David Orr Reviews Nabokov's Selected Poems and Pale Fire
Here is David Orr's review of two Nabokov collections, via The New York Times.
The club of novelist-poets is distinguished but tiny. Thomas Hardy is the founding member, Herman Melville and D. H. Lawrence take turns at the reception desk, and loitering at the door are talented contemporary (or near-contemporary) writers like James Dickey, Margaret Atwood and Denis Johnson. Any way you count them, though, the true novelist-poets always seem outnumbered by the novelist-essayists, the novelist-memoirists and the fell horde of novelist-story writers.
This isn’t to say novelists don’t try to be poets and vice versa. But most writers turn out to be so much stronger at one endeavor than the other that they resemble fiddler crabs: NOVELIST-poets like John Updike and Cynthia Ozick, or novelist-POETS like Philip Larkin and Randall Jarrell. What causes the imbalance? One possibility is that poetry and prose are more like different musical instruments than different musical genres. While we don’t expect violinists to be accomplished pianists, we’re not at all surprised when a good pianist can play both Gershwin and “Boogie With Stu.” Similarly, we don’t find it unusual when a writer who excels at one prose project also excels at another — both, after all, involve sentences. Whereas poetry supposedly involves . . . something else.
It’s an appealing theory, but not completely convincing. In particular, it breaks down whenever the work in question undermines our ideas about its reputed genre. James Joyce is a novelist, certainly, and “Ulysses” is a great work of prose. But it’s a great work of prose partly because its prose often resembles poetry. Les Murray’s “Fredy Neptune” is a brilliant example of poetry, but do its length and narrative structure really justify its subtitle: “A Novel in Verse”?
Perhaps the most difficult case of all, though, is that of Vladimir Nabokov. And it’s difficult for several reasons. Nabokov was multilingual, and an overwhelming majority of his poetry was written early in his career and in Russian. The new VLADIMIR NABOKOV: Selected Poems (Knopf, $30), edited by Thomas Karshan, contains only 23 original English poems — essentially his entire output — compared with about three times that number translated from the Russian by Nabokov himself or by his late son, Dmitri (and there were many more to choose from). It’s possible, of course, to be an excellent poet in one language and an excellent novelist in another. But leaving aside the linguistic status of Nabokov’s own translations, questions of quality in Russian poetry should be left to Russian readers, and those of us who read Nabokov in English are reduced to looking at not quite two dozen mostly short original poems.
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