* This fictive conversation comprises factually-based dialogue I have put in the speakers’ mouths along with their actual words (sometimes lightly adapted), which are in italics.
TIME: The never-present
SETTING: The Théâtre du Splendide Hotel. The backdrop—hand-painted by Manet—reads: “And the Splendide Hotel was built amid the tangled heap of ice floes and the polar night—Rimbaud.” The stage is bare except for five café chairs for the inductees. The audience includes members of the Short Prose Society, who represent several countries and centuries. Because it is my fantasy, I get to be the host.
Welcome to the Short Prose Hall of Fame’s inaugural induction, coinciding with publication of Short: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms. Thank you all for coming from such distances of time and space; I expect that many of you will be sitting on this stage in future ceremonies. Our first honoree’s only book, the posthumously published Gaspard de la Nuit (Gaspard of the Night), is widely considered to be the first book of prose poems, though he didn’t use the term. Louis (Aloysius) Bertrand lived most of his life in Dijon, with forays into the Paris literary scene. He attended Victor Hugo’s salon, where the great literary critic Saint-Beuve described his “shrewd and bantering expression” as he read his “little ballades in prose.”
(Louis “Aloysius” Bertrand enters, a bit dazed by the applause.)
Edgar Allan Poe, our only non-French honoree, is a writer of tales, poems, and essays, as well as an editor. He is known as the master of the macabre and the inventor of the detective story. Of most concern here is his enormous influence as a writer of short prose.
(Edgar Allan Poe enters, not terribly surprised by the acclaim.)
And now the man who did the first important translations of Poe’s work into French, and credited Bertrand as inspiration for his Paris Spleen, the first self-identified collection of prose poems—alas, also published posthumously. He is also an art critic and essayist whose work chronicles and fosters modernism: Charles Baudelaire!
(Charles Baudelaire runs out and engulfs Bertrand and Poe in a group hug.)
Stéphane Mallarmé published prose poems and verse poems in the same book, further establishing the prose poem as a form of poetry. He has had enormous influence in spite of—and due to—his celebration of the difficult and the obscure. Even his good friend Degas fled a eulogy he was giving, exclaiming, “I do not understand. I do not understand.”
(Mallarmé enters and addresses the audience.)
I become obscure, of course! if one makes a mistake and thinks one is opening a newspaper.
(Mallarmé introduces himself to Bertrand and Poe, and enjoys a warm reunion with Baudelaire.)
I’m not sure if our final inductee has arrived, but let me tell you about him. His star shone bright but was self-extinguished before the age of 21 when he embarked on a new life in Africa as an itinerant entrepreneur (though reports of his involvement in the slave trade are greatly exaggerated). His two books of prose poems, A Season in Hell and The Illuminations, have been enormously influential, and his face and last name are cultural icons: Is Arthur Rimbaud here?
(After a minute of anxious waiting, Arthur Rimbaud reluctantly saunters across the stage, looking bemused at the Splendide Hotel sign. He nods to Mallarmé (whomhe knew only in passing) and gives a respectful bow to Baudelaire, whom he never met but called “the first seer, the king of poets, a real god.” As much as Rimbaud tries to act blasé, you can tell that he is glad to be here. The inductees take their seats. I invite members of the audience to stand and speak whenever they feel so moved.)
Bertrand and Poe were born two years apart (1807, 1809), separated by an ocean and a language. But they shared a sensibility that would set in motion this anthology.
Louis, it was while thumbing through—for the twentieth time at least—your celebrated Gaspard de la Nuit that the idea came to me to try to do something analogous. I knew it was going to be a remarkable book but was sure that it would pass unnoticed.
Paris Spleen established you as the inventor of the prose poem.
Excuse me, but I published a prose poem, Eureka, fifteen years before the first of Charles’s.
Yes, but that was a different creature, almost 40,000 words. In 1765, Jaucourt used the term poeme en prose to discuss “poetry in prose works…which might have never seen light if their authors had to subject their genius to rhyme and measure,” but he gave as an example Fénelon’s novel-length Les Aventures de Télémaque. Let’s stipulate that “prose poem” and “poetic prose” are not necessarily synonymous. But let’s also stipulate that we go with whatever the author says: John Ashbery published a book called Three Poems, the shortest of which is 37 pages, and I’m not going to tell him he can’t call them prose poems.
You had a formal notion of the short prose poem, even if you didn’t call it that.
I did try to create a new kind of prose; I referred to my paired paragraphs as couplets,and I left instructions for Monsieurtypesetter to cast large white spaces between these couplets as if they were stanzas in verse. I sold the book—including my illustrations— to Eugene Renduel, then I waited and waited for him to publish it. After five years I made one last plea for his good will, leaving a conciliatory sonnet by his door. Five more months went by, and I stopped living.
Two years later, your friend David d’Angers acquired the rights by returning your advance to Renduel, and the book was published.
(Hisses and boos from the audience. One figure skulks out the rear door, while another gets handshakes from those around him.)