ENGL768B - Studies in Genre; Squaring the Circle: Readings in the Prose Poem, 1869-2019

Squaring the Circle: Readings in the Prose Poem, 1869-2019

"The prose poem," writes Charles Simic, "is the result of two contradictory impulses, prose and poetry, and therefore cannot exist, but it does.  This is the sole instance we have of squaring the circle."  Perhaps no other form troubles the boundaries of genre with as much vexation as the prose poem.  For example, is the prose poem a form, or a genre?  If it's a hybrid, how does it integrate two elements that seem to be so different as to, not only not mix, but also by virtue of their difference from each other, define what the other is (poetry is what's not prose; prose is what's not poetry)?  Is there a difference between the "prose poem" and "poetry in prose"? Do prose poems change our sense of what poetry is, or narrative, or even, more broadly, imaginative language?  Does the prose poem even belie the very notion of genre as a meaningful one? Where do we find instances of poetry happening in prose works; are there hidden forms of the prose poem that constitute cells of larger works--of novels, for example--that are not poetry?  What are they doing there? What happens to the poem when it's no longer in lines (that is, when it gives up its identity as verse)?  How does grammar constitute a prosody? How does the sentence create its own narrative?  What happens to narrative when it collides with song?  What is poetry's relation to the cornucopia of short prose forms: parable, tale, anecdote, dream vision, epistle, essay, memo, list, philosophical dialog, sermon, news report, op-ed piece, blog & journal entry, recipe, joke, twitter post, text exchange, travelogue, short story . . . ?  Does the prose poem have a tradition? --an ideology?  If the prose poem, consciously practiced as a distinct form, is one of the literary initiations of modernism, how does it express the particular experience of modernity?  What is its relation to life in the city, to mass media, to the emergence of new technologies and economies? Does the prose poem create new opportunities to explore experiences of race, class, sexuality, and other aspects of identity?  How does the prose poem evoke somatic states of consciousness?  Does the prose poem create new experiences of interiority, intersubjectivity, collectivity, violence?  Does it make manifest new tensions between surface and depth?  What is its relation to forms of social authority and power?  Is the prose poem an adequate form for instantiating in language the texture of existence?  Why does one read prose poems?  How are prose poems best read?  What do prose poems do; what are they for; why have they mattered; what can they tell us about how imaginative writing is changing now, and for the future?


This is a seminar for anyone who cares about imaginative writing.  Its main concern is the prose poem as an artform.  It aims to bring together MFA poets & fiction writers, MA, and PhD students who have abiding interests in thinking about poetry, storytelling, and more broadly, literary language as a medium for poetic and narrative shapemaking.  The course methodology is historically and critically informed close reading.  In addition, student work will include critical writing (essays) and creative practice (imitation of prose poems), with opportunities to choose between these modes for a final project, and encouragement to experiment in the spirit of our exemplars with mixed and hybrid approaches to thinking and writing about the prose poem.  Research for this course is an open concept, and includes everything from the physical library across the mall, to the internet, to the archive of the self, which even Proust failed to catalog fully in his recherche of lost time. 


Readings in the prose poem will stretch from mid-nineteenth century to the present, and include full-length collections such as Charles Baudelaire, Little Poems in Prose  (1869); Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations (1886); Stephan Mallarmé, Divagations (1897); Félix Fènéon, Novels in Three Lines (1906); Getrude Stein, Tender Buttons (1914); William Carlos Williams, Kora in Hell (1920); Francis Ponge, Partisan of Things (1942); John Ashbery, Three Poems (1972); Lyn Hejinian, My Life (1980); Bernadette Mayer, Midwinter Day (1982); John Keene, Annotations (1995); Anne Carson, Plainwater (1995); Haryette Mullen, Sleeping with the Dictionary (2002); Claudia Rankine, Citizen (2014); Lisa Robertson, Cinema of the Present (2014); Donna Stonecipher, Transaction Histories (2019); and a selection of work from poets such as David Antin, W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Joe Brainard, Rita Dove, Rusell Edson, Carolyn Forché, Allen Ginsberg, Ray Gonzalez, Robert Hass, Juan Felipe Herrera, Yusef Komunyakaa, Campbell McGrath, W.S. Merwin, Thylias Moss, Alice Notely, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mary Ruefle, Ron Silliman, Jack Spicer, Charles Simic, Karen Volkman, Rosmarie Waldrop, Joe Wenderoth, James Wright, and others.  (Foreign works in translation will be read with some reference to the original).


We will also consider passages and short works by writers we commonly read as artists of prose, including Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Lydia Davis, Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Jean Toomer, Robert Walser, Virginia Woolf, and our best philosopher, Montaigne. 


Criticism will include selections from works devoted to the history, theory, and practice of the prose poem, as well as passages pertinent to our reading, from Adorno, Altieri, Bakhtin, Barth, Benjamin, Bloch, Derrida, Lukács, Perloff, and Ricoeur.


Those interested will be encouraged to investigate the immediate forebears of the prose poem as such (Novalis, William Blake, Leautréumont), and more distant ones (Matsuo Basho, the King James Bible). 


Students will be encouraged to range even more widely and find the things that are necessary for their own thinking and practice. 


Study questions, short responses, longer ones, imitations, presentations. 

Meets the MA Lit Critical Theory, Genre, or Rhetoric Requirement