- Poème en prose, vers libre et modernité littéraire by Michel Brix
If, for you, Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris represents one of the poetic masterpieces of the nineteenth century, Michel Brix’s book will most likely infuriate you. Its central claim is that nineteenth-century literary inventions such as the poème en prose and the vers libre led to the ultimate ‘anéantissement de la poésie’ (p. 105). Brace yourselves: Brix’s study is permeated with declarations of this kind; but the initial discomfort will be worth your while, as Brix’s is a discordant voice worth hearing within the critical debate on the historical development of the prose poem and free verse. After a brief, provocative preamble, the study consists of three short chapters. The first and longest deals with the origin of the prose poem, here considered as a ‘vaste mirage collectif’ endorsed by literary critics, ‘qui a fait croire que le genre du poème en prose possédait une réelle existence’ (p. 68). Among the most thought-provoking — yet debatable — points is Brix’s view of Le Spleen de Paris as Baudelaire’s nihilistic, rebellious, and disenchanted response to the trauma of the Fleurs du mal court case. After Baudelaire was forced to omit some of his poems, thus disrupting the carefully wrought architecture of his collection, ‘[i]l s’agissait pour lui de tuer la poésie, en l’attirant dans les sables mouvants de la prose’ (p. 64). It was therefore Baudelaire who deliberately set about to kill poetry. The second chapter, after dealing with the difficulty of defining the vers libre, recalls that, contemporary to this ‘invention’, poets such as Hugo and Verlaine went to great lengths to be innovative in their prosody without destroying versification. Yet the creators of the vers [End Page 405] libre blindly dismissed such innovations; they were too busy promoting their own agenda rooted in a misconception of classicist views. ‘L’esthétique classique servait à l’époque de croque-mitaine et se trouvait la cible de slogans caricaturaux’, claims Brix (pp. 100–01), and the unmasking of this modernist rhetoric, with its paranoid, imagined chains imposed by traditional rules, is one of Brix’s most stimulating points. Removed both from its original musical accompaniment and from the rhythmical possibility of verse, impossible to recite or remember, poetry becomes nothing but a mere self-referential ‘objet intellectuel’, ‘prisonnier de la page’ (p. 105), which attempts to survive through typographical trickeries. The last chapter pessimistically ends with the total divorce of poetry from the external world. The ‘esthétique de la modernité’, inaugurated by nineteenth-century formal innovations, led to a ‘tournant individualiste’ (p. 130), where art is all about art and the artists themselves. Although some might regret the absence of close reading and of a longer and more theoretical introduction, and others might criticize the author’s boldness, this essay is an act of scholarly bravery that will surely invite a wealth of responses. Shocking us into opening our critical eyes, Brix’s stimulating book is a recommended addition to libraries.