Antagonistic Cooperation: Prose in American Poetry
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Poets and critics have long agreed that any perceived differences between poetry and prose are not essential to those modes: both are comprised of words, both may be arranged typographically in various ways—in lines, in paragraphs of sentences, or otherwise—and both draw freely from the complete range of literary styles and tools, like rhythm, sound patterning, focalization, figures, imagery, narration, or address. Yet still, in modern American literature, poetry and prose remain entrenched as a binary, one just as likely to be invoked as fact by writers and scholars as by casual readers. I argue that this binary is not only prevalent but also productive for modern notions of poetry, the root of many formal innovations of the past two centuries, like the prose poem and free verse. Further, for the poets considered in this study, the poetry/prose binary is generative precisely because it is flawed, offering an opportunity for an aesthetic critique. “Antagonistic Cooperation: Prose in American Poetry” uncovers a history of innovative writing that traverses the divide between poetry and prose, writing that critiques the poetry/prose binary by combining conventions of each. These texts reveal how poetry and prose are similar, but they also explore why they seem different and even have different effects. When these writers’ texts examine this binary, they do so not only for aesthetic reasons but also to question the social and political binaries of modern American life—like rich/poor, white/black, male/female, gay/straight, natural/artificial, even living/dead—and these convergences of prose and poetry are a textual “space” each writer creates for representing those explorations. Ultimately, these texts neither choose between poetry and prose nor do they homogenize the two, affirming instead the complex effects that even faulty distinctions may have had historically, and still have, on literature—as on life. By confronting differences without reducing or erasing them, these texts imagine ways to negotiate and overcome modes of ignorance, invisibility, and oppression that may result from these flawed yet powerful dichotomies.