Last time around, I dealt with the unreadable poems of the fictional poets in Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives, or what one fellow blogger neatly dubbed, "dark-matter." It’s not that these unreadable poems are composed solely of punctuation or something, like the experimental works of D.L., the self-anointed postmodernist in a certain David Foster Wallace novella. The Savage Detectives’ poems are unreadable because they’re nowhere to be found, because Bolaño withholds them from the reader, even though Bolaño, a novelist and poet, could’ve easily ghostwritten some decent lines for his characters. It’s fascinating, though, when novelists – especially those who aren’t known as poets – actually do write some poetry, for the purpose of, say, prodding along a novel’s plot. We usually neglect them, these works-of-art-within-works-of-art, but they’re not without their critics and admirers.

In Stephen King’s pulp fiction, The Wastelands, the character Jake, a teenager with one foot in another dimension (bear with me here), channels onto paper an involuntary incantation, which his teacher mistakes for a precociously poetic response to a homework assignment. The incantation, “My Understanding of Truth,” is not great, at least by the standards of a Poetry magazine, but it’s good enough to earn an A+. The teacher is impressed – “Younger students are often attracted to so-called ‘stream-of-consciousness’ writing, but are rarely able to control it” – and she even suggests Jake’s work be published in the school’s student magazine. Jake laughs. He thought he had been losing his mind. It turns out he is merely a Romantic poet, an antenna receiving lines like:
The way station is the truth.
The Speaking Demon is the truth.
We went under the mountains and that is the truth.
There were monsters under the mountain. That is the truth.
One of them had an Amoco gas pump between his legs and was pretending it was his penis. That is the truth.
I remember admiring Jake’s weird poem when I first read King’s novel, when I was a teenager and thought poems ought to be weird. Now I admire the harmlessly human fun of it all: as the ultimate sovereign over the world of his novel, King gets to play poet, via Jake, but gets to play critic, too, judging his poem-within-a-novel a success.
Nabokov plays poet and critic, albeit on a much larger scale, in his Pale Fire, which consists of a 999-line poem (by a character named John Shade) and its critical commentary (which makes up the remainder of the work). Shade isn’t real, but he’s real enough; he possesses a biography, a bibliography, and, of course, the 999-line poem, which is quite good for a poem that doesn’t exist in the world outside of Pale Fire; which is, one could also say, as good as a poem by Nabokov himself.
Pynchon’s slim work of art, The Crying of Lot 49, nevertheless finds room to house its own works of art, plus their critics. Listen to “Miles’s Song,” a pricelessly bad British Invasion knockoff by an American band called the Paranoids:
Too fat to Frug,
That’s what you tell me all the time,
When you really try’n’ to put me down,
But I’m hip,
So close your big fat lip,
Yeah, baby,
I may be too fat to Frug,
But at least I ain’t too slim to Swim.
“‘It’s lovely,’” says one of the characters, politely, “‘but why do you sing with an English accent when you don’t talk that way?’” The characters in The Crying of Lot 49 also enjoy a performance of a Jacobean revenge play called The Courier’s Tragedy, a sensational snuff drama in which a character named Ercole waves around a rapier (tipped with, what else, an impaled flaming tongue) and seems to have blank verse on the brain:
Thy pitiless unmanning is most meet,
Thinks Ercole the zany Paraclete.
Descended this malign, Unholy Ghost,
Let us begin thy frightful Pentecost.
The lights go out, the act ends, and someone in the audience – perhaps anticipating the response of Pynchon’s real-world reader – says, “Ick.” In Pynchon’s prose, there’s always a little song, and everyone’s a critic.
Our real-world playwrights have long enjoyed this convention of the play-within-a-play, which can be an easier, more manageable production to pull off than the plain old play itself. I like to think Shakespeare enjoyed imagining his most famous play-within-a-play, The Mouse-trap, a remake of The Murther of Gonzago, which appears in Hamlet and kick-starts the murderous Claudius’ conscience, sending him out of the theatre and off to prayer. If only all plays could be so literally moving. And if only all plays had a resource like Hamlet, the amateur critic, who not only tweaks the script but offers sound criticism and acting tips to its players, just before the curtain goes up.
There’s a canon of these works-of-art-within-works-of-art (with their attendant criticism) just waiting to be constructed by some budding Bloom – including the critically acclaimed assemblages in William Gibson’s Count Zero, and the fake discography Lester Bangs forges for the real-world garage band, Count Five. Or maybe this canon wants a community of Blooms, who will offer more diverse examples than I do, including ones by non-white, non-male writers; Wikipedia of all things has an entry, “Story within a story,” that’s worth a look and echoes some of my choices.
Writers rarely have much control over how their works are received, but they do have control over the worlds their writing frames. Granted, the laws of these worlds can be disconcerting: the critic Philip Marchand, who once took an inventory of Margaret Atwood’s novels, discovered that her male characters tend to be mediocre artists, fated to preside over “inane,” “farcical” works. Still, I’m charmed by the very human impulse to smuggle into a novel some amateur poetry, to imagine an art that doesn’t need to work too hard, that can be greeted as a readymade success or dismissed with a single damning “Ick,” depending on the mood of a King or a Pynchon. These works-within-works don’t need publishers, and don’t need to be in good taste. They don’t obey our laws, and don’t have to. They don’t even have to be any good, though they sometimes are (Wikipedia tells us that stories-within-stories are often cutting-room-floor scraps, too rich to discard). These works need merely to be imagined. As the main character in J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace observes, while writing his touchingly tasteless opera about Byron’s mistress: “Surely, in a work that will never be performed, all things are permitted?”

Originally Published: February 11th, 2009

Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

  1. February 12, 2009

    There are many such "faux" poems to be found in A. S. Byatt's novel, Possession. I think it must take real skill to write in the style of someone else, especially if you are primarily a novelist and not a poet.

  2. February 13, 2009

    Excellent post. There’s and interesting idea that shadows your arguments, and that is: are poetry and fiction separate skills and does mastery at one form preclude mastery of the other. One can think of very few writers who were able to pull of both forms at levels that have insured their survival as poets we still read, and novelists we still read. Shakespeare of course mixes prose and poetry throughout his plays, depending on character status, setting and dramatic needs. But I am thinking more of writers who do both, separately, and at a high level. There are many formidable poet critics, many poets who write prose (poet’s prose, poetic prose, call it what you will). But this was not the case with Thomas Hardy, nor was it with D.H. Lawrence. Pasternak seems the preeminent example. His early prose could still be situated within the context of poet’s prose. But Dr. Zhivago presents quite a different order of accomplishment. Updike’s poetry, while not necessarily terrible, never reached anything near the level of his fiction. Peter Handke is the only other case that I can think of off the top of my head. More noted for his Novels and plays, some of his poetry is formidable indeed.
    Crucial in your presentation is the case of Nabokov and his novel Pale Fire. You say that he “plays poet and critic”. But I wander if “play” is an adequate term (although certainly a high level of play and irony run through his oeuvre). But since he was a serious poet and a serious critic, as well as one of the 20th century’s greatest novelists, this separates him fundamentally from the rest of your examples. After all he wrote poetry assiduously and with great dedication until he was in his late twenties, and his first novel, Mashenka only appeared in 1926, when he was a twenty-seven year old poet, and well-established as such in his émigré setting.
    As late as 1959 he would bring out Poems and Problems with Doubleday. This book contained thirty-nine Russian poems, with translations and fourteen original English poems. And yet he had a much higher opinion of his Russian poetry. This is what he had to say: "Somehow, [the English poems] are of a lighter texture than the Russian stuff, owing, no doubt, to their lacking that inner verbal association with old perplexities and constant worry of thought which marks poems written in one's mother tongue, with exile keeping up its parallel murmur and a never-resolved childhood plucking at one's rustiest chords." (

  3. February 13, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Iolanthe, thanks for the excellent suggestion. And I agree: I think it takes great skill to write in another style. So many of these works-within-works are wonderful in-and-of-themselves. Even the more lurid matter, like Pynchon's British Invasion knockoff, demonstrates a certain insight.
    Martin, thanks for your great comments. Nabokov does seem to be of a different order, doesn't he? I can't comment on Updike - I haven't read enough - but the New Yorker's recent retrospective featured some lovely poems. There may not be many more as good as these, but I wish I could write one poem as perfect as "Telephone Poles."

  4. February 14, 2009
     Brian Bartlett

    One novel this discussion makes me think of is A. S. Byatt's Possession, which includes great gobs of poetry written by her fictional poet. When I read the novel well over a decade ago, I gave Byatt's poetry (maybe unfairly) the most superficial of skims, thinking that if I was going to give it close attention I should do so only after getting much more familiar with Tennyson, Arnold, and the Rossettis. I suspect other readers not well-versed in Victorian poetry might've felt and done the same. A fascinating study could be made (if it hasn't already been) of poets who lend or give poems previously published under their own names to fictional creations of theirs. For one, Poe did this sometimes, publishing, in one case, "The Haunted House" as his own, then as Roderick Usher's (I think that was the order, though maybe it worked both ways in dffierent cases, the fictional accreditation sometimes occuring after, and sometimes before, the work was published under the author's name). What was the case with the poems Pasternak gave Zhivago? Where they published first as Pasternak's, without the novel's framework? As for Nabokov, one of Canada's very best living poets, Don Coles, once told me how much he admired the poetry in Pale Fire.

  5. February 15, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Thanks, Brian. Okay, that's two votes for Possession. I really need to hunker down w/ this novel. I'm not surprised Don Coles admired the poetry in Pale Fire. I suspect a lot of people admire the work of 'John Shade.' (A silly question, perhaps, but has anyone ever anthologized the poetry from Pale Fire? And under whose name? An anthology of works-within-works would be fascinating, though it would be nice to see these works infiltrate the 'real' anthologies, too...)

  6. February 15, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Not anthologized, exactly, but an excerpt from Shade's poem in Pale Fire appears in Also with My Throat I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords: Araki Yasusada's Letters in English (Combo Books, 2006).

  7. February 16, 2009

    Just a side note, to add onto the list of works-within... Zadie Smith's novel On Beauty attributes a poem of the same title by her husband, Nick Laird, to one of the characters, and it acts as an essential analysis of the book's greater theme. I'm sure lots of novelists quote published poetry, but I wonder how many appropriate poems for their writer-characters. (Lucky characters...)

  8. February 16, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Kent, thanks for that. Good to know. It would be a perverse thrill to one day find an entry in a 'real world' anthology, for one 'John Shade', but now I'm being silly...

  9. February 17, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    And yes, Mairead, lucky characters indeed!

  10. February 20, 2009
     thomas brady

    Poe's poem was called 'The Haunted Palace,' not 'The Haunted House,' and it was published 5 months previously on its own, before it appeared in 'The Fall of the House of Usher' and the poem may have suggested the tale.
    Another Poe poem, 'The Conqueror Worm' also appeared as a poem before it was included in Poe's tale 'Ligeia.'
    Poe consciously mixed prose and poetry together perhaps better than anyone save Shakespeare.
    Poetry has much to gain by insinuating itself into the more popular novel form. I'm surprised more poets don't do it. Poems in a novel can advance character development, as well as plot, and can also set mood, scene, etc. I would think it would be easier for a poet to turn novelist than for a novelist to become a poet. But that's open to question. I've written a character-driven novel which uses some poems.

  11. February 21, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Thomas, thanks for clarifying!