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From Subversion to Affirmation: The Prose Poem as a Russian Genre

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 January 2017

Adrian Wanner*
Department of Russian and Comparative Literature, Pennsylvania State University


The Russian prose poem was officially born in December 1882, when the journal Vestnik Evropy published Ivan Turgenev’s last work, a collection of fifty “poems in prose” (stikhotvoreniia v proze). Although the generic title of Turgenev’s prose miniatures seems to echo Charles Baudelaire’s Petits Poemès en prose (1869), the fate of the prose poem in Russia turned out very differently from that in its country of origin. Whereas the French poème en prose has become a mainstay of modernist poetry, the Russian stikhotvorenie v proze looks at first sight like a rather anemic plant struggling to survive in an inhospitable environment. In many respects, it constitutes a marginal genre par excellence: located in the no-man’s-land between poetry and prose, it was practiced mainly by minor writers, or by major writers only in early youth or old age (note the title Turgenev originally proposed for his prose poems: Senilia).

Copyright © Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. 1997

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Research for this article was supported by a grant from the Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies at Pennsylvania State University. Additional support was provided by the Research and Graduate Studies Office in the College of Liberal Arts, and by the International Research and Exchanges Board, with funds provided by the U.S. Department of State (Title VIII program) and the National Endowment for the Humanities. I am indebted to Gary Saul Morson and to my colleagues Michael Naydan and Thomas Beebee for helpful comments.

1. See Caws, Mary Ann, “Prose Poem,” in Preminger, Alex and Brogan, T. V. F., eds., The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton, 1993), 977 Google Scholar.

2. The topic has so far been addressed mostly in peripheral provincial publications in the Soviet Union and in the former eastern and central European satellite nations. The only Ph.D. thesis devoted to the genre of the Russian prose poem was defended in 1969 at the University of Voronezh. See Issova, L. N., Zhanr stikhotvoreniia v proze v russkoi literature (Turgenev, I. S., Garshin, V. M., Korolenko, V. G., Bunin, I. A.), dissertatsiia, avtoreferat (Voronezh, 1969)Google Scholar. Articles on the stikhotvorenie v proze have appeared in East Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and Yugoslavia. The most comprehensive bibliography can be found in Zöldhelyi, Zsuzsa D., Turgenyev prózai költeményei (Budapest, 1991), 341–72Google Scholar. In the west, the genre has recently been discussed by Walter Koschmal. See Koschmal, , “Das Prosagedicht als Gattung des evolutionären Wechsels: Ein Beitrag zur slavischen Komparatistik,” in Grübel, Rainer, ed., Russische Literatur an der Wende vom 19. zum 20. Jahrhundert: Oldenburger Symposium (Amsterdam, 1993), 143–61Google Scholar.

3. For a useful bibliography of recent genre theory and criticism, see Beebee, Thomas O., The Ideology of Genre: A Comparative Study of Generic Instability (University Park, Pa., 1994), 285–91Google Scholar.

4. Riffaterre, Michael, “On the Prose Poem’s Formal Features,” in Caws, Mary Ann and Hermine, Riffaterre, eds., The Prose Poem in France: Theory and Practice (New York, 1983), 117 Google Scholar.

5. See Fülleborn, Ulrich, Das deutsche Prosagedicht: Zu Theorie und Geschichte einer Gattung (Munich, 1970)Google Scholar, and Riffaterre, “On the Prose Poem’s Formal Features.“

6. Simon, John, The Prose Poem as a Genre in Nineteenth-Century European Literature (New York, 1987), 698 Google Scholar.

7. See Fülleborn, Das deutsche Prosagedicht, 29-30.

8. Bernard, Suzanne, Le poème en prose de Baudelaire jusqu'à nos jours(Paris, 1959)Google Scholar. On Baudelaire in particular, see 103-50.

9. [John Simon], J. S., “Prose Poem,” in Preminger, Alex, Warnke, Frank J., and Hardison, O. B., eds., Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 2d ed. (Princeton, 1965), 665 Google Scholar.

10. Schaarschuh, F.-J., “Das Problem der Gattung ‘Prosagedicht’ in Turgenevs ‘Stichotvorenija v proze,’Zeitschrift für Slawistik 10, no. 4 (1965): 511 and 518CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11. See the section “Metry i ritmy” in Leonid Grossman’s essay “Posledniaia poema Turgeneva” (1918), reprinted in Grossman, Leonid, Sobranie sochinenii, 5 vols. (Moscow, 1928), 3:7594 Google Scholar.

12. Zhirmunskii, V., “O ritmicheskoi proze,” in Teoriia stikha(Leningrad, 1975), 579 Google Scholar. The same observation was made by Nikolai Engel'gardt “Melodika turgenevskoi prozy,” in Brodskii, N. L., ed., Tvorcheskii put’ Turgeneva: Sbornik statei (Petrograd, 1923), 34 Google Scholar.

13. Nies, Fritz, Poesie in prosaischer Welt: Untersuchungen zum Prosagedicht bei Aloysius Bertrand und Baudelaire (Heidelberg, 1964)Google Scholar.

14. Terdiman, Richard, Discourse/Counter-Discourse: The Theory and Practice of Symbolic Resistance in Nineteenth-Century France (Ithaca, 1985)Google Scholar; Monroe, Jonathan, A Poverty of Objects: The Prose Poem and the Politics of Genre(Ithaca, 1987)Google Scholar; Murphy, Margueritte S., A Tradition of Subversion: The Prose Poem in English from Wilde to Ashbery(Amherst, 1992)Google Scholar.

15. Michel Beaujour, “Short Epiphanies: Two Contextual Approaches to the French Prose Poem,” in Caws and Riffaterre, eds., The Prose Poem in France, 40.

16. Several scholars have pointed to Gor'kii’s “Burevestnik” as a prime example of a Russian prose poem. See, for example, F.-J. Schaarschuh, “Das Problem der Gaining ‘Prosagedicht,’” 506, and Kovács, Albert, “Zhanr stikhotvoreniia v proze v russkoi literatury kontsa XIX-nachala XX veka,Romanoslavica 19 (1979): 275 Google Scholar.

17. The only exception seems to be Margueritte Murphy, who claims that “there is no essential constraint that would prohibit the prose poem from indefinite expansion.“ As an example, she points to John Ashbery’s lengthy Three Poems. However, she herself admits that Ashbery “unambiguously rejected the rubric of ‘prose poem’ in the French sense for [his] works.” Murphy, A Tradition of Subversion, 213, 5.

18. See Beaujour, “Short Epiphanies,” 40-42.

19. A poema v proze is obviously something quite different. As possible examples of this genre, one could mention Gogol'’s Mertvye dushi (subtitled Poema), or Dostoevski’s Dvoinik, subtitled Peterburgskaia poema. Ivan Karamazov calls his legend of the Grand Inquisitor a “poema v proze.” The fact that some of Baudelaire’s prose poems were labeled “poemy v proze” in Russian translation is probably best explained as a simple caique from the French (poème = poema).

20. For examples of such attributions, see Zh. Zel'dkheii-Deak [Zsuzsa Zöldhelyi], “'Stikhotvoreniia v proze’ Turgeneva, I. S.: zhanra K probleme,” Russkaia literatura 33, no. 2 (1990): 191 Google Scholar. Ulrich Fülleborn does not hesitate to isolate “latent” prose poems from novels. Fülleborn, Das deutsche Prosagedicht, 31-32.

21. Walter Koschmal has suggested that it is this cyclization, with its establishment of a network of symbolic correspondences, that makes the prose poem a symbolist or modernist genre, whereas the individual prose poem, taken by itself, still belongs to the realist school. See Koschmal, “Das Prosagedicht als Gattung des evolutionären Wechsels,” 155-56.

22. See Baudelaire, Charles, “A Arsène Houssaye,Oeuvres complètes,ed. Pichois, Claude, 2 vols. (Paris, 1975), 1:275 Google Scholar, and Turgenev, I. S., “K chitateliu,Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 2d ed., Sochineniia, 12 vols. (Moscow, 1978–86), 10:125 Google Scholar.

23. See Genette, Gérard, Palimpsestes: La littérature du second degré (Paris, 1982), 9 Google Scholar.

24. Murphy, A Tradition of Subversion, 64.

25. Beebee, The Ideology of Genre, 128.

26. Johnson, Barbara, Défigurations du langage poétique: La Seconde Révolution Baudelairienne (Paris, 1979), 37 Google Scholar.

27. Tzvetan Todorov, “Poetry without Verse,” in Caws and Riffaterre, eds., The Prose Poem in France, 60-78.

28. Walter Koschmal, “Zur Evolution des binären Weltmodells in Turgenevs Lyrik, I. S. und ‘Gedichten in Prosa,'” in Olesch, Reinhold, ed., Slavistische Studien zum IX. Internationalen Slavistenkongress in Kiev 1983(Cologne, 1983), 235–66Google Scholar. See in particular the section entitled “Die universale Dichotomie,” 259-61.

29. For a discussion of this question, see Zel'dkheii (Zöldhelyi), ‘“Stikhotvoreniia v proze’ I. S. Turgeneva,” 188-89. Readers fluent in Hungarian (which, unfortunately, does not include this author) will find a more substantial treatment in Zöldhelyi’s Turgenyev prózai költemenyei.

30. See Nana Bogdanovich, “Pokushai jedne knizhevne paralele: Pesme u prozi I. Turgeneva i Sh. Bodlera,” Letopis Matice srpske 375, no. 6 (June 1955); Boris Pavlov, “Turgenevite ‘Stikhotvoreniia v proza’ i ‘Malki Poemi v proza’ na Sharl Bodler,” Literaturna Misul 27, no. 9 (1983): 25-31; and Elizabeth Cheresh Allen, “Turgenev’s Last Will and Testament: Poems in Prose,” in Allen, Elizabeth Cheresh and Gary Saul, Morson, eds., Freedom and Responsibility in Russian Literature: Essays in Honor of Robert Louis Jackson(Evanston, 111., 1995), 5368 Google Scholar.

31. Allen, “Turgenev’s Last Will and Testament,” 67-68.

32. See her analysis of “La Chevelure” versus “Un Hémisphère dans une chevelure“ and the two versions of “L'Invitation au voyage” in Johnson, Défigurations du langage poétique, 31-55, 103-60.

33. See Allen, “Turgenev’s Last Will and Testament,” 54. For a comparison of Turgenev’s prose poems with his verse lyric, see Koschmal, “Zur Evolution des binaren Weltmodells.“

34. Zel'dkheii (Zöldhelyi), ‘“Stikhotvoreniia v proze’ I. S. Turgeneva,” 191-93.

35. Allen fails to take this context into account when she claims that Baudelaire’s prose poems are more “poetic” and Turgenev’s more “prosy,” simply because Baudelaire was a poet and Turgenev a prose writer. Allen, “Turgenev’s Last Will,” 60-61. In my opinion, the greater formal complexity of Baudelaire’s prose poems noted by Allen does not in itself justify the claim that these texts are more “poetic.“

36. Allen, “Turgenev’s Last Will,” 60.

37. Zel'dkheii (Zöldhelyi), ‘“Stikhotvoreniia v proze’ I. S. Turgeneva,” 189.

38. Walter Koschmal considers allegory the defining generic feature of the prose poem for both Baudelaire and Turgenev. Koschmal, “Das Prosagedicht als Gattung des evolutionären Wechsels.“

39. Pesterev, V. A., “Zhanr stikhotvoreniia v proze v tvorchestve I. S. Turgeneva i Sh. Bodlera,” in RoV russkoi klassiki v razvitii i vzaimoobogashchenii literaturnykh zhanrov (Ordzhonikidze, 1986), 121 Google Scholar.

40. For another example of a specific thematic link between Baudelaire’s and Turgenev’s prose poems, see my article “Cutting Baudelaire’s Rope: Ivan Turgenev’s Re-Writing of' Corde, La,'” Comparative Literature Studies 34, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 3544 Google Scholar.

41. Kaplan, Edward K., Baudelaire’s Prose Poems: The Esthetic, the Ethical, and the Religious in the Parisian Prowler(Athens, Ga., 1990), 156 Google Scholar.

42. Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 10:132. All English translations are my own.

43. In addition to the books by Monroe and Kaplan mentioned above, see also Maclean, Marie, Narrative as Performance: The Baudelairean Experiment(London, 1988), 162–76Google Scholar, which interprets the text as an allegory of reading. Dolf Oehler, rather unconvincingly, has read “Assomons les pauvres!” as Baudelaire’s call for revolutionary violence and class struggle. See Oehler, Dolf, “Assomons les pauvres! Dialektik der Befreiung bei Baudelaire,Germanisch-Romanische Monatschrift 56 (1975): 454–62Google Scholar.

44. Hiddleston, J. A., Baudelaire and Le Spleen de Paris (Oxford, 1987)Google Scholar. On “Assommons les pauvres!,” see 39-40.

45. Koschmal even suggests a concrete link between “Nishchii” and chapter 35 of Magnum speculum, translated into Russian in the seventeenth century as Velikoe zertsalo. Koschmal, “Das Prosagedicht als Gattung des evolutionären Wechsels,” 144.

46. Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 10:149-50.

47. See the prose poem “Khristos” in Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 10:161-62.

48. Not surprisingly, such a conciliatory attitude toward social inequality provoked the scorn of Soviet critics. S. E. Shatalov, the author of the only Soviet monograph on Turgenev’s prose poems, denounced the ending of “Milostynia” as “false“ and “forced.” See Shatalov, S. E., “Stikhotvoreniia v proze“I. S. Turgeneva(Arzamas, 1961), 58 Google Scholar.

49. For a brief but useful survey of the critical response, see Allen, “Turgenev’s Last Will,” 55-56.

50. See Polonskii, La. P., “Dve fialki” (1870-75), Polnoe sobranie stikhotvorenii, 5 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1896), 2:125–27Google Scholar; and “Stikhotvoreniia v proze,” in Povesti i rasskazy (Pribavlenie k polnomu sobraniu sochinenii) (St. Petersburg, 1895), 279-80.

51. Chernyshevskii’s critique is documented in the correspondence with his son, who sent him prose poems written in Paris under Turgenev’s influence. Chernyshevskii reacted with dismay. In his response, he condemned Turgenev’s Stikhotvoreniia v proze and the very notion of prose poetry as utter nonsense and urged his son to either rework the texts into verse poems or integrate them into the larger framework of a short story or novel. See the letters to A. N. Chernyshevskii of 18 February and 5 March 1885, in N. G. Chernyshevskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 16 vols. (Moscow, 1939-53), 15:512-15, 15:518-19.

52. See, for example, Kornev, A. [Iarovitskii, A. V.], “Gasnet zaria (Stikhotvorenie v proze),Zhizn', 1900, no. 4:370–71Google Scholar, and Skitalets [Petrov, S. G.], “Krasota (Stikhotvorenie v proze),Sovremennyi mir,1908, no. 1:5052 Google Scholar.

53. The only notable exception is Vsevolod Garshin. See Garshin, V. M., “Stikhotvoreniia v proze” (1875, 1884), Sochineniia(Moscow, 1951), 386–88Google Scholar. With only three texts, however, the prose poem constitutes a very minor part of Garshin’s oeuvre. On Garshin’s prose poems, see L. N. Issova, “Zhanr stikhotvoreniia v proze v tvorchestve Garshina, V. M.,” Uchenye zapiski Kaliningradskogo Universiteta 5 (1970): 133–44Google Scholar.

54. On this decadent prose, see Afanas'ev, V. N., “I. A. Bunin i russkoe dekadentstvo 90-kh godov,Russkaia literatura 11, no. 3 (1968): 175–81Google Scholar.

55. Woodward, James B., Ivan Bunin: A Study of His Fiction (Chapel Hill, 1980), 26 Google Scholar.

56. Kuznetsova, Galina, Grasskii dnevnik (Washington, D.C., 1967), 176 Google Scholar.

57. Bunin, I. A., Sobranie sochinenii, 9 vols. (Moscow, 1965–67), 9:172Google Scholar.

58. Bunin himself rejected the comparison of his “Kratkie rasskazy” to Turgenev’s prose poems. In his copy of a review by Adrianov, M. (Novaia gazeta, 1 May 1931)Google Scholar, he underlined a passage where the reviewer asserts an “amazing similarity” between some of his texts and Turgenev’s Stihhotvoreniia v proze and wrote in the margin, “very stupid“ (ochen’ glupo). See Russian State Archive for Literature and Art (RGALI), f. 44, kart. 2, ed. khran. 152,1. 6. Quoted in Prokhodova, V. P., “Evoliutsiia zhanra miniatury v proze I. A. Bunina” (Ph.D. diss., Moscow State University, 1990) Prilozhenie, 89 Google Scholar.

59. Bunin, , Sobranie sochinenii, 5:147–48Google Scholar.

60. Ibid., 5:456.

61. Ibid., 5:457.

62. See Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr, Sobranie sochinenii, 6 vols. (Frankfurt am Main, 1970), 6:38Google Scholar. For the Russian text of “Krokhotki,” see ibid., 5:221-32. Interestingly enough, English seems to be the only language in which these texts were given the title “Prose Poems.” See Solzhenitsyn, Alexander, Stories and Prose Poems,trans. Glenny, Michael (New York, 1971)Google Scholar. In France, the country of the poème en prose par excellence, they were published first as “Esquisses et petits recks” and later as “Etudes et miniatures.“ It seems that the French, having gotten so used to their experimental avantgarde prose poem, did not seem to recognize their own genre of the “poème en prose“ in Solzhenitsyn’s somewhat old-fashioned, resolutely unmodernist texts.

63. Dunlop, John F., “Solzhenitsyn’s Sketches,Transactions of the Association of Russian-American Scholars in USA 6 (1972): 22 Google Scholar.

64. See Bunin, Sobranie sochinenii, 5:428.

65. See Bondarev, Iurii, “Standart,Mgnoveniia, 4th ed. (Moscow, 1987), 2830 Google Scholar.

66. Bondarev, “Iasnaia Poliana,” Mgnoveniia, 446.

67. Tolstoi, L. N., Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 90 vols. (Moscow–Leningrad, 1928–58), 30:94Google Scholar.

68. For a discussion of Bondarev’s Mgnoveniia in connection with Turgenev’s prose poems, see G. B. Kurliandskaia, “'Stikhotvoreniia v proze’ Turgeneva i ikh traditsiia v sovetskoi literature ('Mgnoveniia’ Iu. Bondareva),” in /. S. Turgenev: Voprosy mirovozreniia i tvorchestva (Elista, 1986), 119-36. Using the customary rhetoric of Soviet criticism, which, happily, is now a thing of the past, Kurliandskaia extols both Turgenev and Bondarev for their “self-abnegating readiness to serve the cause of progress and the evolution of human thought” (134).

69. See Zel'dkheii-Deak, Zh. [Zsuzsa, Zöldhelyi], “Pozdnii Turgenev i simvolisty (K postanovke voprosa),” in Markovich, V. M., ed., Ot Pushkina do Belogo: Problemy poetiki russkogo realizma XlX-nachala XX veka(St. Petersburg, 1992), 163–64Google Scholar.

70. Bal'mont included prose poems in the first edition of his volumes Pod severnym nebom (1894) and V bezbrezhnosti (1895) but eliminated them in the later editions of his collected poetry.

71. Briusov included prose poetry by A. L. Miropol’skii (i.e., Aleksandr Lang) in his collection Russkie simvolisty (1894). His own prose poem “Otdalennye dni” (written 1898, published 1931) received the generic label “stikhotvorenie v proze” not from the author, but from the editor. See Valerii Briusov, Neizdannaia proza (Moscow- Leningrad, 1931), 7. Briusov’s unpublished notebooks contain some more prose miniatures. See, for example, “Gorod (Putevye nabroski),” Russian State Library, f. 386, kart. 3, ed. khran. 11 (Zapisniaia tetrad’ [chernovaia] 1897 iuinia s 21). In his “Miscellanea,“ Briusov characterized the prose poem as a “hermaphrodite” and criticized the concept of the genre as rhythmic prose. See Briusov, V. la., Izbrannye sochineniia (Moscow, 1955), 2:544Google Scholar.

72. See “Stikhotvoreniia v proze (Mysli-igly, Andante, Sentimental'noe vospominanie, Moia dusha)” in Annenskii, Innokentii, Stikhotvoreniia i tragedii(Leningrad, 1990), 213–20Google Scholar. The prose poems included in the edition of Knigi otrazhenii (Moscow, 1979), 433-37, are in fact prose translations of verse poems by the Italian poet Ada Negri, as A. V. Fedorov has shown. See Innokentii Annenskii: Lichnost’ i tvorchestvo (Leningrad, 1984), 80-83. Walter Koschmal, who comments on the piece “Pod snegom,” does not seem to be aware of this fact. See Koschmal, “Das Prosagedicht als Gattung des evolutionären Wechsels,” 147.

73. Belyi’s unpublished notebooks contain twenty-six so-called lyrical prose fragments, which were written between 1898 and the early years of the twentieth century. Russian State Library, f. 25, kart. 1, ed. khran. 1 (Liricheskie otryvki v proze). Four of them, together with two more pieces, were included in the first edition of Zoloto v lazuri (1904), but not in any later edition of Belyi’s works. Six more texts have been published by Lavrov, A. V. in Pamiatniki kul'tury: Novye otkrytiia, ezhegodnik 1980(Leningrad, 1981), 121–25Google Scholar.

74. Sologub’s translation of “Chacun sa chimere” was published in Novyi zhurnal literatury, iskusstva i nauki, 1905, no. 9:289.

75. See Sologub, Fedor, “Drova” and “Sognutye nogi,Sobranie sochinenii,vol. 10, Skazochki i stat'i (St. Petersburg, 1913), 123–26Google Scholar.

76. See the collections “Bedovaia dolia” in Remizov, Aleksei, Sochineniia,vol. 3, Rasskazy (St. Petersburg, 1910–12), 161–213Google Scholar, and Remizov, Martyn Zadeka: Sonnik (Paris, 1954).

77. On the distinction between presentation and representation, see Todorov, “Poetry without Verse,” 70-78.

78. For a discussion of “Liudi v peizazhe,” see Dietsch, Volkmar, “Die Malerei als 'Angelpunkt’ in futuristischen Thesen und Texten von Benedikt Livsic,” in Harder, Hans-Bernd et al., eds., Festschrift fur Wolfgang Gesemann,vol. 2, Beitrdge zur slawischen Literaturwissenschaft (Munich, 1986), 3842 Google Scholar.

79. Kandinskii’s “Fagott” was included in Fiilleborn’s anthology of twentieth-century German prose poems. See Fiilleborn, Ulrich, ed., Deutsche Prosagedichte des 20. Jahrhunderts: Eine Textsammlung(Munich, 1976), 6970 Google Scholar.

80. See Kharms, Daniil, Polet v nebesa: Stikhi, proza, dramy, pis'ma(Leningrad, 1988), 357 Google Scholar.

81. Ibid., 394.

82. Bunin, , Sobranie sochinenii, 5:449 Google Scholar.