I was thinking today about who I am as a writer, about all the things I do: write articles like “The Femme Fatale at the Fin-de-Siècle,” stories like “The Mad Scientist’s Daughter,” poems like “Ravens.” And if all goes according to plan, this summer I will start writing my first novel.
Am I a poet or a novelist? Because these things seem to me so different: a poem is different from a short story is different from an article. And a novel seems its own sort of beast, different from any of those three.
I actually started writing poetry first. I thought I was going to be a poet, and read and wrote a great deal of poetry in high school. I took poetry writing classes at the University of Virginia, which I’m afraid destroyed any desire I had to be a poet. The poetry we read and wrote seemed so terribly bland. We weren’t exactly in the land of Keats’ nightingale. There was no sense that we were doing anything magical, and for me poetry had always been magic. It had always taken me away, even more effectively than prose, to a world that was not this one, where language itself became a spell. (I’ve had an idea, for a while now, of a story in which the poets are also the magicians, as they were in Irish legend. I would still like to write that story.)
It was the language I loved, in poetry. And the closer that language came to prose, the less I was interested in it. I wanted this:
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
That’s what I wanted, to fly away on the wings of Poesy, to find those “magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.” I wanted to see – to travel to – the faery lands forlorn. And the modern poetry we were reading and writing did not take me there.
So I started writing stories instead. There is a sense in which poetry is about language, no matter what else it is about. Stories are about language too, many of them – but to a different and lesser degree. There are so many other things for them to be about. They are less wrapped in themselves, more opening out to the world. And I suspect that is even more true for a novel. A novel is about the world, about reflecting and perhaps even altering that world, whereas the poem is, in a sense, its own world – a small asteroid of words.
So what am I as a writer? I don’t write much poetry nowadays, for the rather mercenary reason that it can take me an entire day to write a poem, rewriting and rewriting the same lines. In that time, I can write two thousand words of a story. And someone may eventually pay me $500 for that story, whereas I will be lucky to earn $5 for that poem.
And yet, having written all this, I have to admit that I still think of myself as a poet – at heart, or perhaps at root, however I should express the center of who I am. Because at the center of who I am as a writer, there is a turning toward language, to the magic of language, which matters to me more than any other element of a story. It is still what transports me, what takes me to those faery lands forlorn.
Sometimes I am not a particularly good poet, but I will still include a poem of mine here, written last fall, right around the time I wrote “Ravens.” Nowadays, poetry is what I write when I can’t seem to write anything else, when poetry is all that will come out. This is how it came out, one day.
On the fence sat three ravens.
The first was the raven of night,
whose wings spread over the evening.
On his wings were stars, and in his beak
he carried the crescent moon.
The second was the raven of death,
who eats human hearts. He regarded me
sideways, as birds do. Shoo, I said.
Fly away, old scavenger. I’m not ready
to go with you. Not yet.
The third was my beloved,
who had taken the form of a raven.
Come to me, I said,
when darkness falls, although
I’m afraid you too
will eat my heart.
Not Keats, exactly. But it’s what I do, at the core of what I do. Even, I suspect, when I’m writing an article, a story – or a novel.