who can be said to have worked, for a time at least, within the Dada-Surrealist orbit – Tristan Tzara (one of the founders of original Zurich Dada), Rene Char and the celebrated co-founder of the negritude black consciousness movement, Aime Cesaire. Cesaire’s revolutionary, Surrealist, anti-colonialism is apparent in the extract from his long prose poem ‘Return to My Native Land’ (1939) included here. Andre Breton met Cesaire in his native Martinique in 1941 and claimed that this extended poetical text was ‘nothing less than the greatest lyrical monument of our times’. ‘Return to my Native Land’ is without doubt an uncompromising statement and displays a creative dynamism absent from many of the other later prose poems gathered in this volume, with the exception of the piece called ‘Njinski’ by George Sefiris.

     Notwithstanding apparently diversionary counter-tendencies, such as the retrograde, traditionalist Classicism of, say, Hulme and Eliot, the evolution of poetic practice in the modern cultural era has charted a continuous path from Romanticism via Naturalism, Symbolism, Expressionism and High Modernism to the current ‘Post-Modern’ epoch. This, our present context – a continuation of previous tendencies, not any kind of rupture with past practice – finds some, but not all, of its immediate origins in the post-war era. For instance: Burroughs and the Beats; ‘late modernists’ such as Beckett; marginal fantasists; the inheritors of Dada & Surrealism; the films of Jean-Luc Godard and others. But this more recent phase of literary experimentation is largely under-represented in Freedom to Breathe.

     From the developmental point of view, however, the most ‘recent’ work in this volume must be Jack Kerouac’s ‘Old Angel Midnight’ (1959-1964) an extended prose poem in 67 sections. By ‘recent’ is meant the most ‘up-to-date’ in terms of the evolution of modern poetic consciousness. The final examples in the collection, short self-contained prose pieces by Harold Pinter are undistinguished works of little significance in the development of the form. On the other hand Kerouac’s distinctive Spontaneous Prose’ style – his ‘scatological build up of words’ – exemplified by the first sections of ‘Old Angel Midnight’ represent a new element in the genre of poetic prose.

     A celebration of the ‘word free/Zen Lunacy’ Beat Movement mindset, ‘Old Angel Midnight’ was conceived as ‘a lifelong work in multilingual sound…’ a deliberate exercise in unrestrained free association, a work without end or narrative direction. In his brief theoretical manifesto ‘Essentials of Spontaneous Prose’ Kerouac explained how he wrote in accordance with the Laws of Deep Form, ‘swimming in a sea of English with no discipline other that rhythms of rhetorical exhalation and expostulated statement’. His mystical Zen Lunacy is presented as form of ulra-realism, a streetwise universe of sound-colour disclosed by ‘unique revelation of the mind faithfully notating its own processes’. A kind of internalised neo-impressionism of inner space, a forerunner of ‘hippie’ style mysticism and of the Psychedelic Underground, Kerouac’s work inherited the principle of the  Surrealist ‘disinterested play of thought’ which, in the First Manifesto (1924), is given a pedigree that included the ‘supernatural reverie’ of Gerard de Nerval, a key originator of poetical prose.

     The logorrhoea of Beat word-flow required the removal of all ‘literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition’, much in the same way as the Dadaists and the Surrealists advocated negation of all aesthetic preoccupations. ‘Old Angel Midnight’, insofar as it arises from an attempt ‘to sketch the flow that already exists intact in the mind’, is therefore, representative of a line of poetic development still committed to transcribing the lyrical ‘inner voice(s)’ of the author – Zen mysticism notwithstanding.

     This is in contrast to, say, the impersonality of Stein’s Cubist Tender Buttons experiment, but remains consistent with the ‘mystical’ tendencies inherent in the Modernism of Virginia Woolf or Joyce’s ‘epiphanies’. It might be observed that Kerouac’s Zen Lunacy points to the fact that beneath the crisis of language typical of so much Modernist lyrical writing from Baudelaire onwards, there is, (as is also present in Baudelaire’s poetry), an omnipresent, progressive ‘spiritual crisis’ derived from wider cultural changes. This ‘paradigm shift’ from a vestigial, religious worldview to a more modern, secular society was not just the product of scientific advance, but, in the arts, of Romantic Irony intensified to the point of cultural implosion, to the point of aesthetic and existential nausea. The most significant omission from this collection is, therefore, Samuel Beckett.

     In 1971 the French critic Anne Fabre-Luce, reviewing Beckett’s short prose text ‘The Lost Ones’, provided one of the most precise explanations or definitions of the pure short prose poem. She wrote


‘Against the ‘say more’ of all literature he [Beckett] opposes a systematic ‘say less’ which manages to summarise and contain all the other ‘proliferating’ forms of literary discourse’.


She described ‘The Lost Ones’ as ‘a ballet of phantoms whose end must remain uncertain’ presenting the reader with ‘the last possible stages of what is ‘human’’. Thus, it is unfortunate that the final stage of the modern short prose poem is not included here, for in Beckett’s work many have seen a terminal phase of particular kind of poetic literature. It was one of the chief gurus of Post-Modernism, Ihab Hassan, who, around 1968 and in the context of a debate arising from Beckett’s collection of ‘nouvelles’ and residua, No’s Knife (1967), coined the phrase ‘literature of silence’ to denote this ne plus ultra of literary minimalism. According to some Beckett’s compressed, poetic prose represented a form of ‘anti-literature’, aspiring only to silence in response to the encroaching ‘end-game’ of Modernity.  For Hassan, Beckett’s work seemed to show how ‘language has become a void…words can only demonstrate their emptiness.’

     To have included Beckett and renamed the collection with the subtitle: ‘From Baudelaire to Beckett’ would have been ideal.

     It seems that the presence of work by Stein and Kerouac in Freedom to Breathe marks a kind of bifurcation in the developmental trajectory mapped out for us by the chronological arrangement of the anthology. The texts by the Surrealists and by Mallarme and Rimbaud exemplify tendencies that have intermingled with the evolutionary process of this strange form called the ‘prose poem’. Reading this collection one can see how the work of Andrei Bely and some of the American contributors (Cummings and others) betrays an incipient fascination for surface texture that prefigures the more ‘language centred’ poetic practice that emerged in the latter decades of the twentieth century.

     Why a bifurcation? Why a parting of the ways?

     It is possible to find in some works of Stein the origins of a mode of literary language based on the negation of the self and the suppression of the authorial ‘lyric ego’. From such a starting point develops a poetry of all-encompassing self-reflexivity, a fascination with the lexical medium and its pure materiality disconnected from The World, even dissociated from consciousness itself. Following Stein’s example it was possible to devise an aesthetic of ego-decentralisation, even ego-denial: poems without speakers, works conceived in terms of fragmentation and opacity, the very embodiment of cultural alienation.

     It is also obvious that, in Kerouac, we see an extension of the ‘spiritual crisis’ of High Modernism, a continuation of the quest for a ‘saving paradigm’, substituting Zen Lunacy for the Frazerian ritualism or ‘mythical method’ of Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ (1922). In fact works like ‘Old Angel Midnight’ and ‘The Waste Land’ are, in their very different ways, both symptoms of cultural counter-phobia. They are products of dissociation and anxiety in the face of a progressively disclosed nihilistic state, ‘the primitive hostility of the world’ identified by Albert Camus, or ‘the immense panorama of futility and anarchy’, as Eliot once described modern history. It is the unfolding of this modern history from the first decades of the nineteenth century onwards that provides the implicit framework for this anthology, it is the connecting thread that links Baudelaire, Turgenev and Mallarme with Cummings, Stein and Kerouac.

     In certain respects the lyrical, ‘pure’ prose poem was a fin de siecle phenomenon. In the years between 1880 and 1914 writers such as Wilde, Jarry, Proust, Trakl and others all worked in the medium of the prose poem or ‘poetic prose’.

     This anthology would have been even more comprehensive if, for instance, some of Wilde’s Poems in Prose (1894) had been included, or indeed an extract from his play text Salome (1894). The entire field of poetical language in dramatic form remains unexplored here, although this might be considered too inclusive an approach. On the other hand Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), while written in theatrical format, remains a basic inspiration for much fin-de-siecle exoticism and non-naturalistic, lyrical prose.

     For Barbey d’Aurevilly, writing in 1852, prose poems were ‘intermediate creations’, and, if the term ‘prose poem’ is used in a loose sense, one can see that the form is often a hybrid. This hybrid occupies an indeterminate literary space somewhere between vers libre; the subversive Gothic ‘tale’ of mystery and fantasy (Poe, Betrand); the lyrical essay or ‘meditation’ (Rilke); the ‘extended prose poem’ (Rimbaud’s ‘A Season in Hell’, Kerouac’s ‘Old Angel Midnight’) and novelistic ‘poetic prose’ (‘The Waves’). Freedom to Breathe gives a good overview of many of these formal variations, yet, inevitably, perhaps, there is a sense of incompleteness; one can always highlight crucial omissions in any such venture. So far as the twentieth century is concerned it would have been helpful to include other post-war writers apart from Kerouac and Pinter, such as Beckett and Sinclair, or some contributors from a non-European background – Octavio Paz, for example – or Jorge Luis Borges.

     Nevertheless, together with the companion volume A Curious Architecture, this compendium, edited for Stride by Geoffrey Godbert, presents a wide-ranging overview of an under-represented and, indeed, difficult aspect of modern poetry. Space has precluded detailed analysis of the over eighty examples gathered between the covers of Freedom to Breathe, but, to use Rimbaud’s phrase, it is true that ‘inventions of the unknown require new forms’ and many of these new forms are well represented here.


                   © 2002 A.C. Evans


Freedom to Breathe is available for £11.95, post free, from
Stride, 11 Sylvan Road, Exeter, Devon EX4 6EW
[cheques payable to ‘Stride’]