Follow Harriet on Twitter
Standing and waving
The idea that poets and novelists possess separate and incompatible temperaments, like fortune-tellers and pharmacists, that poets are preoccupied with language (“for the life of the language”) while novelists are engrossed by society (“for the betterment of the world”), is a commonplace—perhaps also a consequence—of the paced battlements of the contemporary literary world. In this account, poets and novelists are not merely working at different kinds of writing. Their minds also work differently. Poets are introspective, miniature, and self-fascinating (“I am the personal,” Wallace Stevens declares in “Bantams in Pine-Woods”). Novelists are expansive, systematic, prone to looking through other people’s mail. Novelists are hardy gossips, bred to realism. Poets are post-Romantic waifs of imagination. Poets’ thoughts move cyclically, in rich depths of metaphor, while novelists’ thoughts accumulate in a straight line. The two are unsuited to each other’s work, because—as a commenter writes on the literary blog “Ward Six”—poets “don’t think in terms of story, they think in rhythmic images and symbols, just as novelists, when they try to write poetry, are plodding and linear.”
Is there any reason to believe that this is true?
So asks Brian Philips in the May issue of Poetry. He examines work by a few recent poets who’ve criss-crossed the border between poetry and fiction – Laura Kasischke, Forrest Gander, Carol Muske-Dukes, and Mary Ruefle – and looks at the larger picture:
“Why do we go on thinking that poetry and fiction require different temperaments? The answer probably has something to do with recent literary history. In English, the list of writers who have attained real prominence in both forms is brief, barely extending beyond Poe, Hardy, and perhaps D.H. Lawrence in 170 years. To these we might add a number of writers who vibrantly supplemented their major work with work in a different form (Melville, Robert Creeley, possibly Randall Jarrell) as well as a few contemporaries (Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje) who have managed something like parallel careers, though in most cases – Paul Auster is another example – they are better known for their fiction. The list of failures (Yeats’s novels, Joyce’s poems, Hemingway’s poems) is of course considerable. Partly as a result of this, and partly as a result of the greater commercial prospects of fiction over the last century, poetry and fiction have evolved divergent professional structures that tacitly encourage writers to specialize.
It’s also the case, however, that the period of time since the emergence of the novel as a reliably popular form – barely 200 years – is a relative trifle, a sliver, in the history of poetry. It coincides almost exactly with the rise of lyric as the predominant poetic form. (Jane Austen was at work on a draft of Sense and Sensibility in 1798, the year Lyrical Ballads was published.) Before that dual occurrence, poetry was a vital receptacle of narrative art, of storytelling – literally so in early oral cultures, where one of poetry’s functions was to serve as a kind of jar for carrying stories around in. The novel, which extended and revised fictional narrative, nevertheless began by inheriting a narrative grammar that had been developed in the epic, the romance, the ballad, and the verse drama, among other sources, in the hundreds of years when linear imaginative storytelling was seen as belonging to the poet’s powers, not departing from them.
By the early twentieth century, the embouchure of poetry had contracted, and its sense of itself had shifted, in a way that turned narrative storytelling largely over to prose. Narrative poetry is still written, of course, but culturally it’s an adjunct phenomenon; adjunct to lyric, adjunct to the novel. The mainstream conception of a poem, which certainly affects the way poems are written and read, is of a brief personal effluence, an icon of experience rather than a brocade of events.”
I’d say that among recent storytellers in the two genres, Janet Frame could successfully wear both hats (and perhaps I should be careful using that expression: after years in a New Zealand mental hospital she only avoided being forced to have a lobotomy because her first book was awarded a literary prize). She engaged in what we might now call slow poetry – she was in no hurry to publish poems, and filed hers away in an outdoor goose bath when she finished writing them; yet she did publish eleven good novels, not to mention several memoirs (filmed as An Angel at My Table) and collections of stories.
Here’s a poem recently retrieved from the goose bath:
The Sick Pawpaw
Hideole old cripple pestered
with crime-fibres of thirst and fever
winding strangling your infertile body
your stem, your sick backbone their spool
to weave your envy of monkey-apple, snowberry,
seven-storey beanflower with bees and sun
early sweeping the white carpet, drift
and pile of pollen on the black stairway;
of soldering bolt of orange and lemon fruit
melting, moulding the dark
poured like winterfall to fit your shape
alone, rocking hopeless helpless in Eden
snake-bitten Hideole old cripple
knowing malice, death, weaving the sack
to steal your fuel from orange and lemon, burn
the snowberry and the beautiful tall stairway.
And here’s a bit of her fiction, from the posthumously published novel (her twelfth), Towards Last Summer:
“In the centre of the attic, piled high, were months and years of literary weeklies and other magazines already brown at the edges, with brown stains on the covers as if Damp (here they talk of him with dread: Damp has got into the house) had come to life and leaned his wet hand upon the paper.
- Now I know where literary weeklies go, Grace thought, with the interest of someone who has solved the problem of flies in winter, pins from a packet, and other such mysteries. A bookshelf near the magazines held Anne’s Training College and University books and miscellaneous books belonging to Philip. In this house books had no boundaries; they over flowed, flooded; you had to stand on the roof waving for help, thinking regretfully of your best cherished furniture already ruined by the rising, seeping ideas . . .”
Standing and waving among the ideas: a good place for poet and fiction-writer alike? As Philips concludes:
“In children, the impulse to tell stories and the impulse to play with words often seem to coincide, seem, indeed, to be part of the same impulse. The differences between poetry and fiction, between poets and fiction writers, may now be too well understood, may be understood with an artificial certainty. It may be more useful at the moment to think about their similarities.”
Pictured: Charles Dickens on a reading tour… standing and waving!