The Prose Poem As a (Non)Genre

A Polish Case Study

by Agnieszka Kluba (Author)
Monographs 496 Pages
Open Access
Series: Cross-Roads, Volume 27

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part I: Theory
  • Chapter 1: The Prose-Poem. Genre Related Reflections
  • Introduction
  • The Current State of Research
  • Commentaries and Polemics
  • Hermeneutical Genre Theory
  • Jan Józef Lipski’s Conception (Jan Kasprowicz’s Cycle)
  • The Architextuality of the Prose Poem
  • Chapter 2: Theories of the Prose Poem Outside Poland
  • Chapter 3: Methodological Reflections
  • Part II: History
  • Chapter 1: The “Prose Poetries” of Young Poland
  • Wacław Rolicz-Lieder
  • Józefa Bąkowska (Szczęsna)
  • Bronisława Ostrowska
  • Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer
  • Aleksander Szczęsny
  • Ludwik Stanisław Liciński
  • Chapter 2: Qasidas, Tableaux, Caligraphies, Sketches… The Prose Poem in the Literature of the Inter-War Period
  • Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz
  • Aleksander Wat
  • Julian Tuwim
  • Bronisław Iwanowski
  • Stefan Napierski
  • Anna Świrszczyńska
  • Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska
  • Julian Przyboś
  • Chapter 3: Wartime “Prose Lyrics”
  • Andrzej Trzebiński
  • Zdzisław Stroiński
  • Chapter 4: The Prose Poem in Post-War Polish Literature
  • Anna Świrszczyńska
  • Zbigniew Bieńkowski
  • Jan Brzękowski
  • Julia Hartwig
  • Czesław Miłosz
  • Wisława Szymborska
  • Zbigniew Herbert
  • Krystyna Miłobędzka
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index of names
  • Summary
  • Series index

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The prose poem, in Poland, is an entity that is – as Leśmian would have it – “incompletely-incarnated,” supposedly described in dictionaries, at times even ephemerally resurrected in some title but, in general, leading a clandestine existence, turned rather towards the past, brooding over its former lives. In any case, there were never very many of them in Polish literature and, the further back one goes from the turn of the twentieth century, the fewer there are, the mistier are their contours and the more episodic their appearances. The prose poem has remained a form that is recognized and taken up by a few initiates, usually those familiar with French poetry, which invented this way of writing.

When one follows the vanishing line of Polish prose poems, one may discern clear relations, established by poets beyond their epochs, like those that link Stefan Napierski with Wacław Rolicz-Lieder or Aleksander Szczęsny or, also, subtler connections – say, those between the post-war Zbigniew Herbert and the pre-war Anna Świrszczyńska. The elite character of the circle of authors creating prose poems also determined in advance the scanty consciousness of this form of writing among the writing, reading and commenting literary public. In the simplest terms – for the initiated, the genre code of the prose poem was something obvious, intuitively taken up and creatively transformed; for the rest it was something in a certain sense invisible, insufficiently detectable and not constituting itself into a legible genre pattern. Hence, the history of the prose poem is – at the same time and partially – a history of acts of overlooking, misidentification and rash attribution. Without recalling these, this story would be incomplete. The decisive factor behind this non-reading was not only the hidden life of the prose poem, known to a few, but also its contrary and discreet nature, shunning graspability, the intentional lability of its identity, the mistaking of traces leading both to prose and to poetry and, perhaps, in truth, somewhere else still…

Avoiding the calligraphic tidiness of the sonnet or the provocative ostentation of free verse, chimerical and protean but not, after all, amorphous like poetic prose, this literary “ungraspable” poses a particular challenge for a scholar who wants to avoid usurpation by prejudicial determinations, but cannot let go of certain minimal assumptions. I attempt to reconcile both these arguments. Genre related considerations, which are indispensable for contemporary reflection on the prose poem, are an important part of my study. Discussions of the prose poem, from the point of view of genre studies, constitute the predominant part of works dedicated to this form of writing. I propose a short summary of ←11 | 12→these investigations and refer to them frequently. Still, this book is filled, above all, with character studies of texts written in prose by twenty four Polish poets, during a period going back over a hundred years. “The prose of poets” – in this way, among others, does one speak of this form; and, in this description an apt clue is hidden: namely, that the authors of prose poems were creators of poetry. The phrase “the prose of poets” indicates that, for puzzling reasons, those who write verses occasionally feel the need to turn to prose. This need may take a form that is minimal, as if tentative, as in the case of Czesław Miłosz, the author of Esse, or Wisława Szymborska, the author of only four prose poems. It may also be a need felt over a long period, in parallel to the need to write poems (Zbigniew Herbert). It may be a disposition abandoned and renewed (Anna Świrszczyńska). It may, finally, be an episodic occurrence, contained within a single cycle of works (Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Stefan Napierski, Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska). In six cases – in each case for different reasons – instead of a prejudicial genre classification I have chosen its suspension (Ludwik Stanisław Liciński, Julian Przyboś, Krystyna Miłobędzka), its partial and conditional recognition (Andrzej Trzebiński) or its interrogation (Aleksander Wat, Zbigniew Bieńkowski). One of the additional joys for me, deriving from coming to know history of this form, has been the discovery of intriguing authors who have not, till now, fully existed in Polish literature, like Józefa Bąkowska, writing under the pseudonym Szczęsna, or Bronisław Iwanowski. Yet another pleasure was the discovery that authors who are apparently known, left behind texts which have unjustly been forgotten (Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer, Stefan Napierski).

The Polish prose poem has, till now, received only one book-length treatment, the scope of which pertained to a single literary epoch, that of Young Poland. Because of the numerous controversies, which have arisen around the prose poem, my book plays the role of a reconnaissance, as it were, whose main tasks are: the designation of a fundamental corpus of texts comprehending a few periods in the life of the prose poem, the delineating its basic problems, together with the initial theoretical conceptualization of them and, finally, the testing of the analytical tools elaborated for this purpose. The proposed interpretations of specific oeuvres have been arranged in chronological order. The frame provided by this order has, I hope, made possible the discernment of the capricious line of the Polish prose-poem and, simultaneously, the preservation of the basic contexts describing the coming into being of given works – the context of an epoch or the context of an entire body of work. A perspective that does not allow one to lose sight of the authors, or of the integral character of their work, is not accidental; for the vanishing line of the Polish prose-poem excludes, in my opinion, an evolutionary perspective, though this could be suggested by the ←12 | 13→linearity of a chronological order. With intentional exaggeration one could say that each of the Polish authors of prose poems took up, in their own way and anew, the genre model of this form, even if some of them were conscious of the achievements of other Polish authors in this domain. At the same time, a diachronic ordering also makes more legible the historical dimension of the prose poem – a form capable of assimilating new elements of poetics, a form which, in spite of this, retains a memory of its sources, is incorrigibly and proudly “anachronistic,” and renews a defiant gesture that longs to transform the unease, which experienced reality awakens in the author, into a refined work of art.

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Chapter 1: The Prose-Poem. Genre Related Reflections


The beginning of my reflections was accompanied by the conviction that the prose poem [in Polish poemat prozą] is nothing other than a variant of poetic prose [proza poetycka]. As a consequence, it seemed obvious to me that one can only speak about the prose poem as about a minor literary form submerged, without remainder, in a certain element greater than it. These assumptions quickly revealed themselves to be mistaken, while the knee-jerk linking of the prose poem with poetic prose ceased to be obvious.

“Poetic prose,” as a concept and a term, is a description as widespread as it is vague, and evokes various associations among scholars. Among the most frequently – though not necessarily simultaneously – appearing associations, one may list the following: prose translations of biblical texts (and, more broadly – biblical stylizations) and of ancient texts (both poetic and rhetorical); the tradition of rhetorical prose (Piotr Skarga’s Kazania Sejmowe); the style of certain Romantic works (e.g. works by Françoise-René de Chateaubriand, Jean Paul, Novalis, Mickiewicz’s Księgi narodu i pielgrzymstwa polskiego, and Juliusz Słowacki’s Anhelli); so-called rhythmical prose (as much ancient prosa numerosa as its later versions, both Romantic, for instance, Zygmunt Krasiński’s Agaj-Han, and modernist, in, among others, the oeuvre of Stefan Żeromski); Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings or, finally, to stop here, the poeticizing of prose by Young Poland authors (say, in the work of Stanisław Przybyszewski and Tadeusz Miciński). In relation to such diverse emanations, poetic prose emerges as a mare tenebrarum, an amorphous boundlessness, out of which, from time to time and for mysterious reasons, there might escape forms taking on shapes more graspable and repeatable, namely – prose poems.

Still, to accept the thesis that the prose poem is the effect of such a particular (momentary and local) condensation of that boundlessness, would be also to suggest that poetic prose is the immediate and “natural” progenitor of that genre. Meanwhile, opinions regarding this matter remain largely divided and dependent on the manner of understanding what the prose poem is.

The whole controversy comes down to a choice between alternatives: whether to accept that the prose poem arose as the effect of a more general process ←17 | 18→involving the loosening of the structures of versification1 within poetry, or also to allow that there would be no prose poetry without the desire to introduce an additional, superimposed ordering, not necessarily of a metrical character, into poetic prose.2 The first eventuality leads to a broader issue, related to the departure from the classicist rigours of meter and prosody characteristic of European literature from the beginning of the nineteenth century.3 From this perspective, to the appearance of the prose poem would correspond to other phenomena, equally representative of both Romantic and post-Romantic literature: the ever more frequent irregularities appearing in the context of references to metrical patterns, but also free verse. All of these phenomena ought to be treated as different poetic responses to the same need. Of course, the isolating of them from matters related to the second of the lines drawn earlier – accentuating the tendency to the over-organization4 of the language of prose – does not always make sense. This may be confirmed by the words of Stanisław Balbus, in relation to Krasiński’s Agaj-Han:

The work under discussion constitutes a specific example of the anti-classicist upsetting of the division into communicative prose, with a natural rhythm, and – in addition rhythmically characterized – verse. […] In the realm of versification, this tendency reveals itself as the upsetting and loosening of the rigours of meter, the expression of which was the blossoming of irregular syllabic and syllabotonic forms. In the realm of prose, however, we will, in the case of this tendency, have to deal with a strong rhythmicization of the syntactic-intonational whole. Both of these tendencies – proceeding in opposite directions – meet in some way in certain works, and the manifestation of this is the effacing of the external differences between verse and prose. Agaj-Han is precisely such a work.5

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Balbus accurately illuminates the circumstances which decided the shape of Krasiński’s work. However, it is not his aim to explain the birth of the prose poem as a recognizable form. Speaking more strictly, his analysis does not provide an answer to the question why both of the tendencies he distinguishes lead to different results, as diverse as works from Charles Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris or Krasiński’s Agaj-Han. Even the fact that Krasiński called his work a “prose-poem” does not allow one to overlook that difference.

To better understand these variously muddled matters, it is worth beginning with some basic assertions. Let us invoke a common one: both poetic prose and the prose poem are equally situated on a borderland between that which is called “prose” and that which is called “poetry.” Such a localization has a few consequences. First, it turns our attention to the existence of a border only to immediately call it into question. Second, it distinguishes a couple of central concepts – prose and poetry – not only suggesting their importance but also presupposing that the relation arising between them has a character that is, at least originally, antinomic and – at the same time and in its own way – complementary; each makes sense only as reflected in the other. Above all, however, the perspective of this borderland between prose and poetry inclines one to discard literalness, which is especially unfounded in the case of these ambiguous categories, and to move beyond treating them technically, which means beyond conceptualizations of a strictly genre related nature. That liminality opens, rather, upon a more fundamental domain of reflection, whose objects are the problems of literary genera6 and, in consequence, upon questions about how ←19 | 20→literature exists, or else – which is surely even more important – concerning the manner in which we think about it. This indicates that the apparently innocent subject of poetic prose, and of the prose poem, conceals within itself a considerable potential as a point of departure for reflections containing more than one might initially expect.

What dominates, in Polish determinations on the subject of the prose poem, is the motif of the failed aspiration towards grasping its categorical traits.7 For it turns out that the properties by which concrete literary texts are distinguished are often too divergent to construct the definition of the genre. Despite this, manifold classifications and differentiations are proposed, while at the same time their insufficient and provisional status is eagerly underlined.8 Against the backdrop of these investigations, the findings of Grażyna Szymczyk – a scholar who has devoted many inspiring scholarly works9 to the prose poem and its essential ←20 | 21→and proximate contexts – reveal a different character. In one of these statements, she postulates the creation of a “register of distinctive traits […] with arbitrariness restricted to a minimum, […] observed as a result of the analysis of texts.”10

I would like to take up this suggestion and propose a different approach, which will not aspire at all costs to inscribe the prose poem within the frame of the traditional theory of species and genera (i.e. genres in a broader sense, like lyric, drama and epic11). This path seems all the more well founded as the nature of the discussed phenomena depends on their contra-generic character or, speaking more strictly, on their opposition to traditional genre system, with its hallowed division into species and genera.

The Current State of Research

Polish theoretical attempts to come to terms with the prose poem were inaugurated by the proposal made by Grażyna Szymczyk in 1979.12 This scholar concentrates herself on two problem areas, as she conceives them: “publishing practice” and “contemporary literary consciousness.” She notices a substantial freedom in the use, by critics and publishers, of the descriptions “prose poem” and “poetic prose,” often giving the impression that these terms are employed in a manner that is conventional, metaphorical, and interchangeable. In fact, this impression often results simply from a lack of another label – as, for instance, in the case of Leopold Buczkowski’s prose.13 This practice is simultaneously conducive to the other tendency indicated by Szymczyk, according to which the term “poetic prose” acquires the appearances of a genre term in the language ←21 | 22→of criticism and in some way imitates the specific genre-like status of the prose poem, while at the same time losing its primarily stylistic meaning.14 Being aware of the meanings which the concepts of prose and poetry have in “the consciousness of today’s readers,”15 and also of the relation between them, she formulates the following opinion:

[…] for contemporary literature, the relation between prose and poetry has become something well-nigh natural, belonging the conventions of the epoch. One juxtaposes prose and poetry exclusively in an instrumental sense, with the goal of describing the character of these contacts. In essence, this is not an opposition, but, rather, a pair of concepts.16

In this fragment, Szymczyk signals one of the questions that are fundamental in relation to the phenomena which are here under discussion. However, what draws attention, and provokes reflection, in the formulation proposed by Szymczyk is her extreme expression of a diagnosis, which predetermines an irreversible effacement of the antinomic character of the relation between prose and poetry.17 The author discerns only one possibility of deviation from this rule, when she concludes:

The very description “prose poem” (poème en prose, poemat prozą, stichotworienije w prozie) has an oxymoronic character [evident especially in its Russian counterpart – A. K.] so long as poetry is seen as the art of writing in verse.18

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According to Szymczyk, in contemporary consciousness there occurs a collision of “two schemas”: “I poetry/prose and II verse/prose.” In their “mixing,” and in the “reduction of the whole problem exclusively to issues of a versological character,” she singles out one of the causes of “the obscuration of the picture of the genre’s contemporary situation.”19 As the second cause of this state of affairs, she highlights the ambivalence of the French term “poème,” which is amenable to being translated into Polish not only as “a piece of poetry” (in Polish utwór poetycki) but also, as “longer narrative poem” (Polish word poemat). As Szymczyk notes, “the Polish language reserves the term ‘poemat’ rather for longer works in verse […] It is customary to name short works ‘liryki’ [lyrics].”20 Starting from this assumption, she approves the decision of Zdzisław Jastrzębski,21 who described the prosopoetic achievements of Przyboś, Bieńkowski, and the poets of the war-time generation as “prose lyrics.” However, she provides a different justification than does Jastrzębski, who replaces the term “prose poem” [poemat prozą] with the term “prose lyric” [liryk prozą]. According to Szymczyk, thanks to the introduction of a distinct term for the works of the authors mentioned, “a new variant of the genre”22 may be distinguished, formed independently of the direct influence of the tradition of the French prose poem.23

Aside from Grażyna Szymczyk, the Polish scholars who have discussed the prose poem from a theoretical perspective, include Joanna Ślósarska, Anna Nasiłowska, and Krystyna Zabawa. The proposals of the first two authors24 have ←23 | 24→been commented upon – in detail and, on many points, rather critically – by the third.25 Zabawa considers the classification of the prose poem as a species of the lyric to be a basic misuse. She finds proof of the inaccuracy of this identification in the former two authors, with whom she engages in polemic: in Ślósarska, when she enumerates generic characteristics of the epic/narrative prose as typical for the prose poem; and in Nasiłowska, when a conflict arises between discussing the prose poem as “a species of lyric having a compact and clear-cut composition”26 and indicating, as examples of its realization, works which do not meet, in Zabawa’s polemical opinion, the criteria thus formulated: for instance, Przybyszewski’s “Requiem aeternam” and “De Profundis.” Above all, however, she does not agree with assigning of the prose poem to any literary generum whatsoever, neither to the lyric, nor to the epic or the drama. She discerns, in such an act, a sign of the ignoring of the imperative – fundamental to the genesis of the prose poem – to transgress generic boundaries, which is an expression of the striving towards a syncretic “uniting of all oppositions”27 characteristic of modernist literature. For the same reasons, she also refers sceptically to Nasiłowska’s suggestion that shorter prose poems be described by the name “prose-lyrics.”28 She justifies this by stating that “the introduction of this term would result in an even greater confusion in the already difficult problematic of poetic prose.”29 ←24 | 25→Instead, following the trail of the French dictionary,30 she proposes the distinguishing of two variants of the prose poem – short and longer. The first she characterizes as defined by more rigour, as making use of various parallelisms, as rather anti-mimetic, as strongly marking the subjectivity of the speaking subject; while she characterizes the second as looser compositionally, as making use of a larger repertoire of communicative forms, as not avoiding mimetic takes, but retaining a “tension between reality and vision, waking and dream, the external and the internal (psychic) world.”31

These differentiations bear witness to the need of establishing the basics of the morphology of the form under discussion. Zabawa, while accurately discerning the hasty classifications of other scholars, nevertheless does not avoid the attitude of bygone codifiers of literary genres. This happens somewhat in spite of the declaration that she made:

[…] making attempts to describe the prose poem in genre categories, discovering its permanent elements or the compositional or stylistic “rules” governing it, one must remember that, in the consciousness of the epochs from this variant of prose emerged, it was supposed to be a form abolishing boundaries between literary genera, between verse and prose, even between different branches of art. It was supposed to be a syncretic work – fulfilling an ideal of unity, and an expression of the artist’s individuality. Hence all activities of classification will always encounter an opposition; they will be operations as it were in opposition to the intentions of creators.32

Summing up, one must state that the entries and articles analysed by Zabawa (and in spite of her eagerly repeated conviction about the provisional character of such determinations) fit into the tradition of construing the paradigmatic character of literary forms. The position adopted by Michał Głowiński is marked by a fundamentally similar determination. In the introduction to a volume of Bronisława Ostrowska’s prose, he writes:

This small volume [Jesienne liście (1904) – A. K.] includes prose poems. This literary form, shaped in France by Aloysius Bertrand, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, did not catch on in the period of Young Poland; aside from one exception – Kasprowicz’s cycle, O bohaterskim koniu i walącym się domu (1906) – there did not arise a more distinguished ←25 | 26→work of this type; it did not catch on, despite the fact that the inspiration of the French played such a large role.33


Is the prose poem revolutionary and subversive, or marginal and lyrical? What makes a piece of prose a prose poem? Is its identity vague or precisely defined? Can every poem written in prose be considered a prose poem, a form influenced by the brilliant invention of French literature and by authors such as Baudelaire or Rimbaud? Agnieszka Kluba discusses the prose poem by providing a comprehensive summary of the existing approaches to it, but also by proposing an original conception of this form of writing. Kluba does not limit herself to considerations within literary genre theory and remains close to the poetic texts she considers. Following the intricate line of the prose poem, in Polish and European literature, she carefully assigns to prose poetry a place in Modern literary history.


ISBN (Book)
Open Access
Publication date
2021 (November)
prose poetry lyricism subjectivity genre theory atemporality cycle
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 496 pp.

Biographical notes

Agnieszka Kluba (Author)

Agnieszka Kluba is a professor at the Department of Historical Poetics, Institute of Literary Research, Polish Academy of Sciences. She has been a Fulbright scholar at the University of Massachusetts. Her research interests include 20th & 21st-century poetry, the theory and philosophy of literature, the "crisis of the humanities" phenomenon and memetics. Her books on Modern poetry combine a theoretical perspective with a reflection on individual poets.


Title: The Prose Poem As a (Non)Genre