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Novels By Poets Week

A Twitter hashtag has informed me that it's officially #NovelsByPoetsWeek. Since this is one of my favorite genres, and since I've been prosthelytizing on behalf of poetry lately, I thought that I would recommend four instances of poets embracing the looseness and freedom of the fictional form:

1. James Merrill, The Seraglio. I love Merrill's verse--"Lost in Translation" is one of the ten best poems of the last half century--but I also love his prose. His memoir, A Different Person, is absolutely fantastic, and so is his first novel, The Seraglio, which is arguably weirder than it is fantastic. Imagine a Jamesian novel of manners filtered through 1950s Freudianism, complete with an actual castration scene. It's currently out of print, but check and see if your local library has it. 

2. Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze. This has the added bonus of being a novel by a poet about a poet. Foulds examines the last years of John Clare, a rare working-class nineteenth-century poet who wrote as beautifully of nature as anyone ever has. These final years were spent in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, and Foulds convincingly dramatizes the ways in which visionary genius might shade into madness. Another bonus: Alfred Lord Tennyson is a major character.

3. Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station. Lerner's novel offered something rare in contemporary fiction: a vision of what the world would look like if we saw it, truly and deeply, through the lens of critical theory. Derrida and deconstructionism, Ashbery and self-reflexivity, pot and the process of translation: Lerner explores them all in a novel that feels relaxed in form but is actually rigorous in its argument.

4. Joshua Corey, Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy. It's a weird noir/modernist mashup, and it's terrific. I'm hoping to write on this for the blog soon.

About the Author

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY.

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Is it too obvious to note Larkin's Jill and A Girl in Winter

You're right, those are two more great ones. Any other suggestions, Abe?

My longer list, with some absolute classics: Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurdis Brigge, Ashbery/Schulyer's A Nest of Ninnies, Randall Jarrell's Pictures from An Institution (a GREAT one) ... And then there are the writers who started as poets only to turn to fiction, like Muriel Spark. 

I never thought May Sarton was a great novelist, but I presented a paper on her short novel, "The Small Room" at a conference a couple of years ago, and I think that book still speaks to new professors (especially adjuncts) very nicely. There are some very funny passages about the prof's first day in class and her tutoring sessions with students. The ear for dialogue and what I can only call "timing" of the scene are very good.

Well, the first thing that popped into my mind was Apollinaire's pornographic works, but then I thought of Michael Ondaatje. I don't much like his fiction, but he has written a lot of poetry that I go for. 

I would also mention Langston Hughes.

Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution. The novels of Pavese, who was, I think, essentially a poet.

But perhaps that word "essentially" isn't quite right. Maybe writers are not essentially one thing or another, though they usually end up doing more of one kind of writing than of another, and inevitably become best known for one kind of writing (if known at all). We assume that the kind of work a writer becomes known for is the kind he or she was best at. By why should we? History, including literary history, is too full of contingencies to warrant that assumption.

Was D. H. Lawrence a novelist who wrote poems or a poet who wrote novels? Or a poet and novelist in equal measure? Certainly most people would say he was a novelist, but not necessarily because his best novels were better than his best poetry. In the twentieth century, when Lawrence wrote, more people bought and read novels than bought books of poetry. And if—like Lawrence, Joyce, and Henry Miller—a writer had the mixed fortune of having his books banned for obscenity, he suddenly became famous among people who would not have heard of him otherwise.

At a certain, surprisingly late moment in his life the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee gave up writing poetry and decided to start writing novels instead. Most people would say that was the right choice. After all, he went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. What are the chances he would have done so well writing poetry? Today, famous as Coetzee is, most of his readers don't know that he once wrote poetry and thought of himself as a poet. And who—except possibly Coetzee himself—can say with any confidence that the poetry he might have gone on to write would not have been as good, or as important in its own way, as the novels he became famous for?

Matt is right about the divide between poetry and prose, at least in individual writers, is more fluid than we critics might think. The case of Coetzee is instructive, but so is the case of Updike (who wrote poetry throughout his long career), and Joyce (who wrote several small, Yeatsian collections published early in his career), and Spark. And, even when these writers moved on to prose, you could still see the poetry seeping through, in Joyce's musicality, in Updike's lyricism (many passages seem to take place in the lyric present), etc.

But there are different virtues and gifts required for poetry and prose, right? Joyce's poetry wasn't nearly as good as his prose, and that's because he needed the expansiveness and absolute commitment to the real and ordinary that the novel form provides. This is why I find writers like Lawrence and Hardy so interesting: it seems impossible that they should be so good at both forms.

To use an analogy from sports, take Dave Winfield. He was a Hall of Fame outfielder, though he was also the best pitcher at the University of Minnesota. More impressively, he was drafted by two different NBA teams, and by the NFL Vikings. And this wasn't a case of drafting on unrealized potential: Winfield was a great college basketball player in a great conference (the Big Ten). At some level, we could just say that Winfield was a great athlete, period, and be done with it. But to be great at basketball requires a certain set of skills that are totally different from the set of skills required to be great at baseball and that are not just "athleticism." 

But there are different virtues and gifts required for poetry and prose, right?

Different virtues certainly. Different gifts probably, but that's a harder question. If literary success is a combination of merit and circumstance, literary merit is a combination of raw talent and skill. Unlike talent, skill can be acquired, and the only way to acquire it is through practice. But we never see raw literary talent; we only see the expression of talent already developed, to one degree or another, by means of skill.

Let's say Dave Winfield had equal amounts of talent for basketball and baseball. In that case, he would presumably become better at the sport he spent more time practicing—better because more skillful.

I'm glad Tony mentioned Hardy; he's an excellent example for this discussion. One of the remarkable things about his literary career is that he found the time and energy to continue writing poetry after he became successful as a novelist. He had an enviable reputation and a comfortable livelihood from the one art but insisted on pushing ahead with the other, despite a very mixed response to his poems from contemporary critics. I suspect this involved a lot of discipline, as well as a very stubborn kind of ambition. Lawrence's ability to do so much of both things, by contrast, seems to have involved a kind of supernatural psychic energy, especially when we consider how short his career was and how sick he was for much of it. What the two men had in common, besides enormous talent, was the conviction that they had things to say that were best said in poems. (For Hardy, the formal constraints of verse unlocked emotional nuance; for Lawrence, poetry offered freedom from narrative conventions, which he was always struggling with and against in his fiction). Having poured themselves into their novels, both men found that there was more self left.

But the choice of what kind of writing to concentrate on has often been constrained, if not determined, by all kinds of non-literary considerations. The writing of poetry used to be associated with aristocrats, who didn't depend on their writing for income, or with bohemians, who "lived for their art," usually didn't have families to support, and therefore didn't need much income. By comparison, novel writing was a respectable middle-class enterprise, because well-made novels sold. Someone without an independent income who had literary talent and ambition but also a family to support typically chose a literary form for which there was some commercial demand. Do I think Dickens could have rivalled Tennyson or Swinburne if had decided to devote himself to verse and live poor? Probably not. But in many cases, it's harder to tell, or even impossible. By the time we discover a great writer the talent and skill have already combined, and not even the most discerning critic can tease them apart with any confidence.

I agree with everything you say, Matt, especially about skill as acquired through practice and over time. I should have continued with another sentence at the end of my last comment: Winfield's achievement, or Lawrence's achievement, since he's another great example, is so hard to fathom in part because they excelled in such different arenas that require such different skill sets in such a short period of time. How do you write Women in Love and The Rainbow AND all of the poetry in such a short, illness-filled life? So, in the end, my point is banal but still worth stating: the kind of brilliance exhibited by Lawrence, across genres and in a condensed period of time, really does seem unfathomable. 

Great point about the extra-literary circumstances that determine generic choices. I'd be interested to see what someone like Lerner or Corey has to say about deciding to try a different form. Both were successful poets (a relative term, I know, in a world in which poetic success means even less, financially, than it did in the time of Hardy or Lawrence) with academic positions before publishing their first novels, and both wrote novels that 1.) were published by smaller, independent presses and 2.) were weird enough that they didn't seem to fulfill any real commercial demand. Of course, Lerner's book got reviewed by James Wood and ended up on a bunch of "Best of" lists. Now, his new novel will be published by FSG.

So, this is what I find most interesting about the "novel by poet" genre, if we're willing to accept that such a thing exists: Lerner and Corey and Foulds have made the hard choice, concentrating in the less commercially viable form. So what is it that drove them to then, and only then, try their hands at the novel? The formal challenge? The longing to do things that couldn't be done in poetry? A desire for greater recognition? (I hadn't heard of Lerner before Leaving the Atocha Station, and now I've gone back to the earlier poetry.) I suspect some combination of these.

Matt and Anthony --

Please, I'm not trying to put you all on the spot -- but what do you think is the difference between poetry and novels?  More simply, what do you mean by "poetry"?

The only thing I'm sure of is that the words of a poem are a part of the artifact.

Hi Ann,

That's a tough one. I guess the simplest answer would be, poetry has line breaks and prose doesn't. As Glyn Maxwell puts it, for the poet, "line-break is all you've got, and if you don't master line-break – the border between poetry and prose – then you don't know there is a border. And there is a border."

Another way of stating the difference: poetry is language that exceeds paraphrase; formal properties like rhythm and rhyme and syntax are absolutely essential to whatever meaning a poem might have. This is where differentiating prose from poetry gets harder, though, since all of those things matter in prose, too. They just don't matter as much. In general, language counts more in poetry than it does in prose, it seems to me: individual words, individual marks of punctuation, etc. bear more pressure. But now we're getting into the ineffable--and seeming to denegrate prose, which I don't mean to do!--so maybe Maxwell's simpler definition is best.

Thanks, Anthony.  I agree that all those specific sorts of word patterns have a lot to do with the difference, but how does that make poetry different from rhetoric?  Or is poetry a specific kind of rhetoric?  I suspect it is, but *which* kind?  I think the basic question is an important one because many people are turned off by poetry (or at least most of it) because they don't' know what to look for.  (Or some "poets" are calling their writing "poetry" but it's not, so they turn a lot of people off.)

 

Or maybe "rhetoric" needs clarifying?  I found all this very frustrating to talk about as an English major 70 years ago, and still find my thinking about poetry very, very muddled. But I think I've gotten better at knowing it when i see it.  I just read Ferlinghetti's "Autobiography" and was struck by the poetry of it, but it's really indistinguishable from prose!  Here's the beginning:

 

 

I am leading a quiet life   

in Mike’s Place every day   

watching the champs

of the Dante Billiard Parlor   

and the French pinball addicts.   

I am leading a quiet life   

on lower East Broadway.   

I am an American.

I was an American boy.

I read the American Boy Magazine   

and became a boy scout   

in the suburbs.

I thought I was Tom Sawyer   

catching crayfish in the Bronx River

and imagining the Mississippi.   

I had a baseball mit

and an American Flyer bike.

I delivered the Woman’s Home Companion   

at five in the afternoon

or the Herald Trib

at five in the morning.

I still can hear the paper thump   

on lost porches 

I had an unhappy childhood.  

I saw Lindbergh land.

I looked homeward

and saw no angel.

.   .   .

 

 

Autobiography by Lawrence Ferlinghetti : The Poetry Foundation

 

Ann, thanks for the Ferlingetti. 

To confuse the matter further, I have always struggled with the definitions of poetry, ancient and modern, and I think it comes down to a matter of function rather than form.

To explain: Ancient poetry was full of pneumonic devices (rhythm, alliteration, rhyme, kenning) that aided memory at a time when people didn't write much down. Poetry was used to transmit some kind of social values to large audiences gathered around the communal fire through the epic story of a hero/king (think of the Oddysey, think of Beowulf). 

Modern poetry, because it takes written form (we write poems, we don't compose them in our heads like the bards), because it delineates what an individual thinks rather than expresses common values of the group, need not use those pneumonic devices (though it often does).

Another idea, mostly half-baked and one I would like to think more about, is that the novel has, for some time now, been the vehicle by which we tell stories that speak to our culture--or at least reflect and comment on what's going on now. We read poetry to experience someone else's (often very idiosyncratic) point of view and to contemplate it. While there are some novels that use the old pneumonic or rhetorical devices to afford added pleasure and depth to the experience, these are no longer especially necessary. Especially in an age of print.

But could all that be changing? Another half-baked idea: Young people have been doing interesting things with poetry, one of which has been to give it back its place as an oral presentation/performance. (I won't say that ever entirely died away; the "poetry reading" has been with us forever, but it seems to be attracting more audiences). Here's a piece about Patricia Lockwood, whose poetic forms have been shaped by the digital revolution, who Tweets small poems (almost like haiku).

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/01/magazine/the-smutty-metaphor-queen-of-...

Could you make a case that Twitter and other social media are the new "communal fires" where bardic commentators make poetry?

 

What is poetry? That’s up there with “Where do babies come from?” or “Why is God?”

 

One often stumbles on a prose passage that could be poetry. Here, for example, is the final paragraph of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains.

You could see them standing in the amber current 

where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow.

They smelled of moss in your hand.

Polished and muscular and torsional.

On their backs were vermiculate patterns 

that were maps of the world in its becoming.

Maps and mazes of a thing which could not be put back.

Not be made right again. 

In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man 

and they hummed of mystery.

Annie Dillard constructed an exquisite “found poem” from the letters of van Gogh:

http://inwardboundpoetry.blogspot.com/2011/09/876-i-am-trying-to-get-at-...

 

Or look at what Mary Ruefle has done in A Little White Shadow:

http://www.wavepoetry.com/products/a-little-white-shadow

 

For those who want a neater taxonomy of poetry, I’d recommend something like Lewis Turco’s The New Book of Forms.

Chris, what interesting selections!

I see "The Road" as pretty much as humanity's obituary, premature though it may be. (I realize the ending is ambiguous, but I tend to take the darker interpretation). The "poetical" part at the end perhaps becomes an elegy, a last stab at creating art from language, which will soon cease to exist because there will be no one to speak? And the preponderance of the "m" sounds, the sounds you make in pleasure, when you're trying to hold back pain, the first sound of the first word most of us learned, "mama." Don't they all suggest humans in their most elemental state ... humans who will soon be no more?

I always thought VanGogh had a privileged consciousness, to steal a term from Oliver Sachs. That his letters can be turned into poetry seems to underscore that as much as looking at his paintings. Those are wonderful verses.

Yes, maybe poetry and prose are best defined relatively by  what each includes to greater and lesser degrees -- narrative structure, word play, subjective v. objective elements, etc., etc.

Hey, there's another great poet who also wrote prose quite well apparently.  Wallace Stevens, V.P. at Hartford Insurance Co., refused a faculty job at Harvard and continued writing contracts and briefs at Harford, and what could be more prosaic than a contract or legal brief?  I used to wonder why he refused, but now I wonder whether he just enjoyed writing his lawyerly stuff.  Maybe it somehow it helped discipline his writing of poetry?

Yes, maybe poetry and prose are best defined relatively by  what each includes to greater and lesser degrees -- narrative structure, word play, subjective v. objective elements, etc., etc.

Hey, there's another great poet who also wrote prose quite well apparently.  Wallace Stevens, V.P. at Hartford Insurance Co., refused a faculty job at Harvard and continued writing contracts and briefs at Harford, and what could be more prosaic than a contract or legal brief?  I used to wonder why he refused, but now I wonder whether he just enjoyed writing his lawyerly stuff.  Maybe it somehow it helped discipline his writing of poetry?

Jean,

I liked your observations about "the end of the road," and I agree that van Gogh had a "privileged consciousness." Many artists and poets have such a consciousness. Paying close and careful attention is at the root of art, study and prayer -- ala Simone Weil.

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