To save content items to your account,
please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies.
If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account.
Find out more about saving content to .
To save content items to your Kindle, first ensure email@example.com
is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings
on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part
of your Kindle email address below.
Find out more about saving to your Kindle.
Note you can select to save to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations.
‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi.
‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.
Over the course of the depression that followed the stock market crash of October 1929, American poets on the left wrote an enormous amount of often passionate poetry addressing their social contexts. Revolutionary American poetry of the 1930s was inevitably written in the atmosphere of the modernist formal revolution. The Objectivists are thorough-going modernists, looking forward in both aesthetic and political terms. Carl Rakosi is an unabashedly lyrical poet, but with a propensity toward satire that often aims at social targets. As a movement and as individual poets, the Objectivists had been largely forgotten by the end of the 1930s. George Oppen and Rakosi had ceased writing, and Charles Reznikof had to some extent forgone poetry for prose writing. One index of the shift in Louis Zukofsky's concerns is the second half of A-9, written a decade after the first.
Beyond humor, Tristram Shandy is the narrative of one man's attentions, of what they found to fasten on. That is a defensible comment – there is very clear writing in this book.
Robert Creeley praises Tristram Shandy in the context of a review of John Hawkes's The Beetle Leg called “How To Write a Novel.” The digressive style of Tristram Shandy attracts American writers such as Creeley and Hawkes for a number of reasons “beyond humor” and satire; Sterne's writing shares the concern with disposing the relative claims of wholeness and completeness at both the narrative and the sentence levels. In American literature we find the digressive narrative in Thoreau, for example, who proposes in “Walking” a physical and intellectual method he calls “sauntering,” a ruminative, meditational stroll, that gives the walker a free rein, enabling one thereby to discover natural law. Narrative digression is also a natural counterpart to the generative sentence, where, as we have seen, grammar leads the writing through a succession of ideas, resisting the gravitational pull of the “complete thought.”
There is a second aspect of the digressive narrative found in Tristram Shandy that has especially captivated twentieth-century American writers.
The poetic climate today seems to include as much criticism and philosophy as it does poetry. At present, one finds that ideas, those prime “don'ts” for imagists, radiate excitement and allure. American poets read with poetic appreciation and sometimes envy the prose of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida because it is so deeply aware of its engagement with language and with the process of composition yet simultaneously offers ideas and images of great force and currency. As we have seen, there is a strong tradition of poet's prose in America that makes easy and attractive the incorporation of such critically self-aware writing into American open-form poetry. Poets today who are writing a new poetry often do so alongside the writing or reading of criticism and are beginning to create a nongeneric poet's prose (or other types of nonlineated poetry) that continues but moves beyond the concerns we have explored thus far. Investigations by contemporary poets no longer concern the boundary between prose and poetry but rather the boundary between literature and factual or theoretical discourse – philosophy, criticism, linguistics, and so forth. In our reading of Kora in Hell, we noted the critical and polemical prose surrounding the improvisations; contemporary poets often integrate argumentative or analytical functions into their improvisations.
This book is an attempt to elucidate a type of writing, poet's prose, that, for various reasons, has thus far escaped attention in English. In speaking of a relatively nongeneric form, one cannot rely upon accumulated critical assumptions; thus I take a variety of vantage points in discussing the subject. The term “poet's prose” is a response to the terminological nightmare surrounding nonversified poetry. The more common “prose poem” is unsatisfactory for two reasons: It is an oxymoron aimed at defamiliarizing lyric poetry, and it remains redolent with the atmospheric sentiment of French Symbolism. “Poet's prose” escapes the oxymoron and is proposed as a more encompassing term to cover all (not only lyric) poetry written in sentences and without versification. The term is descriptive instead of normative; it applies to works that are conceived of and read as extensions of poetry rather than as contributions to one of the existing prose genres.
This book considers poet's prose of a single nationality in order to show the relationship of such a problematic form to the poetry around it. I will argue that American poet's prose, rightly understood, has occupied an especially crucial place in American poetry from Emerson's day to the present. To make this argument I engage in close readings of exemplary texts and piece together, during these readings, a critical vocabulary for speaking about poet's prose in general and American poet's prose in particular.
The issues explored in this book first arose for me in the context of the poetry scene in San Francisco in the seventies. As I thought about a second edition, I felt it was important to make this context more explicit by giving a glimpse of the dynamic poetry scene in which I found posed in compelling ways questions that guided the inquiry in this book: questions about modern poetry, about American poetry, and about the place of prose within poetry. My investigation of these issues has, I now recognize, a necessarily circular quality: The contemporary poetry scene posed its questions; I conducted an inquiry into a number of modern, postmodern, and even transcendentalist poets who have conceived of prose as central to their writing of poetry; this inquiry led me to return to the contemporary scene with a clearer appreciation of its aims, antecedents, crises, and accomplishments. What follows in this preface is a brief attempt at historical placement, presenting the inception of this book mostly through the words of poets participating in an informal, cranky, but nonetheless highly provocative debate. Through reading the heated and sometimes partially obscure conversation held among the members of this poetic community, we can sense the urgency and glimpse the issues at stake for the poets who were actively engaged in writing the new poet's prose.
Kindly note that all I have ever done has been the one thing. Pound will say that the improvisations are – etc. etc. twenty, forty years late. On the contrary he's all wet. Their excellence is, in major part, the shifting of category. It is the disjointing process.
Kora in Hell: Improvisations (Boston: Four Seas, 1920) is a unique work for its time and place. For Williams it inaugurated a remarkably fruitful decade of experimentation that is documented in the collection Imaginations (ed. Webster Schott [New York: New Directions, 1970]), which contains Kora in Hell, Spring and All (1923), The Great American Novel (1923), The Descent of Winter (1928), and A Novelette and Other Prose (1932). For American poetry Kora in Hell provided an energetic, attractive, and puzzling model of a native “poet's prose” that has continued to fascinate, especially after it was republished for the first time since 1920 by City Lights (San Francisco) in 1957. The book contains twenty-seven chapters of poet's prose, each consisting normally of three improvisations; following many improvisations is a discursive prose commentary; a long polemical prologue, entitled “The Return of the Sun,” begins the book. Written during World War I, the text is itself at war both with poetry as it has been traditionally conceived and with the expatriate wing of American modernism headed by Ezra Pound. In the prologue Williams attacks Pound and T. S. Eliot (and takes mild swipes at H. D. and Wallace Stevens) while defending the nonexpatriate avant-garde that included Marianne Moore, Walter Arensberg, Maxwell Bodenheim, Alfred Kreymborg, and Robert Brown.
Poet's Prose is the first scholarly work devoted exclusively to American prose poetry and has been recognised as a pioneering study in contemporary American poetry. Many recent American poets have been writing prose; Fredman has set out to determine why and what it means. Three central works of American poets' prose are discussed in detail: William Carlos Williams' Kora in Hell, Robert Creeley's Presences, and John Ashbery's Three Poems. In these chapters, Fredman both demonstrates how to read these difficult works and examines their philosophical seriousness. In a final chapter and a new epilogue, he discusses the newest trends in contemporary poetry, the 'talk poems' of David Antin and the prose of the Language poets, in which poet's prose forms an important aspect of the 'theoretical poetry' now being written.
We are trying with mortal hands to paint a landscape which would be a faithful reproduction of the exquisite and terrible scene that stretches around us.
John Ashbery, Three Poems
In 1972 John Ashbery published a 118-page book of prose, divided into three sections, that he called Three Poems. What is meant by such a gesture? How are we to read a prose text that an American poet conceives of as poetry? The present study is an attempt to pursue that question along two avenues: first, by a detailed reading of Ashbery's text and of two other long works of prose by American poets, William Carlos Williams's Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920) and Robert Creeley's Presences: A Text for Marisol (1976); and second, by a theoretical and historical consideration of the place of prose works in the canon of American poetry, which includes the latest developments in poet's prose.
I was initially led to undertake this study through my engagement – both as writer and reader – with contemporary prose by poets. I have felt for a number of years that the most talented poets of my own postwar generation and an increasing number from previous generations have turned to prose as a form that, in its pliancy and its linguistic density, seems to promise “a faithful reproduction of the exquisite and terrible scene that stretches around us.”
It is usually not events which interest Miss Stein, rather it is their “way of happening,” and the story of Stanzas in Meditation is a general, all-purpose model which each reader can adapt to fit his own set of particulars.
Just as Robert Creeley's early reference to Tristram Shandy provided clues to the nature of his conjectural prose, so John Ashbery's early review of Gertrude Stein's Stanzas in Meditation offers several avenues of entry into his own poet's prose. Stein's writing stands as an important example for the prose of all three of the poets examined at length in this study: To Williams, she provides a model for the determined use of the tactile qualities of words; to Creeley, she offers the model of a sustained and relentless investigation of language, which also takes on the intonation and cadence of incantation; to Ashbery, she embodies in writing “the way things happen,” a special kind of mimesis. And for the poets to be discussed in the final chapter, Stein also provides a significant example and impetus.
In his review of Stanzas in Meditation, entitled “The Impossible,” Ashbery describes aspects of Stein's poetry that recur in his own meditative poetry, especially the three long meditative prose pieces that constitute Three Poems: “The New Spirit,” “The System,” and “The Recital.”