Poet or Novelist?

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.

Raven Poem

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.

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12 Responses to Poet or Novelist?

  1. Grey Walker says:

    I like it.

    It does seem that poetry must be written almost entirely for love, these days. Even the best-known of our poets don’t make much money from it, do they? And perhaps it has always been this way, with poetry.

    Have you read The Bards of Bone Plain, by Patricia McKillip? The bards in that story, the best ones, are magicians.

  2. Patrick O'Connor says:

    1. Poet vs. Novelist? But you forgot “writer of dissertations and scholarly articles”!
    2. Pish-tush, I’ve met Kendrick, he won’t eat your heart when darkness falls. He might steal a spoon of your ice cream when you’re not looking…

  3. Maery Rose says:

    I find that poetry is a good warm up. It sets me free so I can then go on to a longer piece of writing. It’s like singing or dancing or grieving – a way of releasing and letting go.

  4. I haven’t read The Bards of Bone Plain, but will have to look for it.

    I am not at heart (or even liver or kidney) a writer of dissertations! 🙂

    And no one takes my ice cream.

  5. I second Grey’s recommendation of “The Bards of Bone Plain.” It is the first thing I thought of when I read your post.

    There was also a nod of recognition in there, as my default setting steers me to writing poetry as well. It is sort of unsettling, as most people don’t know what to make of poets and sometimes I don’t either :~) This train of thought often brings to mind Terri Windling’s “The Wood Wife,” and Black Maggie’s challenge to acknowledge what it is that shapes the core of her self…

    Or maybe we are all poets at heart?

  6. Gerald says:

    The problem is with the “or”–a kind of category error, as when we call the United States America. Our auditors understand what we say, but we are nonetheless inaccurate, confusing continent with nation. There are two poetries, that which contains within its compass–its vast continent–all imaginative writing, and that which refers specifically to verse, the nation state of Keats and Coleridge. Any writer of imaginative literature, though he or she may not know or acknowledge it, is a poet. But in the more restricted sense, you are both kinds, you draw from the deeper well.

  7. Theodora Goss says:

    I like that and will think about it as I’m winging my way to Florida. So perhaps a longer and more thoughtful response to come . . .

    I’m not sure we are all poets at heart? Perhaps only some of us are. Another thought to ponder.

  8. I honestly think some people are engineers or lawyers at heart, rather than poets. It’s just that those who are poets at heart tend to gather in the same places (like this blog! or Terri’s blog!) so it seems as though we’re all the same. But I’m not sure we are. I don’t know, this may be an unfair assessment. It seems to me as though some people don’t have much poetry in them . . .

    “There are two poetries, that which contains within its compass–its vast continent–all imaginative writing, and that which refers specifically to verse, the nation state of Keats and Coleridge.”

    This is lovely, and I like it very much. And I think you’re right that one is a subset of the other. But I wonder if that second kind of poetry isn’t what has to do specifically with a certain quality of language? What I mean is, not all imaginative writing is equally poetic. Some imaginative writing uses aspects of poetry in your second sense: pays particular attention to the sound of language, engages with the language itself in a way that other prose may not. I’m thinking here of something like Mark Twain versus Edgar Allan Poe. I would tend to say that Poe’s writing is more poetic than Twain’s, in that he uses language in that second sense even when he’s not writing verse. This is not as clear as I’d like it to be, because I’m writing late at night, but I hope you see what I mean? That although all imaginative literature may be poetic in terms of your first use of the word, some imaginative literature is more poetic in terms of your second use. If that makes sense. (Personally, I love it when writers of imaginative prose are poets at heart. And I think many of them are.)

    (And I just have to add that someone who studies American literature, rather than English literature as I do, may disagree wildly with my assessment of Twain, and bring forth passages to prove me wrong.)

    “But in the more restricted sense, you are both kinds, you draw from the deeper well.”

    Thank you. 🙂

  9. Gerald says:

    There’s a lovely passage in Huck Finn in which Huck describes the sun rising over the river that I think would challenge your assessment of Twain–as would the famous passage where Huck decides he’ll go to hell rather than turn Jim in. Huck has these colloquial, rural cadences that can be profoundly lyrical, though not “poetic” in any traditional sense. But this poetic tendency flashes out now and then, I think; it doesn’t burn across the span of Twain’s work.

    Poe, it seems to me, can be something of a poetaster–Emerson called him “the jingle man,” which I see, anyway, as an accurate description of some of those poems where the intricate rime scheme, the sound of the poem, is more or less the point. In “The Raven” I can’t take the narrator’s grief seriously because of all those Lenores and nevermores. Poe was notorious for his hoaxes, and I think in “The Raven”–and in the “Philosophy of Composition” where he describes how he wrote “The Raven”–he’s having us on. I would argue that Poe is at his real height as a poet in the lyric “To Helen.”

    And I think you’re quite right, not all imaginative writing is equally poetic–compare, say, a novel by Crowley to one by Richard Stark. Crowley is by far the more poetic (lowercase “p”) writer–the one most attuned to the nuances of language–but both are working in the larger field of Poetry (Imaginative Literature). And just for the record: I had to memorize “The Raven” in school like most of the rest of you. And I love Richard Stark. Maybe the difference is that those with more poetry in their souls are drawn to works which trade on language, while the engineers are drawn more to plot-driven works. (And yes, I acknowledge that plot-driven works can still be poetic: read Ian McEwan.)

    So to sum up (I think) a novelist can be a poet, but a poet ( while writing poems, not novels:) ) cannot be a novelist. But both are Poets.

    Does that make any sense?

  10. The glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome: yes, I think “To Helen” is his most beautiful and successful poem. Sometimes I find it singing in my head. And I agree about “The Raven,” which I used to use as an almost textbook example of the uncanny, as though Poe were deliberately writing it to hit certain notes, produce certain effects. Almost as though he could have titled it “Look, I Wrote a Gothic Poem.”

    I’m sure you’re right about Twain. I haven’t read Richard Stark.

    “So to sum up (I think) a novelist can be a poet, but a poet ( while writing poems, not novels:) ) cannot be a novelist. But both are Poets.”

    Yes, that makes perfect sense. It also seems to imply that there is something primary and fundamental about poetry. If you think about the word novel, it means what is new, newsworthy. Perhaps the poetry of a work is what endures after the novelty of it has worn off. (Sorry, my brain is tired and so it’s automatically playing word games.)

    So when we say people are poets at heart, are we talking about their imaginativeness, or their relationship to language? I suspect the former. I suspect it’s only writers who begin to live in language in the way we’ve been talking about, as though language were the sea and they were poetry-water fish. I feel sometimes as though I swim in it, feeling the currents . . .

  11. Gerald says:

    If language is a sea, I more often find myself drowning than swimming–but when the swimming happens, it feels pretty terrific. I suspect your ability to plug quickly into that “swimming”–that sense that you’re channeling something rather than forcibly imagining it into being (I assume this is what you’re getting at)–accounts for your productivity as a writer across the board, in fiction, essays, even social media, and (God help us) dissertations.

    I suspect you wouldn’t much care for Richard Stark–a pseudonym Donald Westlake used to write hard-boiled crime novels about a professional thief (the kind of thief who heists banks and armored cars, not the kind who takes your wallet) named Parker. One declarative sentence after another. Yet there’s a kind of poetry there, as there is in other writers of that ilk (I’m thinking of Dashiell Hammett especially)–a poetry derived from the Hemingway model, though it doesn’t reach, and doesn’t try to reach, Hemingway’s more lyrical passages (“the world breaks everyone . . . but afterward some are strong at the broken places”–or something like that). I’ve always wondered how they achieved this effect, Hammett and, to a lesser degree, Stark. Raymond Chandler, of course, is a poet of the more lyric order.

    As for something primary and fundamental about poetry–absolutely. It’s the first form in all of literature, isn’t it? I think of the scop of the Anglo-Saxon era, weaving tapestries of words to keep the dark at bay. I haven’t (can’t) read Beowulf in the original tongue, but Seamus Heaney’s translation suggests there’s great beauty in the language. And Tolkein’s “The Monster and the Critics” attests to this–and if we can’t trust Tolkein, who can we trust?

  12. I think you’re right that my ability to get into the water and start swimming, as though I had developed gills, results in productivity. And honestly, I think those developments (my recent gills, my recent productivity) are linked to swimming every day, if we’re going to stay with the extended metaphor. Because I write every day, I never entirely leave the sea, or at least I can still smell salt water. It’s easier to get back in. If I stop for a while, the gills go away, and I have to spend time developing them again. (I am now picturing myself as a sea creature, skin mottled, eyes large and used to darkness, with fins. And of course gills. No longer even a mammal. There’s a story in this, I think.)

    I see the poetry in Hemingway, of course, as well as in Chandler. It would be interesting to spend some time with their stories, to go through the lines, ask how is it done? What are they doing here? It’s a very different kind of poetry than I’m used to.

    You sent me looking for Tolkien’s “The Monsters and the Critics,” which I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read. (Until now: I read half of it while finishing a burger and a cucumber and tomato salad for dinner). Yes, I would trust Tolkien to lead me through fairyland, which is the most dangerous journey I know. I took a semester of Anglo-Saxon as an undergraduate, although I was too apprehensive to go on to the next semester of full-on Beowulf. But I could see the beauty of the language even then.

    “Tapestries of words to keep the dark at bay”: perhaps this is at the heart of all writing, what all writing fundamentally is. The tapestry of words we weave that shuts out the dark, to the extent the dark can be shut out. 🙂

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