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Modernism/Modernity 8.4 (2001) 705-706

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Book Review

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

Invisible Fences: Prose Poetry as a Genre in French and American Literature. Steven Monte. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000. Pp. xii + 298. $50.00.

Steven Monte's Invisible Fences begins with the claim that prose poetry "has been less revolutionary than most critics have asserted" (8). Recent studies of the genre, such as Stephen Fredman's Poet's Prose (1990), Jonathan Monroe's A Poverty of Objects (1987), and Margueritte Murphy's A Tradition of Subversion (1992), have focused on self-critical, subversive and polyphonic texts that value shock and innovation over tradition and convention. Monte, however, prefers to address the issue of why a particular genre should come to be seen as more "subversive" or "revolutionary" than other literary forms. Now that the prose poem has given rise to a number of recognizable--and rather conservative--trends such as the "poetic parable," the neosurrealist dreamscape or the post-Steinian "New Sentence" of the Language poets, one can only agree with Monte when he remarks that "the fact that a poem is written in prose does not necessarily mean it is subversive" (8). As the author wisely acknowledges, the claims made by critics like Monroe, Murphy, and others about the genre's revolutionary potential are "nuanced and always qualified by the historical fact of the prose poem's marginality" (ibid.). In his seminal study of the genre, Monroe devoted a whole chapter to Robert Bly's deep-image poetics and characterized his turn to the prose poem as a retreat from radical politics into a poetics of inwardness and domesticity. [End Page 705]

After an extremely well-documented introduction to the reception history of the terms "poème en prose" and "prose poem," Monte devotes extended chapters and sub-chapters to a series of major practitioners of the genre such as Charles Baudelaire, Lautréamont, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and John Ashbery as well as to lesser known writers such as Pierre Dax, Charles Cros, and Leigh Hunt. In his chapter on Baudelaire, Monte, far from limiting himself to a discussion of the literary influences behind Le Spleen de Paris, raises the difficult question of how nonpoetic genres such as journalistic prose and the novel have influenced the development of prose poetry. The chapter on the emergence of the prose poem in France offers a truly compelling analysis of the impact of satiric newspaper columns and caricature writing on Baudelaire's poetic imagination. This intergeneric approach favors works engaged in formal and methodological negotiations with neighboring genres. Special attention is therefore given not only to Baudelaire's Paris Spleen but also to other liminal works that challenge accepted notions of genre theory. Not surprisingly, the unclassifiable still lifes of Stein's Tender Buttons figure prominently in Monte's analysis, which approaches the notion of genre as "an interpretive framework" rather than "a category of classification" (24).

Invisible Fences is a welcome addition to the recent debates about the status of prose poetry in the context of modern literary history. The study is poised and elegant, systematically avoiding unnecessary jargon, opting for a pragmatic approach that privileges detailed close readings over theoretical models. But some sections of this book are weaker than others. The chapter on John Ashbery, for example, would have been enriched by a more careful consideration of recent critical works that purport to examine the formal choices that inform such "narratives of consciousness" as Three Poems. One thinks of Donald Wesling's The New Poetries: Poetic Form since Coleridge and Wordsworth (1985) or Ron Silliman's The New Sentence (1987). The decision in this chapter to emphasize "negative dialectics"--a rather underdeveloped notion based on a sense that the progression of Ashbery's prose is "negatively determined" by the frequent use of abrupt rhetorical shifts and contrasting logical connectives--seems thoroughly misplaced in relation to the success story of Theodor Adorno's infinitely more useful concept of "negative dialectics...


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