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This report is taken from PN Review 32, Volume 9 Number 6, July - August 1983.

Why American Poets Write Prose Stephen Fredman
In 1972 John Ashbery published a 118-page book of prose, divided into three sections, which 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? Ashbery is not alone in offering a book-length work of prose that asks to be taken as poetry. In 1920, William Carlos Williams published Kora in Hell: Improvisations, a work seminal in the development of his poetics, which yet continues to bafflle readers to the present day. Robert Creeley, too, has published some of his most compelling poetry in the three prose books collected in Mabel: A Story, which includes Mabel, A Day Book and Presences: A Text for Marisol. It would be difficult to mistake any of these works for fiction or for purely discursive prose; they evidence a fascination with language (through puns, rhyme, repetition, elision, disjunction, excessive troping, subtle foregrounding of diction, etc.) that interferes with the progression of story or idea, while at the same time they invite and examine the 'prose' realms of fact, anecdote and truth.

The most fruitful way to consider these texts is to place them within a context of American poetry. As soon as one begins to do so, one finds that the impulse toward prose is deeply embedded in the larger issues of the character of American poetry and the crisis of modernity. From this vantage point, what I call 'poet's prose' becomes important as an indicator ...


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