From its inception in nineteenth-century France, the prose poem has embraced an aesthetic of shock and innovation rather than tradition and convention. In this suggestive study, Margueritte S. Murphy both explores the history of this genre in Anglo-American literature and provides a model for reading the prose poem, irrespective of language or national literature. Murphy argues that the prose poem is an inherently subversive genre, one that must perpetually undermine prosaic conventions in order to validate itself as authentically "other". At the same time, each prose poem must to some degree suggest a traditional prose genre in order to subvert it successfully. The prose poem is thus of special interest as a genre in which the traditional and the new are brought inevitably and continually into conflict.
Beginning with a discussion of the French prose poem and its adoption in England by the Decadents, Murphy examines the effects of this association on later poets such as T.S. Eliot. She also explores the perception of the prose poem as an androgynous genre. Then, with a sensitivity to the sociopolitical nature of language, she draws on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin to illuminate the ideology of the genre and explore its subversive nature. The bulk of the book is devoted to insightful readings of William Carlos Williams's Kora in Hell, Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons, and John Ashbery's Three Poems. As notable examples of the American prose poem, these works demonstrate the range of this genre's radical and experimental possibilities.