I first became interested in novels by and about poets roughly three years ago. I was working on what would become my first novel, The Gospel of Anarchy (about an anarchist collective–cum–Christian mystery cult), and spending a lot of time thinking about Harold Bloom’s notion that “all religion is a kind of spilled poetry, bad and good.” This profound and pithy little fragment, which itself might have spilled from Kafka’s aphorisms, appears in his nonfiction book The American Religion, and eventually I came to understand it as the “secret epigraph” to my novel.
At the time, the two epigraphs I already had, from G.K. Chesterton and a real-life anarchist collective known as CrimethInc., seemed like plenty. And keeping Bloom secret seemed, moreover, in keeping with the motifs of secrecy and revelation that pervade the book. In The Gospel of Anarchy, the anarchists hold a regular religious “service” that just as regularly (d)evolves into a blowout party, and one part of the party is an open mic in their backyard. One of the principal characters, a young woman named Anchor, loves to attend these readings as a listener and secretly aspires to eventually share her own work there. (For a variety of reasons, she never does.) Later on in the book, the relationship between a poem by Anchor and a poem by another character holds the key to a metaphysical element of the novel that is otherwise unconfirmed and unexplained. As things stand, not a single critic seems to have noticed that there is a connection between the two poems, much less what the connection actually is (though some readers have, and have written me to say so). A few viewed the inclusion of the poems in the text as an absurd self-indulgence and attacked me for my failure of discipline; most, probably holding some milder variation of the same view, chose to ignore them entirely. Perhaps I should have made the Bloom quote the third epigraph, if only to boldface my own view that poetry’s role in the novel, while small, was utterly crucial.
Anyway, I’ll save the rest for my introduction to the 20th-anniversary edition. The point I was building toward is that while I worked on this aspect of my own book, I began to take special notice of how other prose writers had approached poetry in their novels. The world was surprisingly obliging in this regard: the past few years have seen a steady stream of Poet’s Novels, a phrase I’m borrowing from the subtitle of Eileen Myles’s Inferno: A Poet’s Novel and using here to describe the not-quite-genre of fiction (a) that features a poet as a protagonist and (b) in which said poet’s status as poet is materially relevant to the story—i.e., not purely symbolic, not used as some kind of idiot shorthand for indicating any version of a “poetic” nature, and not a cheap way for the novelist to avoid writing a book about a novelist. (I hope I’m not distorting Myles’s meaning here. It’s entirely possible that she meant “a novel by a poet,” or even “a novel for a poet,” rather than “a novel about a poet”—though Inferno, a sharp and marvelous book, answers to all three possibilities, so I think I’m on fairly safe ground.)
The Poet’s Novel is nothing new, of course. The gold standard, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, was published in 1962 and followed just a year later by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which gives you some sense of the scope of the field. My own two favorite Poet’s Novels are Humboldt’s Gift (1975) by Saul Bellow and To the Lighthouse (1927) by Virginia Woolf. Woolf, of course, invests much more emotional energy in the painter Lily Briscoe than in the poet Augustus Carmichael, but Carmichael’s unexpectedly living long enough to see his poetic reputation rehabilitated by a new generation of readers is one of the book’s great subplots, and is more than enough to make it qualify. As for Bellow, while some were scandalized at the time by the often unflattering portrayal of Von Humboldt Fleisher, by all accounts a caricature of Delmore Schwartz, narrator Charlie Citrine (a stand-in for Bellow) never loses sight of his love for Fleisher, and he affords himself the lion’s share of blame for failing to reconcile the friendship. Moreover, it was through this book that I came to discover Schwartz’s own body of astounding verse, and so the only thing I can feel toward Bellow on Schwartz’s behalf is gratitude.
More recently, there seems to have been something like a trend of Poet’s Novels, which I’ll date to the 2009 publication of Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist. It continued in 2010 with Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze, a novel about John Clare, and Myles’s Inferno. This year has seen publication of Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station, Kate Christensen’s The Astral, and Bruce Duffy’s Disaster Was My God. (Also let us not forget Roberto Bolaño, nearly all of whose novels seem to qualify as Poets’ Novels, but in whose work I am unfortunately so ill versed that I can offer him only his rightful place as the elephant in the room.)
The title of Lerner’s book is borrowed from a poem of the same name in John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath. In that poem, a spiky and disjunctive screed or scroll, one of the flashing fragments declares simply, “You are freed.” This line stuck in my mind because for Lerner’s protagonist Adam Gordon, a precocious young poet on a yearlong fellowship in Spain, nothing could be further from the truth. Gordon won his position with a proposal to write an epic historical poem about the Spanish Civil War, but he has no intention of actually doing this, and he isn’t sure his Spanish is good enough to conduct the necessary research even if he wanted to. He spends his time smoking hash, popping anti-anxiety meds, avoiding his handler and the other fellows from the Fulbright-like organization, hanging around the Prado, and “rushing under the hoops of equations probable” (that’s Ashbery again) with the various women with whom he’s fallen into various ambiguities.
Adam, like most young people—precocious or otherwise—hungers for authenticity, even as he doubts that any such thing exists. In the book’s opening pages he confesses: “I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had.… Insofar as I was interested in the arts, I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf; the closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.”
Adam is a relentless meta-analyzer and self-doubter, but he’s also a smoother operator than he gives himself credit for, which may be why not one but two beautiful women are willing to ignore or excuse his prodigious self-involvement, pathological lying, and general flakiness. My guess is that the women like Adam because he’s an acutely intelligent and massively gifted artist on the cusp of realizing the full measure of his potential. Plus it’s kind of cute when he goes existentially ape-shit, which is half the fun of a novel that is as much black comedy as it is künstlerroman:
“And when I read the New York Times online, where it was always the deadliest day since the invasion began, I wondered if the incommensurability of language and experience was new, if my experience of my experience issued from a damaged life of pornography and privilege, if there were happy ages when the starry sky was the map of all possible paths, or if this division of experience into what could not be named and what could not be lived just was experience, for all people for all time. Either way, I promised myself, I would never write a novel.”
If Adam Gordon ever wanted validation for his deep ambivalence about a life as a poet, he need look no further than Harry Quirk, the beleaguered protagonist of Kate Christensen’s sixth novel, which might be best described as an un-künstlerroman: a novel of artistic abdication. When The Astral opens, Quirk has just been accused by his wife, Luz, of having an affair. Her evidence is an unfinished manuscript of love sonnets that make direct address to a woman who is clearly not her. An imaginary woman, Quirk contends, addressed by an imaginary lover, but the nuances of the lyric form are lost on Luz, a hardworking nurse who has been the sole family breadwinner for some time. She destroys the only copy of the manuscript and throws Quirk out of their Greenpoint, Brooklyn, apartment. Homeless and just this side of broke, he moves in with Marion, his oldest friend and closest confidant—and the woman to whom Luz believes the poems were addressed, meaning that the arrangement is necessarily to the detriment of Quirk’s claim of fidelity.
As the novel progresses and Luz persists in her (mistaken) belief that she has been betrayed, Quirk must come to terms with his radically altered position in life, as well as his many nonimaginary failings as a husband. As the new Quirk—a humbler but savvier creature than the old Quirk—begins to emerge, he finds that poetry no longer has the same pride of place in his life that it always held. He makes a few attempts to start a new project, but these are fitful and soon abandoned, apparently without regret. He sometimes tries to recall lines from his destroyed manuscript, but seems neither particularly surprised nor dismayed when all he can retrieve from his memory are fragments. Eventually he does remember one of the love sonnets in its entirety. Marion gamely writes it down while he recites it, but to what end? Remembering the poem doesn’t help Quirk remember any others, and hearing it recited doesn’t convince him and Marion to commit the transgression they’ve already been accused of. Indeed, the recovered poem is soon sent back to the abyss from which it was rescued; neither party ever mentions it again.
The lesson seems to be that Quirk’s dedication to his craft slowly turned him from Luz’s husband to her parasite. In order to survive without her material and emotional support, he must destroy the poet-self that destroyed his marriage, which ironically is the same self that he destroyed his marriage in order to preserve. This is a powerfully bleak theme for a novel otherwise notable for its sharp humor and its vivid depiction of life in contemporary New York. When, in a late scene, Quirk has cause to tell somebody “I’m a poet,” my first thought was that he said the words by reflex, by accident, out of habit. Then another interpretation occurred to me: Quirk was being sarcastic.
Harry Quirk, of course, is hardly the first poet, fictional or otherwise, to walk away from his calling. Gerard Manley Hopkins gave poetry up for Lent in 1866 and did not write verse again until he found a way to reconcile his writing with his faith, several years later. George Oppen put his pen down in 1933 to focus on politics and didn’t pick it up again until 1958. T.S. Eliot wrote no poetry of consequence after his masterpiece Four Quartets. But there is no more famous or endlessly fascinating case of a poet saying “No!” than that of Arthur Rimbaud.
Bruce Duffy’s Disaster Was My God was the last book I read for this essay. In fact, I didn’t mean to read it at all. I’d read a few reviews that made it sound earnest but fussy, maybe a little boring. Only a nagging sense of due diligence sent me to my local bookstore, where I figured I’d thumb through the thing, verify my suspicions, and have done with it. I stood in the aisle, bag over my shoulder, and read a page. Then I read another and then another. At some point I sat down on the nearest chair and let my bag drop to the floor. An hour or so later I was 60 pages in, utterly hooked. When I stood, an employee stocking shelves nearby commented on how long it had been since I’d last moved or even looked up.
Disaster Was My God begins ten years after Rimbaud’s death, with the poet being disinterred from his grave on the family farm for reburial with pomp and pride of place in the town cemetery. “Once the town pariah, he is now Charleville’s chief claim to fame. Why, soon to have his own statue! A monster made cherub. Actually cute!” The grim business of moving the bodies is overseen by Arthur’s mother, a penny-pinching God-obsessed woman, half harpy and half draft-horse—who has been variously betrayed by every man who ever passed through her life (father, husband, sons) and who lost all of her children to death or dissolution save for one girl, Isabelle, on whom she forces spinsterhood for fear of living out her last days alone.
I have no idea how closely Duffy’s depiction of Rimbaud’s mother tracks with the known history, and to be honest I couldn’t care less. She is vivid and careening, scarily willful and palpably alive. If she isn’t the truth then she should have been, and the same may as well be said of all the other characters and the book in general, which reads like Cormac McCarthy at his most baroque filtered through the bright-eyed easy erudition of the New York School: Frank O’Hara’s chattiness, James Schuyler’s cattiness.
Duffy is utterly disinterested in chronology or reportage (as suggested by the dusty phrase in the subhead: biographical novel), so he writes in brief chapters that burst like fireworks, one after the next. There are great leaps in time and space—Rimbaud as a do-gooder schoolboy in his hometown, Rimbaud as a pinchpenny businessman in Africa, Rimbaud and Verlaine drunk and on the loose across Europe—but his prose is so vivid and his authorial hand so sure that the novel never feels erratic.
Here is the adult Rimbaud, seasoned gunrunning colonialist turned cancer-stricken invalid, making his way across the African desert:
“Before them, scattered like a shipwreck, lay the scorched remains of their insubordination. White bones crushed in the hyena’s bulging jaws. Skulls broken like crockery and others that lay whole, like great prehistoric eggs. And rags, like some in kelplike heaps and some snared on cactus thorns and stunted trees, tatters faintly chittering in the breeze, like agitated fingers.”
The exuberance is infectious and enlivens even the essayistic passages of literary-critical appreciation, which appear at semiregular intervals. Bruce Duffy is not just the novel’s author but its narrator. He is an extreme Rimbaud evangelist, and the reader is there to bear witness to the bottomless and breathless joy he finds in this “poetry that comes with a sword.” It may be helpful (and/or a little scary) to know that the phrase is an allusion to Matthew 10:34: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.”
That line is spoken by Christ to his disciples, which should give you a pretty clear sense of Duffy’s regard for Rimbaud, but I don’t think you need to share his level of devotion to enjoy his book. Indeed, I was neutral about Rimbaud before Duffy’s book, and I remain nearly as neutral about him now, but my opinion of Bruce Duffy could not be higher. This is a weird, wonderful novel that achieves the apparently impossible. It is a grand tour of the whirlwind, a lucid congeries that embodies everything it celebrates—poetry, excess, scandal, love and disastrous choices and the beauteous clamor of language and life.
In Leaving the Atocha Station, Adam Gordon gets roped into giving a poetry reading and has to share the stage with a poet whose work he finds clichéd, misogynistic, and otherwise reprehensible. Shaken by this glimpse into the bad-poetry abyss, and already more or less agnostic about his own status as poet, he tries to remind himself why he fell in love with the art form in the first place, and why he still values it now. He finds himself unable to articulate an affirmative case for poetry—the subject is either too complex or too fundamental, or he’s too stoned, or all three—so instead he tries imagining a world without poetry in it. The words come rushing out of him:
“[W]hen I imagined, with a sinking feeling, a world without even the terrible excuses for poems that kept faith with the virtual possibilities of the medium, without the sort of absurd ritual I’d participated in that evening, then I intuited an inestimable loss, a loss not of artworks but of art, and therefore infinite, the total triumph of the actual, and I realized that, in such a world, I would swallow a bottle of white pills."
Poet’s Novels, like poetry and poets, will continue to appear apace, and each one will say something different. (In The Stranger’s Child, published too late to be considered in this essay, Alan Hollinghurst uses the short life and long, metastatic legacy of an imaginary Rupert Brooke–like poet as the through line for exploring a hundred years of changing literary, cultural, and sexual mores.) The message of the Poet’s Novel qua poetry, or poetry qua the world, is rarely unambiguous, and often rather discomforting. And yet poetry endures, even thrives, as a vocation and a passion and a subject, despite being pushed to the margins of commercial publishing and the culture in general (a state of affairs increasingly common in the fiction world as well). No matter. So long as poetry is written, people will write about the people who produce it. We are heartened by the myriad ways in which they—the poets—are so very much like the rest of us, but we’re enraptured by the ways in which they are nothing like us at all.