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Standing and waving

By Don Share

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!

Comments (53)

  • On May 18, 2009 at 5:48 pm mearl wrote:


    Haven’t yet read the Philips article, but can’t wait to do so. In the meantime, this is a fantastic post. “The Sick Pawpaw” has something of a Les Murray feeling to it, a narrative-shed hymn to the moment. Your setting the goose bath poem against the paragraphs from Frame’s 12th novel shows us how different the two operations actually are. There’s no reckoning formally, it would seem, and, as you say, it is rare thing that authors manage both forms equally. Some hybrids come to mind: Hebdomeros, a dreamscape of a novel written by a painter, of all things, Giorgio de Chirico; or Patchen’s The Journal of Albion Moonlight. It could be a more European talent: Pasternak (as important as Hardy in his double accomplishment), Rilke to a certain extent, and then the great example of Ceasare Pavese, who did major work in both fiction and poetry, not to mention translation. One of our great contemporary examples is Harry Mathews. His early poetry is fascinating, likewise his early novels, the faux trilogy published by Random House back in the 70s. But his later novels are simply astonishing, especially The Journalist. They make one want to revisit his poetry, which he continues to write. We also shouldn’t forget Peter Handke, on the Europe’s greatest living writers, who like Beckett, has written important works in poetry, fiction and theatre.

    Thanks for the great post; it’s an immense topic.


  • On May 18, 2009 at 5:59 pm Tim Upperton wrote:

    Three other New Zealand poet-novelists worthy of mention: Robin Hyde, Ian Wedde and C.K. Stead (author of eleven novels and fourteen poetry collections, as well as half a dozen books of literary criticism).

  • On May 18, 2009 at 9:17 pm Marty Elwell wrote:

    I picked up a used copy of Günter Grass’s Selected Poems 1956-1993 while poking around in Powell’s Bookstore on North Lincoln in Chicago. In the preface, Michael Hamburger says this about Grass:

    “From the first, and in all his media, it has been Günter Grass’s distinction to strike a peculiar balance between the usually irreconcilable extremes of personal, almost obsessive idiosyncrasy on the one hand, and of social conscience and social vision on the other.”

  • On May 19, 2009 at 6:44 am Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

    I’m thinking it’s more a matter of excellence in either genre, and/or cross genre.(As was discussed on another post, Updike was not at all an excellent poet.) Frame is.

    And to prove her excellence of her poetry inside her fiction, rather than the quote you offer, Don,which is still somewhat prosaic, but not so in much of the rest of that book… I’d rather point, from the same novel, “Towards Another Summer” to the following, early in the book:

    ” She took the pill, slept, and woke at midnight, and lay thinking of temperature, light, migratory birds, Coriolis force, and the slow thaw spreading, with rain from the west; and the misty cloud gathering in her head, and her freely flowing blood released from its glacial well; and her heart beat faster as she felt the skin of her arms and legs, her breasts and belly, and even on the top of her head the tiny prickling beginning of the growth of feathers. …..she threw back the blankets and examined her skin. No feathers, Only a sensation of down and quill and these, with manifestations of the other world, could be kept secret; no one else need learn of it. In a way it was a relief to discover her true identity. For so long she had felt not-human, yet had been unable to move toward another species; now the solution had been found for her; she was a migratory bird; warbler, wagtail, yellowhammer? cuckoo-shrike, bobolink, skua? albatross, orange bishop, godwit??

    Filled with all elements of poetry, imho.

    Many years ago, one of the grand old science fiction writers, Theodore Sturgeon, once showed me how a paragraph he’d written (in a short tale called “Bianca’s Hands,”) that he’d needed to build in lyric drama and shine, was in fact written in perfect iambic pentameter. See, he showed me–you can write good prose and still be a poet. A point I’ve apparently never forgotten, as I have come to love mix/cross genre…and again,it all depends on excellence, not label.

    And yes, Martin, an immense topic, to be sure.

    all best,

  • On May 19, 2009 at 10:02 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    Though where does the prose poem fit in?

    Not that anyone has figured out what a prose poem exactly is…


  • On May 19, 2009 at 10:27 am Miriam Levine wrote:

    I’m thinking of D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. They wrote poetry and fiction without thinking much about the distinctions between temperaments. Virginia Woolf: a poet in prose. Margaret Atwood does both. James Joyce a pretty good poet; Hemingway wrote poems early in his career. There are so many who worked in both genres without self-consciousness.

  • On May 19, 2009 at 11:03 am Don Share wrote:

    Thanks, Miriam!

    Phillips mentions Lawrence, Hardy, Atwood, Hemingway, and Joyce; he counts some of these to be failures in poetry (see my quote from the piece, above) – and I think I agree. Atwood is not among the failures, but he says she’s more known for her fiction, which is probably debatable. Woolf did, in fact, write poems. (This is a good excuse to mention Jackson Mac Low’s book of “Virginia Woolf poems”!) Another possible failure (at fiction): Larkin.

    I’d say myself that the poems of Hardy and Lawrence are very self-conscious of their genres, but that’s my own sense of things… not a disagreement.

  • On May 19, 2009 at 11:33 am Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:


  • On May 19, 2009 at 11:37 am Don Share wrote:

    Hard to think how they might fit in. Roberto Bolaño has written poems, prose poems, and novels – calling Erica Mena! I’m having trouble thinking of others who’ve done all three.

  • On May 19, 2009 at 11:56 am Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

    I’d say Jorge Luis Borges does all three, tho I do like to push the edges of pigeon holes, if at all possible.

    Also, not 100% sure about the prose poem,here, but fine Australian writer David Malouf does the 2 for sure, & again, his prose is definitely a poetic prose.

    back to the mix-master…

  • On May 19, 2009 at 12:01 pm Don Share wrote:

    Did Borges do novels?

  • On May 19, 2009 at 12:14 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Thanks, Don. Interesting topic.

    A question: Hardy wrote both, but did he do both as smoothly as we seem to be implying here? I remember Hardy giving up fiction in a great big huff (not enough recognition or sales?) and making a great break: I’ve had enough of pandering to the middle classes! I’m a poet, now!

    One thinks of Hawthorne, whose prose was like poetry, complaining bitterly of the rise of middlebrow novels for women.

    Was it a class thing for a while, the novel v. poetry?

    Did poetry bet against democracy too much? Was the House of Poetry decision to go with the lonely Wordsworth instead of the garrulous Byron a mistake?

    How quickly we went from the wild popularity of Byron to the idea that “a long poem doesn’t exist.” A few decades after Don Juan, and Byron was utterly rejected by poets and novelists alike. Was the idea of Byron simply too big for any genre to hold?

    “A long poem doesn’t exist.” But a long song doesn’t exist either, and that’s why we have musicals and operas. What is the literary equivalent of the musical? A novel crammed with great poems? I’ve never read such a thing in English.


  • On May 19, 2009 at 12:15 pm Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

    well , maybe you’ll wish to redefine novel in his case, pushing boundaries as he did… 🙂 Borges is certainly reputed for his stories, mny of which link into full blown works,
    “J. M. Coetzee said of Borges: “He, more than anyone, renovated the language of fiction and thus opened the way to a remarkable generation of Spanish American novelists”

  • On May 19, 2009 at 12:30 pm Don Share wrote:

    Good points & good questions here, Thomas.

    I’m with you re Hardy; and you’re right to ask about class. I also have often wondered about juxtaposing Byron and Wordsworth; and Byron was arguably a kind of Dickens-of-poetry in terms of the great expectations (no pun intended) of each installment of his doings.

    Novel crammed with great poems… I dunno, Pale Fire? Yeah, I know!!! But how ’bout Dr. Zhivago?

  • On May 19, 2009 at 12:38 pm john wrote:

    Wilde and Stein wrote novels, verse, and prose poetry, and Sherman Alexie is a successful poet, novelist, and screenwriter. I haven’t read Vikram Seth’s novels in prose, but I really enjoyed his novel-in-sonnets, “The Golden Gate.” He’s also translated poetry from the T’ang dynasty.

    Prose fictions with poems embedded: Milne’s Pooh books, and “Sweeney Astray.”

  • On May 19, 2009 at 1:00 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Eliot Weinberger has been making, since Karmic Traces, something new of the “essay.” I’ve often thought of him as a strange, major poet in prose disguise.

    Forrest Gander’s essays, too, oscillate between genre poles at odd, thrilling frequencies.

    Is Hejinian’s My Life prose or poetry?

    Why is Silliman’s work usually thought of as poetry, instead of prose?

    Verily, there are some Tibetan demons lurking in this topic.


  • On May 19, 2009 at 3:56 pm j.h. stotts wrote:

    hardy, lawrence, and beckett. right. robert penn warren, john updike (who knew?!), victor hugo is the biggest and the best.

    what about drama?–tennessee williams triangulated (no novels, though), david mamet.

    it doesn’t seem uncommon at all

  • On May 19, 2009 at 4:07 pm Don Share wrote:

    The point isn’t that it’s uncommon.

    Phillips is asking where one genre diverges from the other – and ultimately, where they converge:

    “… 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.


    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.”

  • On May 19, 2009 at 4:55 pm thomas brady wrote:


    ‘Pale Fire’ begins with a poem, but I suppose this still qualifies it as a legitimate hybrid.

    Dr. Zhivago? I didn’t know that had a lot of poems–I should read it some day.

    There was that A.S. Byatt novel with all sorts of poems–but the poems weren’t particularly good. Still, that qualifies, I think.

    Would a novel intersperced with prose poems even be recognized as a hybrid?


    Winnie the Pooh! Of course! That might be the best example yet.

    I suppose a lot of children’s books have narratives peppered with songs, poems, etc. I don’t know if this is an indicator of anything.

    I did read Seth’s “Golden Gate” and was quite impressed.

    Isn’t “Sweeney Astray” a translation of “Buile Shuibhne?”

    What I love about this discussion is that I don’t know if we are talking more about genres, class or personal temperaments.

    I think this sonnet by Keats on things he doesn’t like is an interesting take on the whole matter. See, especially, ‘a tear dropped on a greasy novel’ and I also like his impatience with Wordsworth. I have a feeling Keats would have had little patience for the modernists:

    ‘The House of Mourning written by Mr Scott’

    The House of Mourning written by Mr Scott,
    A sermon at the Magdalen, a tear
    Dropped on a greasy novel, want of cheer
    After a walk uphill to a friend’s cot,
    Tea with a maiden lady, a cursed lot
    Of worthy poems with the author near,
    A patron lord, a drunkenness from beer,
    Haydon’s great picture, a cold coffee pot
    At midnight when the Muse is ripe for labour,
    The voice of Mr Coleridge, a French bonnet
    Before you in the pit, a pipe and tabour,
    A damned inseparable flute and neighbor –
    All these are vile, but viler Wordsworth’s sonnet
    On Dover. Dover! – who could write upon it?


  • On May 19, 2009 at 5:17 pm Tim Upperton wrote:

    Lawrence, who has been mentioned a few times here, offers examples of such convergence: think of those incantatory passages in The Plumed Serpent, for example. But those passages are Lawrence at his weakest – tedious and exhortatory, and in the end they don’t, perhaps, qualify: you can see why Lawrence inserted them (to give a sense of authenticity to his resurrected religion), but they are unintegrated, an imposition, and I tend to skip over them.

    At other times, narrative and poetry converge much more convincingly – the beginning of The Rainbow, for example, where the narration of the background of the Brangwens has a historical sweep yet also a kind of stasis (for generations they have lived in an unchanging relation to the land), and a poetic attention to sound.

    One might also adduce Dickens: the obvious examples (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, etc), but also the less obvious. After a burial, for instance, in Martin Chuzzlewit:
    “The gates were closed; the night was dark and wet; the rain fell silently among the stagnant weeds and nettles. One new mound was there which had not been there last night. Time, burrowing like a mole below the ground, had marked his track by throwing up another heap of earth. And that was all.”

    Such moments in novels often seem to coincide with a stasis in the narrative, a dwelling in the moment that is essentially lyrical.

  • On May 19, 2009 at 6:04 pm Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

    not so, james – Tennessee Williams did write the novel “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.” (1950)

  • On May 19, 2009 at 10:37 pm john wrote:

    Thomas, yes, “Sweeney Astray” is a translation of “Buile Shuibhne”; that’s Heaney’s title. His is the only version I’ve seen — it’s great. The poems function very much as a musical, as you describe. It’s funny — I’ve been fantasizing about a musical e-novel, where at heightened lyrical moments, one could click on a link and hear a song.

    I love Milne’s poems. As a prose writer, he anticipated Borges. This from the closing of “The House at Pooh Corner” suggested at least one plot to the great Argentinian fictioneer, essayist, and poet.

    ” . . . by-and-by they came to an enchanted place on the very top of the Forest called Galleons Lap, . . . . Sitting there they could see the whole world spread out until it reached the sky, and whatever there was all the world over was with them in Galleons Lap.”

  • On May 20, 2009 at 1:16 am Terreson wrote:

    Oh boy. In my view this question is getting approached from so many wrong angles. I think the question has to do with whether or not poets and novelists have separate and incompatible temperaments. And maybe it is the question itself that throws us off the scent.

    Like it or not, economics is a driver in every litterateur’s life. Faulkner put it best when he said of himself that he was a poet by vocation, a novelist by necessity. Novelists have tended to make money, and support themselves on their writing, because the entertainment has been popular. Poets have not, not on the strength of their poetry, not at least since Sir Walter Scott’s wildly popular narrative poems. And I think Shakespeare could have echoed Faulkner, declaring himself a poet by vocation, a dramatist by necessity. I think somewhere I read someone to say the rise of the novel, as popular entertainment, was tied to the rise of the middle-class with its taste for melodrama. This rings true for me. This also suggests that novelists have been pretty darn good at market targeting, much better than poets have. I mean Faulkner could have chosen to keep to his first vocation, but he didn’t. He wanted to make money on his words. And rarely does poetry make money. It is only the appointments that come with the office that make a poet money.

    There is something else to consider. It has to do with something Thomas of Aquinas said. He sorted out poetry into three types: lyric, narrative, and dramatic. And I figure he is still spot on. Like it or not, even considering the LangPo stuff, poets today work in the lyric, I/Thou, address. The narrative poetry of the old epics has become, for better or worse, the melodramatic stuff of novels. The dramatic poet who might have worked in blank verse has turned into the playwright on broadway and into the screenwriter. Viewed from a certain standpoint it is all still poetry.

    So no. I don’t think there are temperamental differences between a poet and a novelist. Just a difference in means and approaches.


  • On May 20, 2009 at 1:21 am Vivek Narayanan wrote:

    I thought the Brian Philips essay initially promising but ultimately quite disappointing. This has happened with other essays of his that I have read in Poetry–he opens up a major question in a fascinating, original way and then goes absolutely nowhere with it. Before he lapsed into superficial review mode, completely draining the energy he’d gathered,I thought he was really onto something talking about (perhaps) the post-enlightenment emergence of the novel as a declared ethics and sensibility with the lyric becoming a refuge for more unaccountable energies (though I can’t say exactly where narrative fits in–what is romanticism if not narrative?), but we miss the point in talking only about whether particular instances are “successful” or not. I think the distinction between poetry and prose goes to the very heart of how we have come to organise the nature of our knowledge as well as our perception (over time) as a species. It’s certainly a historical distinction, certainly constantly evolving and not immutable, but not a trivial division either. It’s also a question of reading. To address’s Kent’s point about Silliman, I find some of the latter’s poetry quite compelling, a page-turner, but somehow only when I read it as I would a prose novel (an experimental novel, let’s say) and not as poetry. Somehow the poetry neurons in my head don’t fire for Silliman.

  • On May 20, 2009 at 1:48 am john wrote:

    Viewed from a certain standpoint it is all poetry — yes, yes, yes. I’ve been thinking about this a lot — I think it was Raymond Chandler who said that Shakespeare today would be a screenwriter.

    “If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”

    Almost sounds Shakespearean.

    Also agree that the LangPos work in the lyric tradition. W.R. Johnson’s brilliant book “The Idea of Lyric” is helpful on this point: He historically tracks the diversion of the impetus of lyric from I/Thou direct address to one of meditation and soliloquy, naming Wordsworth, Mallarme, and Eliot as landmarks along the way. The LangPos firmly in the tradition of soliloquy. Rexroth on the “long poem” tradition is helpful too — but now I don’t remember his exact phrase! Something to the effect of, beginning with Whitman, and through Pound and Zukofsky and Olson and the rest, poets have made long poems out of medleys (or rhapsodies, though he doesn’t use the word, it’s etymologically relevant) of philosophical meditation.

    Epic/dramatic/lyric is the relevant — and classical — taxonomy.


    Now, the question is . . . how does a talent for lyric connect with a talent for epic? Didn’t Plato or was it Aristotle say that a poet should be able to write both kinds, Country AND Western?

  • On May 20, 2009 at 5:13 am Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

    “Now, the question is . . . how does a talent for lyric connect with a talent for epic? Didn’t Plato or was it Aristotle say that a poet should be able to write both kinds, Country AND Western?”

    yes, John, some have…see W.S. Merwin’s “The Folding Cliffs” –great story (actually based upon the same well known tale of an escape as Jack London told in a short story, but Merwin makes it a truly great epic poem, and, an even grander scoped story…because he “can.”

    back to an earlier comment- i believe it’s the ‘can” factor – excellence & desire, as ever.

  • On May 20, 2009 at 8:37 am thomas brady wrote:


    This is brilliant:

    “I’ve been fantasizing about a musical e-novel, where at heightened lyrical moments, one could click on a link and hear a song.”

    I love it!


  • On May 20, 2009 at 8:55 am thomas brady wrote:


    Believe it or not, I really think we can make too much of this ‘writing for money’ thing.

    For instance, Shakespeare reached more people with his dramas–isn’t that a good thing? Why can’t we think of Shakespeare writing plays to reach more people, rather than, ‘oh I’m really a poet, but I have to pay the bills.’
    There’s a certain truth, obviously, to appealing to the mass to get an income, but where great writers are concerned, we should give them a little more credit.

    Poe said it’s good to get read; if you are a writer, you want people to read you; making money is secondary. By the way, Paul Lewis, professor at Boston College, has a deft reply in the latest “New Yorker” (Letters to the Editor) to Jill Lepore’s crude, hysterical picture of Poe as an audience-hating, money-making author.

    Secondly, you accuse of novelists of “melodrama,” but can’t “melodrama” apply to any genre?

    Thirdly, Aquinas was not the first to break poetry down into lyric, narrative, dramatic. That was Plato, who described a poem as having one voice, like a narrative, or many voices, as in drama, with the lyric being the song proper. That’s a pretty common sense division. The real question in any fiction, or any non-fiction, really, is: Whose voice is this?


  • On May 20, 2009 at 9:18 am thomas brady wrote:


    Plato only said the poet should praise gods and heroes.

    But actually, Plato was more coy on poetry than most realize, and he even has Socrates admit he wrote verses.

    Socrates had a dream which told him to make verses where the words inform the meaning and not the other way around.

    I don’t know what to make of this, really, but this sounds like a wonderful definition, for me, of ‘the lyric.’

    The ‘I/thou’ or meditative character, which is often used to describe the lyric is NOT philsophically sound, and does NOT define the lyric ONLY. I believe this is wrong-headed line of inquiry and really distorts the entire actual history of literature. I believe this silly idea arose during that loony era in poetry known as Modernism.


  • On May 20, 2009 at 9:47 am thomas brady wrote:

    The difficulty we are having with this topic is due, I think, to the following:

    The rise of the novel happened because of mass literacy and democracy, which is a good thing.

    But democractic movements tend to be burdened with a ‘dumbing down,’ which is a bad thing.

    Naturally, we wish to reconcile the good with the bad.

    On the face of it, an exquisitely written epic poem should always be a greater piece of literature than a novel (in prose) for what can the novel in prose offer that the epic poem cannot?

    Even if we grant Poe’s idea that ‘a long poem does not exist,’ in which he says ‘Paradise Lost’ will inevitably lose its flair for a reader after half an hour and ‘seem like prose’ simply because the reader cannot physically absorb poetry for more than this amount of time, isn’t the flagging reader still reading a superior work?

    Is not a long poem superior in every sense to a novel? Just in terms of what they are?

    But now steps forward ‘naturalism’ with its answer. If the epic poem does not feel ‘natural’ to us, we cannot enjoy it as a ‘real’ product. We are ‘elevated’ but not convinced. Persuasion may require an address that is NOT elevated, for the cunning purposes of its end.

    So the first novels were often epistolary. We read a series of letters and now we are not reading ‘a great poem’ in which we are detached from reality and dwelling in a higher one, but reading the real, (letters, someone else’s mail) as it were. This sensation is a powerful one for those who do not wish to receive data in an elevated manner.

    So here is the advantage of the novel over the epic poem: the former gives the illusion of reality. Of course the poet’s response might be, ‘This is stupid. Novels are not real.’

    But ‘real’ is what they (the masses) want.

    I said before I think the rise of the novel corresponded with the rise of the acceptance of adultery, or immorality. Not immorality itself, but acceptance, or, a wrestling with the idea of accepting it. For such an ‘argument,’ going against accepted convention, would best be expressed in the natural manner, not the elevated one.

    The poem of elevated language is nothing more than ‘polish’ and ‘finish’ covering accepted moral convention and story. To go against accepted moral convention, to convince (NOT deceive) but to convince, the ‘polish’ naturally *comes off.*


  • On May 20, 2009 at 11:04 am Vivek Narayanan wrote:

    “On the face of it, an exquisitely written epic poem should always be a greater piece of literature than a novel (in prose) for what can the novel in prose offer that the epic poem cannot?”

    “Is not a long poem superior in every sense to a novel? Just in terms of what they are?”

    Thomas, not at all–they are just different modes. Higher is not necessarily better! Sometimes it makes sense to get down and dirty.

    “So here is the advantage of the novel over the epic poem: the former gives the illusion of reality.”

    Anyway, I think it’s silly for us to be wrestling with some paradigmatic (probably 19th century) picture of what a novel is or should be when we know it’s had a rich and very varied history.

  • On May 20, 2009 at 12:02 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    On Don’s question about hybrid fiction/poetry works– the Yasusada books would be an example, I think. All in all, there is probably more prose in the two books than poetry(the second book, with exception of various haiku and a passage from Pale Fire in a footnote, is entirely prose). Still, almost all the commentary on Yasusada discusses the work as *poetry*, when the writing could just as defensibly be discussed as an experiment in fiction. I suppose it’s because the controversy was most intensely focused inside the *poetry community* that the work was fated to be categorized as Poetry-in-genre.

    And that raises a larger question, I guess: When and why do a text’s generic reception and classification become as much determined by sociological location/constellation as by the genre conventions that mark it? Again, what has caused, for prominent example, Ron Silliman’s insistent, massive output of prose to be unproblematically taken as “poetry”? The work itself, or its initial conception as iconoclastic gesture inside and against the *poetic field*? And, further, one could ask, what energies in the field make former “anti-poets” like Silliman, or Bernstein, or Hejinian, or Watten, or Armantrout, etc. evolve into meticulous, self-conscious custodians of very traditional Poet roles, even as the formal contours of the “rebellious” work proper have very little changed?


  • On May 20, 2009 at 12:10 pm thomas brady wrote:


    I appreciate your reply, but frankly I’m not sure what you are saying. Yes, I know the long poem and the novel are “different modes.” I’m not really sure why you feel the need to inform me of this. I’m trying to ascertain the essence of their differences, which you haven’t commented on, except to say the novel has a ‘rich and varied history.’ I agree. It does have a rich and varied history. But…I guess I’m not sure what your point is…


  • On May 20, 2009 at 12:28 pm thomas brady wrote:

    “Again, what has caused, for prominent example, Ron Silliman’s insistent, massive output of prose to be unproblematically taken as “poetry”?”

    Interesting question, Kent. After all, the labeling process is crucial to how a work is received, read, etc.

    Maybe it’s come down to this: palatability.

    Prose is fast food, and poetry is complex sauces and bitter greens surrounding sea creatures with the faces still on.

    Silliman works out of a fine restaurant. The question is: not prose or poetry? The question is: gravy or exotic sauce.

    With the absence of moral judgment: ‘is this good or bad? Is this a better piece of writing than this?’ another sort of judgment has rushed into the vacuum: is this palatable, or not?

    The whole question has become deceptively simple.

    Today, if it’s not palatable to mass taste, it’s poetry.


  • On May 20, 2009 at 1:54 pm Matt wrote:

    apples and oranges

  • On May 20, 2009 at 1:55 pm Vivek Narayanan wrote:

    Oddly Yasusada, which is a fiction and does contain prose, does fire (what I perceive to be) the poetry neurons in my brain. And how. So Kent, is there not also something beyond generic conventions here, the question of how poetry becomes a base of operations for all the ghosts repressed by the enlightenment? Though of course you’re certainly also right when you speak of “[how] a text’s generic reception and classification become as much determined by sociological location/constellation”.

    Hi Thomas, I guess my point is, the novel has a rich [ie. not easily reducible to a set of handy characteristics], varied [ie., not just or necessary realist, empiricist or even narrative] history [ie. not a fixed template across time but dynamic, evolving and self-contradicting; in fact the classic definition of a novel is one that founds/dissolves a new genre with each instance].

    This was in response, particularly, to your characterisation as the novel as a genre that attempts to “create the illusion of reality”– not always true–but also the hidden existence of a normative idea of the novel in Phillips’ own piece (even if he does begin with history).

    When I say the novel and the long poem are different modes I’m arguing for the notion of *difference* as a counter to your claim that one mode is generically *better* than the other. That’s the same claim but in reverse that many novelists and writers like VS Naipaul use to dismiss the enterprise of poetry entirely.

  • On May 20, 2009 at 4:18 pm thomas brady wrote:


    Thanks, again, for your feedback!

    If genres *appeal* to certain populations more than others, if genres *perform,* and do not simply exist as dead things to be classified, then it seems to me that those “differences” to which you refer (and to which I am interested in as well) DO reside in realms of judgment which necessarily include your pejorative “better.” I’m a bit perplexed by your objection, which is based on “variety,” of which I do not deny.

    I asked: what can a novel do that a epic poem cannot? This line of reasoning was not pursued just so I could declare one genre a “winner” over the other. I asked the question in terms of comparison and to simplify for the purposes of investigation. “Better” is a tool which guides critical judgment and I am certainly not alone in using this tool. Again, I’m not sure what you are saying beyond ‘comparison is impossible because the matter is too complex,’ which, I suppose, you can say, but it holds no interest for me as an approach.


  • On May 20, 2009 at 8:47 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    If you wander around a Borders Bookstore or Barnes & Noble these days, & sympathize with all that forlorn timber, leaning sideways on those shelves, & the lost people hobbling around between the coffee shop & the NEW DISCOUNT RACK, you realize, eventually, that all the modes & genres are the same.

    They’re all obituaries.

  • On May 20, 2009 at 8:54 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    col. (crying out loud).

  • On May 20, 2009 at 10:21 pm thomas brady wrote:


    Don’t be so pessimistic. Think of Ezra Pound, a ranting madman, surviving a couple of world wars, and winning a Bolingen.

    There’s hope for all of us.

    I’ll have a latte, please.


  • On May 20, 2009 at 10:34 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Just to be clear on why I express myself in a rudimentary philosophical manner, and why I avoid academic jargon;
    It has much to do with what T.S. Eliot once wrote:

    “The vast accumulations of knowledge–or at least of information–deposited by the nineteenth century have been responsible for an equally vast ignorance. When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when every one knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not.”

    T.S. Eliot 1920

  • On May 20, 2009 at 11:23 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    The only genre is the “trying not to be dead” genre. It connects with a basic human drive (try not to be dead). This is why the obituary is so important. It’s for everybody else, trying not to be dead. The epitaph.

    The “trying not to be dead” genre incorporates the Vicarious Sacrifice sub-genre, in which literary Types (Kafka, Borges, novelists, etc.) offer themselves as the Living Dead. For the rest of us, the readers, who are trying not to be dead… but we end up, inevitably, on those Borders Bookshelves – with the other fictions, so cool, so great, so dead, so typical. An echo-chamber, much like the Pyramids.

  • On May 20, 2009 at 11:33 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Poe was really into this (as you know, Tom). He was a Classic – trying not to be too alive, or too dead. In order to stay alive (literally), he had to play DEATH (unlike ol’ Possum, who juss PLAYS dead).

  • On May 21, 2009 at 12:15 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Hi Vivek, how are things in Delhi?

    I will have to think about that “ghosts repressed by the Enlightenment” idea. That’s a big one…

    That was a nice teacherly answer on the genre question, by the way, to the snide comment.


  • On May 22, 2009 at 3:42 pm Michael Gushue wrote:

    I’d like to put a plug in for the excellent Rose Metal Press (with which I have no affiliation), which publishes works in just such institial, interlarded and hybrid forms.

  • On May 22, 2009 at 8:02 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    So hey – is this narrative or lyric? Fiction or poetry?
    (original here : http://lanthanumblog.blogspot.com/2009/05/lanthanum-37.html)


    In mid-May Minneapolis, the lilacs reign.
    Enveloping roads and lakes, an ever-present
    scented empire, theirs (invisible, innocent).
    In late dusk-glow we drove the River Road again,

    my father and I. He showed me the old apartment
    (Kearsarge, 15th St.) his diffident Uncle Shelley
    was donated, to keep him straight. Told me
    about his grandmother, Jessie Ophelia – opulent

    Cleopatra Desdemona, her sister – daughters
    of St. Louis riverboat captain. I remember
    my gr-grandmother (known simply as Mom) –
    blind, close to 100, at the head of the dinner

    table, under that jolly panorama (Washington
    and Lafayette, dancing). Going to see her
    at the nursing home, with a curious fear
    of the blind python (Teresias) – soon

    displaced by gentleness (hers) and childish
    boredom (mine). Jessie Ophelia, the river-
    girl. Now somewhere far, with the Ojibwa
    (Sunset Land). Back of my mind (a wish,

    a river-wash, a whisper-flow). These
    celebrated names – out of Poe, Shakespeare,
    vernacular hotels, recitals… float there,
    fondly – Psyche, Ligeia (sprites in a frieze

    across a Petersburg ceiling). Begins
    in the shallows, then runs deep. These
    ladies of the lilac barge will ride the breeze,
    magnetic, magnetized (your river-twins).


  • On May 22, 2009 at 8:09 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    p.s. original includes last-minute c’rections (“Tiresias”, & penultimate line).

  • On May 23, 2009 at 12:42 pm thomas brady wrote:


    In mid-May Minneapolis, the lilacs reign.
    Enveloping roads and lakes, an ever-present
    scented empire, theirs (invisible, innocent).
    In late dusk-glow we drove the River Road again,

    This is prose.

    I’m not sure why it’s not “the lilacs reign, enveloping roads and lakes…” for then it is clear the lilacs are enveloping the roads and lakes. As it is written: “the lilacs reign. Enveloping roads and lakes…” the roads and lakes are not enveloped by lilacs; the roads and lakes are enveloping the landscape.

    You don’t need “roads and lakes,” for we know Minneapolis has roads and lakes; we don’t need “enveloping” or “ever-present scented empire,” for we know lilacs are scented and you’ve already told us “the lilacs reign,” nor do we need “invisible, innocent” which merely sounds hyperbolic.

    “In mid-May Minneapolis, the lilacs reign” is very nice, but then you ruin it.

    The father “showed me” and “told me,” but then we get “I remember” and “going to see her” and then a host of detail which is often lovely, but makes me feel lost; I lose the thread, there’s no unity of effect…

    It is an easy thing to compact recalled scenes into a small frame, but the resulting plethora of detail is too rich; the memory and the telling outruns the form, the art.

    It’s a jumble, I’m afraid. I detect rhymes, but the rhythm is not definite enough; I would not call this poetry.

    This is highly colorful prose and would have much greater force as such, either as an essay, or a short story, or a novel, depending on its ultimate extent.

    You are a genius, Henry, and I hope you don’t mind this advice.


  • On May 23, 2009 at 12:58 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Thomas, thanks for the generous attention & advice, & even your hyperbole. I don’t completely agree with the critique, but it’s appreciated. (The first stanza, for example : “lilacs” is the assumed subject of “enveloping”, obviously. The syntax (ending in “theirs” mimics the envelopment).

    Yes, you do need roads & lakes, because that’s a feature of the Twin Cities area – pervasive lilacs, BORDERING the roads & lakes.

    But you may be right – taken alone, this may be prose. That was my question : I really don’t have the answer. I am extracting part of a longer poem, where river & memory & names coincide. It’s simultaneously prosy & poetic. The names of the ladies & the poets & the lilacs & the Cleopatra “barge” actually do coalesce, but on the level of implication (the poem alludes to two poems by Mandelstam – one about the reflected river-figures (& ladies’ names) floating on the ceiling, another with an image of the Czar’s fateful “lilac sled”). I try to write like Akhmatova, with meanings hidden in boxes with “triple false-bottoms” (or something like that).

  • On May 23, 2009 at 6:12 pm thomas brady wrote:


    “I try to write like Akhmatova…” Akhmatova? Why? Do you speak Russian? From what I have seen of your writing, I would recommend that you read Hawthorne.

    When you mentioned “barge,” I couldn’t help but remember this poem:

    The Bier

    The bier bedecked with funeral flowers floats on the canopied river
    And she who lies upon it is beautiful and will be beautiful forever.
    The flags which flutter over forest and lawn
    Have said goodbye. The ceremony is done.
    The mourners have dragged their crinoline home
    But the tears and sighing go on.

    Shadows drop into the river. Cypress and willow,
    Each tree the eye tries to follow, swims into the valley
    Holding still at thresholds of darkness coiling.
    To bathe in earth and shadow is my love’s dream and so
    I have surrendered complacently to what the eye must do.

    When she and I parted I told her I would remember her beauty
    And even sing of it sometimes to the girls who pass on their way to the well
    And she smiled seeing I was crying, she smiled always
    For crying is no help. And then she smiled her last smile.

    Now when I walk along the river bank and hear the river’s soft sounds,
    The birds sighing in the river trees,
    I have a love affair with my sorrow and tell no one,
    Not even the night, which is listening, nor her, the lately dead,
    Who is listening from her bier.
    When I wake in the morning and think of her,
    I watch the sun slowly climbing up to die.

  • On May 23, 2009 at 7:43 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    As a matter of fact, I do speak a little Russian, brat [“brother”].

    Funny you should mention Hawthorne. I wrote a letter to the editor of Poetry today, & afterwards, it occurred to me that I have this old Puritan attitude, which runs pretty deep. Hate “literature”, yet caught in its golden toils, as they say. Art & Scripture. Makes for an odd (or typical) American streak.

  • On May 24, 2009 at 6:14 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Seriously, though, Thomas – & the other 3 people reading this – it’s not a rhetorical question, about the “Lanthanum” passage (the ladies, the barge, whether it’s prose or poetry). I’m conveying a new prosody, my own private Rhody-prosody.

    For about 15 years I’ve been making these variable “abba” quatrains. It’s become 2nd nature, sort of a strophic strumming. But not just chance : the “abba” is woven into larger patterns. So when you read one quatrain here, there may be another quatrain OVER THERE which rounds it out.

    But it’s not visible. Not at MLA, or AWP, or magazines, or Youtube… only right here! Henry’s infinite 4-line vibrations. It’s like a dog-whistle, beyond human hearing. Sort of a prodigal God-whistle (“Abba”).

  • On August 20, 2009 at 9:11 am Max wrote:

    unappeasable Henry sulked.

Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, May 18th, 2009 by Don Share.