Bertrand is Surrealist in the past. Poe is Surrealist in adventure. Baudelaire is Surrealist in morality. Rimbaud is Surrealist in the way he lived, and elsewhere. Mallarmé is Surrealist when he is confiding.

—André Breton

The genesis of the prose poem (and the flash fiction it helped spawn) in 19th Century France is largely the result of two posthumously published collections, some cross-oceanic pollination from a destitute American author, and an impetuous poet who abandoned literature by the age of 21.

Louis “Aloysius” Bertrand’s Gaspard de la nuit (Gaspard of the Night) is widely considered to be the first book of prose poems. Although Bertrand didn’t use that term, he was aware of creating “a new kind of prose,” which the literary critic Saint-Beuve termed “ballades in prose.” In readying the book for publication, Bertrand instructed “Monsieur typesetter to cast large white spaces between these couplets as if they were stanzas in verse.” The publisher held on to the manuscript for five years, and Bertrand made one last plea to publish, leaving a conciliatory sonnet by the publisher’s door, to no avail. Five months later, Bertrand died of tuberculosis at the age of 34, but his friends bought back the manuscript, and the book appeared a year later.

Gaspard caught the attention of Charles Baudelaire, who wrote to an editor, “It was while thumbing through—for the twentieth time at least—the celebrated Gaspard de la nuit of Aloysius Bertrand… that the idea came to me to try to do something analogous…” Many of Baudelaire’s poèmes en prose appeared in periodicals, but he died before a book could be published. Le Spleen de Paris (Paris Spleen)—the first collection to call itself prose poetry (though it was titled posthumously)—came out in 1869 (two years after his death).

Edgar Allan Poe was born two years before Bertrand (1807). He is mostly known today as the master of the macabre and the inventor of the detective story. Of concern here is his enormous influence on Baudelaire, who did the first significant translations of Poe into French: “The first time I opened one of his books, I saw, with horror and delight, not only topics I’d dreamed of, but sentences I’d thought of, and that he’d written twenty years before.” Poe and Bertrand also had a fan in Stéphane Mallarmé, who, in 1865, wrote to Gaspard’s publisher for a hard-to-get copy, imploring that “it pains me to see my library deprived of his deep exquisite work.” And Mallarmé said he “learned English solely in order to read” Poe, who had “one of the most wonderful minds that has ever appeared on this Earth.”

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 his celebration of the difficult. Even Mallarmé’s friend Degas fled a eulogy he was giving in the salon of Berthe Morisot, exclaiming, “I do not understand. I do not understand.” And, when Mallarmé sought illustrations from Morisot for “The White Water Lily,” she responded, “Renoir and I are flabbergasted.” Mallarmé embraced difficulty, saying, “I become obscure, of course! if one makes a mistake and thinks one is opening a newspaper.” When I assign “The White Water Lily” to my students, I mention a remark by Charles Simic (who won a Pulitzer for the prose poem collection The World Doesn’t End) that the aim of the prose poem is to “arouse in the reader an unconquerable desire to reread.”

Another member of the French Connection is Arthur Rimbaud, who called Baudelaire “the first seer, the king of poets, a real god.” Rimbaud’s 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 (reports of his involvement in the slave trade are greatly exaggerated). His two books of prose poems, A Season in Hell and The Illuminations (erroneously credited to “the late Arthur Rimbaud”), have been enormously influential, and his face and last name are cultural icons. (Patti Smith gave a “Rock and Rimbaud” performance on the anniversary of his death.) Rimbaud’s main contribution may be the electricity generated by his disjointed leaps of language, where seemingly unrelated nuggets are clustered under one title.

Some critics consider only a portion of Baudelaire’s prose poems to be true poems, the rest being closer to stories, fables, essays, memoirs, and anecdotes. Max Jacob, one of the 20th Century’s major prose poets, admonished Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé for “their parables, which we must avoid to distinguish the prose poem from the fable.” But by appropriating these prosy modes of expression, Baudelaire provided us with a mix of models that makes Paris Spleen an exemplar for the whole gamut of short prose forms, as evidenced by this influence trail (among many others):

Peter Altenberg read Baudelaire in Vienna; Franz Kafka read Altenberg in Prague (admiring how in Altenberg’s “small stories his whole life is mirrored”); in the United States, Russell Edson (master of the prose poem fable) said he found a good example “in the works of Kafka, who explored the vaunted dreamscape, and yet was able to report it in rational and reasoned language;” for Lydia Davis, “Russell Edson opened my eyes, and after that I realized that absolutely anything could work as a form—just try it, and don’t self-censor before you do it;” and Deb Olin Unferth has expressed “supreme admiration” for Davis, calling her “the source text, the Gospel of Q.”

You can call anything anything. If you don’t want to call a piece a prose poem because it doesn’t meet Max Jacob’s standards (or any other), well then, call it flash fiction (or one of its many aliases), or don’t put a genre label on it. The proof (as with all literature) is in the poetic or prosaic pudding, though, given the French roots, I should say the proof is in the crème brûlé.

Further Reading:

Image credit:  Gustave Courbet’s portrait of Baudelaire, via Wikipedia

About The Author

Alan Ziegler
Professor of Writing and Director of Pedagogy, Columbia University’

Alan Ziegler is the editor of Short: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms. His other books include Love at First Sight: An Alan Ziegler Reader, The Swan Song of Vaudeville: Tales and Takes, The Green Grass of Flatbush (winner of the Word Beat Fiction Book Award, selected by George Plimpton), So Much to Do (poetry), and three books on creative writing. Ziegler won Columbia University’s Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching, chaired the Writing Division from 2001-2006, and has been teaching Short Prose Forms seminars and workshops since 1989. His work has appeared in such places as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Tin House, and Narrative Magazine, and he blogs weekly at Ziegler is currently working on Based on a True Life: A Memoir in Pieces. He lives in New York City.