Prose from Poetry Magazine

Fortune-tellers and Pharmacists

Are poets and fiction writers separate beasts?

Why do we go on thinking that poetry and fiction require different temperaments? The answer probably has something to do with recent literary history.

As a Friend, by Forrest Gander.
New Directions.

Be Mine, by Laura Kasischke.
$23.00 cloth; $14.00 paper.

Channeling Mark Twain, by Carol Muske-Dukes.
Random House.
$24.95 cloth; $16.00 paper.

The Most of It, by Mary Ruefle.
Wave Books.

“The difference between poets and novelists is this,” writes the poet Randolph Henry Ash to the poet Christabel LaMotte in A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession, “that the former write for the life of the language—and the latter write for the betterment of the world.” In Byatt’s novel this has the glint of irony: a fictional poet contemplating his independence from the medium in which, unbeknown to himself, he exists. But it also contains the germ of a modern stereotype. 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? Not on the evidence of a number of recent works of fiction by American poets, which display, and frequently seem to relish, traditionally fictional forms of imaginative narration. If poets and novelists are essentially of different mental orders, with poets obsessed with symbols and novelists with the world, then we might expect that a career poet who turned to the novel would try to dismantle the form, or would suspend it in an amniotic wash of language. But a great deal of poets’ fiction is instead devoted to characters and plots, to the old machinery of the puppet theater, which it tends in sometimes strikingly traditional ways.

Consider Laura Kasischke’s Be Mine, a ceremoniously plotted Gothic thriller about an English teacher who begins receiving mysterious love notes in her departmental mailbox. The teacher, Sherry Seymour, is both the book’s agitating force and its quarry: Her mistakes, misunderstandings, vanities, accidents, and omissions set into motion a quite improbable plot, which in turn swivels back via her diaristic narration to reveal the stifled longings of her domestic routine and its drip of suburban ritual. The handsome stranger and the dangerous affair grow out of, and look back to, the unexciting marriage and the anxieties of middle age. Whenever Sherry feels “something hot and all-embracing swooping down on me in a dark funnel of feathers and sweat, taking my consciousness with it,” she invariably keeps her composure by “holding tightly to the strap of my purse.”

Kasischke juxtaposes genre romance and literary realism in order to explore fantasy’s power to unmake the certainties of everyday life. Sherry’s otherwise drearily stable husband, unexpectedly aroused by the thought of another man sleeping with his wife, presses her to take the affair in ominous new directions. (“I want him to fuck you in our bed,” he pleads.) Sherry loses control in increasingly byzantine ways, and Kasischke shows in detail how the spiraling romance plot, initially seductive as an escape from familiar life, begins to engulf her job and her relationship with her son, a college student. This is Wuthering Heights as an extruded personal metaphor, in other words, a hothouse fantasy springing to life around precisely the sort of person who might have imagined it. Numbed by romantic and dangerous events, Sherry continues to replicate them in the style of her mental life, describing herself as feeling “like someone who’d been left in a hot bath too long—a bath full of rose petals, steeping and silky and reeking with sweetness.”

What’s interesting about this is that the two sides of Kasischke’s equation, the drab ledger and the overripe romance, are made to relate to one another by their position in an explicitly literary, explicitly novelistic frame. (One which is itself prefigured by Madame Bovary, and ultimately by Don Quixote.) The wildness of the plot has an air of choreography, of being wildness-as-if, another mark of genre fiction. The twists and feints appear on schedule. Even the book’s imagery (wounded animals, flowers) seems to march where it’s meant to go, shading into the broadly metaphoric—the peril of corporeality—without ever lapsing into allegory. And the range of literary references highlights the artificiality of the romance (Sherry’s possessive lover, repeatedly compared to a vampire, is named Bram) and also points to the literary pedigree of the major themes. Sherry, whose story eventually turns on her son’s violent reaction to his middle-aged mother’s sexuality, is teaching Hamlet in her community-college English class.

In other words, Be Mine is A Novel, a story conceived as a story and with a clear sense of its literary heritage. True, it’s a kind of novel—a thriller—that depends on being accessible to its audience. And it’s Kasischke’s fourth novel (she’s published seven books of poetry), which might account for some of its narrative straightforwardness. But even when poets’ fiction pushes more ardently at the boundary of the medium, it still tends to reveal a powerful narrative impulse. It refashions fiction with fiction’s own materials, not with transposed notes of poetry.

This is the case with Mary Ruefle’s The Most of It, a book of vivid, funny, and unpredictable palm-of-the-hand stories, many of them under a page in length. At first the book, Ruefle’s first in prose, appears to be a combination of prose poems and sketches for subtly parodic essays. “Hard-Boiled Detective,” for instance, presents itself as a tough-minded inquiry into what it calls “the fundamental mystery of life”: If every person in the world is the result of a pregnancy, then why do we see so few pregnant women in our daily lives?

If you believe what you have been told, men and women have sex and sex leads to pregnancy and pregnancy produces every known person on the planet. But you have to look beneath the surface. You have to ask questions. How many pregnant women do you actually know? How many pregnant women have you known in your lifetime? If you have known more than twenty you are truly extraordinary. Let’s say you are extraordinary. You are a gynecologist! You see twenty pregnant women a day! But you see the same twenty pregnant women a day for nine months. There are twelve months in a year. Even if you worked for fifty years, you would only see one thousand pregnant women, and there are seven billion people in the world. . . . How many times have you yourself been pregnant? Not seven billion times!

What makes this so funny is that the obviously insane theme is presented deadpan, as an essay, with a logically developed (and screwily persuasive) argument. The fatuousness of the idea is balanced against the determined intelligence of the logic. But the logical order is intrinsically a narrative as well, because Ruefle’s sense of language and character is so vivid that the real fascination of the story comes from imagining the person who would create this piece of prose and the events that led to its creation. The skewed detective-story diction (the title’s punning combination of pulp fiction and fertility, the gumshoe phrases like “every known person”) seems to open onto an animated personality. Ruefle’s stories are often intensely fictional in the same way that some surrealist writing is intensely fictional: because the kind of negative delight they take in implying the world in which they could happen ultimately serves the same purpose as the positive delight of the writer who bodies forth the details of a world.

There are stories in The Most of It that pursue a more straightforward narrative course, in a manner of speaking—“University of the Limitless Mouse,” for instance, which recounts the destruction of a bizarre university for mice in which failing students are transformed into giant trees. Many others fall somewhere in between, presenting themselves as quaintly eccentric personal essays in which narrative events are plunged into abstract reflection. As with “Hard-Boiled Detective,” however, many of these stories tilt toward some distinct fictional genre, functioning at times almost as novels in the act of suppressing themselves: the ironic Künstlerroman of “A Romantic Poet and His Destiny,” the sexualized fairy tale of “The Taking of Moundville by Zoom,” the collapsed diary novel of “My Search Among the Birds.” And the style of the stories, which at times adopts a serene equipoise in the face of outlandish events, sometimes seems to function as a rather lovely parody of the nineteenth-century Gothic, as in the opening of “The Dart and the Drill”:

I do not believe that when my brother pierced my skull with a succession of darts thrown from across our paneled rec room on the night of November 18th in my sixth year on earth, he was trying to transcend the notions of time and space as contained and protected by the human skull.
This seems to exploit deliberately the note of absurdity that sometimes creeps into Frankenstein—for instance, when the doctor thinks of creating a second monster, and declares: “I found that I could not compose a female without again devoting several months to profound study and laborious disquisition.”


*     *     *

If poets can write narratives that display a native mastery of both conventional and experimental fictional forms, 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 Edgar Allan Poe, Thomas 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 (Herman 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 (W.B. Yeats’s novels, James Joyce’s poems, Ernest 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 two hundred 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 storytellingliterally 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.

It’s intriguing, then, considering the delight in narrative that’s manifest in so much poets’ fiction, that so many novels and short stories by poets take poetry as a principal subject. Poetry is a career for characters, a topic of conversation, a plot device, a mirror for themes, a pathway to ethical living. It’s as if, having moved to a second medium in order to explore a kind of writing that their first no longer comfortably accommodates, these writers’ initial instinct is to look back to the place they have left, like emigrants still consumed with the thought of their home country. It’s tempting to consider the ways in which fiction by poets is aesthetically continuous with their poetry: Laura Kasischke’s poems are often erotic and direct, Mary Ruefle’s sly and elusive. But it’s often more revealing to read it as a reaction, as a deliberate attempt to make sense of poetry itself.

Poetry finds its way into Be Mine in various ways: the English-teacher protagonist; a poem pinned to her door (Richard Eberhart’s “For a Lamb”) that provokes a philosophical meditation; a minor character in the form of a handsome but unattainable poet who teaches in Sherry’s department; Hamlet. In The Most of It (the title itself an allusion to Frost), Ruefle has several stories about poets that carefully explore the contradictions inherent in being one. Other recent poet-novelists explore the subject even more directly. 

Forrest Gander’s As a Friend, for instance, is a gloomy Faulknerian portrait of Les, a poet working as a land surveyor in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Told in a series of brief, first-person monologues, sometimes approaching stream-of-consciousness, by Les’s fellow surveyor Clay, by his girlfriend Sarah after his death, and by Les himself in an interview recorded for a film about his poems, the novel portrays poetry as the source of a radical, dangerous, possibly unreliable ethics. Les is garrulous, handsome, deceitful, almost monstrously charismatic; he has an effortless power, almost a reflex, for winning the love of everyone he meets. He lives in the blue flame of a brilliant authenticity, is authentically himself even as he lies to everyone who loves him. He drinks with carnies, seduces potters, holds forth about the “stinking rich shit of the real.” He seems to exist in some kind of sweaty harmony with the axial lean of the Earth. As Clay says of him:

He could join the lines of a poem to the flow of talk seamlessly. His face was so weighted down by its brooding handsomeness that he seemed older and more convincing than the rest of us. His gravitas sucked us in. He could lock his eyes on you and draw you toward an alien realm where you were given to suspend your habits of thought. It was as if he’d come from a place where excitement wasn’t taken to be a reverse indicator of intelligence and where it was normal to mention Cocteau and blue channel catfish in the same sentence.
This is explicitly about poetry. The near-shamanic attraction Les exerts over Clay, his mediocre coworker, and to a lesser extent over Sarah, results in a dark love triangle whose lush gravity dominates the book. In the last section, Les’s posthumously revealed interview with the filmmaker, Les articulates a theory of poetry as a form of supercharged awareness that cultivates the same ethical attention as human relationships. Poetry, like friendship, is for Les a matter of taking each thing as only and entirely itself, of meeting experience entirely on its own terms. There is an echo in this of Keats, of the poet as:
                              the man who with a man
                   Is an equal, be he King,
              Or poorest of the beggar-clan.
But Gander emphasizes the potential for pain implicit in such an outlook: The poet, “as a friend,” must approach “each other and the world” with “as much vulnerability as we can possibly sustain.”

Of course, Les is himself not capable of sustaining the amount of vulnerability he attempts—he kills himself after his infidelities are exposed—and his approach to living seems to require an intense and unacknowledged submissiveness from others. The third part of the novel sifts through Sarah’s shattered psyche in the aftermath of his death. So the legacy of poetic power, in this poet’s novel, is ambiguous, if not actually sinister.

A more optimistic sense of the social value of poetry is found in Carol Muske-Dukes’s Channeling Mark Twain, a novel about a young woman, Holly Mattox, who teaches a poetry workshop in the women’s prison at Rikers Island in the early seventies. The title of the book refers to one of the prisoners in the workshop, Polly Lyle Clement, who claims to be Mark Twain’s granddaughter and to be able to commune with his spirit. And Huckleberry Finn provides a narrative armature for the book. Channeling Mark Twain also contains a raft (this one stolen from a mental hospital, where it was used in the staging of a play), a dangerous river voyage (to North Brother Island, a mystical ruin hidden in New York’s East River), a problem of racial justice (the inmate Akilah Malik, one of Holly’s students, a member of a violent protest movement), a dramatic prison escape. But poetry is the wing of the narrative, in ways that ramify beyond Holly’s workshop. It carries the outward events of the plot—the escape is enabled by a poem passed between inmates—and also, in the poems written by Holly’s students, gathers and sorts the characters’ inner lives.

Both Gander and Muske-Dukes are concerned with poetry’s power to transform human relationships. But where Gander regards poetry with awe, treating it as the formal or visible element of a spirit that can unmake the world, Muske-Dukes sees it anxiously, as a problem of social efficacy. Gander’s characters are exhilarated by the possibilities of reconciling culture with an unpretentious openness to nature—Cocteau and catfish—while Holly fears that her poetic vocation will prevent her from working for justice:

What was it that I actually aspired to make of myself, I wondered. A poet or a so-called revolutionary? Someone intent on restructuring society or a word-dreamer, reseeing, reimagining beauty or truth—from a prison cell or the back of a motorcycle? “Truth is Beauty and Beauty Truth,” the poet said. Why then did they seem so far apart to me?
She’s too aesthetically inclined to be completely serious, she worries, too pretty, too in love with the thought of the literary life, here represented by dinners with Mark Strand and Joseph Brodsky. (Called Baylor Drummond and Joseph Kyrilikov in the novel; Channeling Mark Twain, which is based in part on Muske-Dukes’s own experience, is among other things an easily cracked roman-à-clef.) The impurity of her political motives repeatedly dents Holly’s self-esteem. But then, when the wrongfully imprisoned Akilah Malik is facing extradition, the power of Polly Lyle Clement’s poetry is in a literally magical way invoked to help her escape, proving to Holly that the irrational and the inspired can also restructure society.

*     *     *

If poets write for the life of the language and novelists write for the betterment of the world, as A.S. Byatt’s fictional poet decreed, surely some desire for a reconciliation of purpose is at work in these fictional explorations of the ethical and social powers of poetry. And surely there is no need to imagine these purposes as essentially separate. Whether they are functionally separate—separate in most contemporary practice—is another question. But the range of fiction written by contemporary poets is as broad as the range of fiction written by contemporary non-poets: It stretches from Alice Fulton’s twentieth-century family chronicle The Nightingales of Troy to Joyelle McSweeney’s cracked science-fiction riff Flet, from Robert Morgan’s Appalachian mountain tale The Hinterlands to Martha Ronk’s self-deconstructing short stories in Glass Grapes, from Stuart Dybek to John Burnside and beyond.

In the sixteenth century, long before the rise of prose narrative as a rival and alternative to poetry, writers searching for the quality that made verse distinct from all other forms of expression frequently settled on its imaginative inventiveness, which, drawing on the Latin for “shaping” or “feigning,” they called its fiction. (The word appears in this capacity in Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poetry, for instance.) Since the rise of the novel, criticism has generally sought to dissolve the sense of that fundamental connection. Coleridge did so, brilliantly and absurdly, by emphasizing the focus each medium demanded: What distinguished poetry was “the property of exciting a more continuous and equal attention, than the language of prose aims at.” Elsewhere the form has been emphasized, or the element of repetition, or the relation to the self, or the attitude toward language, or—in the case of Joseph Brodsky, who said that poetry was to prose as the air force was to the infantry—the altitude of spiritual assault.

In children, however, 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.

Originally Published: May 1st, 2009

Brian Phillips is a regular reviewer for Poetry.

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In
  1. May 15, 2009
     Jon Lackman

    On this subject, see also Charles Baxter's "Rhyming Action," pub'd in the Fall '96 MQR, re-pub'd in the Jan '97 Harper's (available online, but subscription req'd), excerpted on

    "For the last three hundred years or so, prose writers have, from time to time, glanced over in the direction of the poets for guidance in certain matters of life and writing. Contemplating the lives of poets, however, is a sobering activity. It often seems as if the poets have extracted pity and terror from their work so that they could have a closer firsthand experience of these emotions in their own lives. A poet's life is rarely one that you would wish upon your children...

    Prose writers, however, are no better. Their souls are usually heavy and managerial. Prose writers of fiction are by nature a sullen bunch...Fiction writers cluster in the unlit corners of the room, silently observing everybody, including the poets, who are usually having a fine time in the center spotlight, making a spectacle of themselves as they eat the popcorn and drink the beer and gossip about other poets."