Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Novel gazing

Joshua Corey recently blogged his "trouble with fiction," saying:

"It's boring to read and twice as boring to write. Here is a character, here is a situation and setting for that character, here is that character's desire, here is another character who can gratify that desire but has contrary desires of her own. Wind up the monkeys and watch them dance. Beautiful or accurate prose is an accessory, a garnish; if the author's done his job correctly we'll hurry by all that stuff so we can get to What Happens Next."

Well, here's Brian Phillips, in an essay about poets who write fiction - coming soon to the pages of Poetry:

"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, and 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," Stevens declares in "Bantams in Pine-Woods"). Novelists are expansive, systematic, prone to looking through other people's mail. The poet "looks out her own window," Billy Collins has written, while the novelist "looks in other people's windows." 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' thought 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?


... 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.

-- Stay tuned for more!


Shameless Hussy said...

Couldn't disagree with Josh Corey on this more...engaging writing is engaging writing, no matter the genre.

Henry Gould said...

Reminds me of M. Kundera essay of a couple years ago (New Yorker?), in which he said poetry was fundamentally adolescent. Novelists were the grown-ups.

Poets, don't let the fictional bastards get you down! Rise to the full dignity of your metier! After all, we have presence, embodiment, immediacy, personhood, dramatic intensity, unpredictability, & the Now on our side. Not to mention rhythm. That's heavy artillery.

Michael Robbins said...

Wait wait wait wait. Is Corey serious? He weren't writing no parody of brain-dead undergraduate avant-gardener wannabes? Cuz, uh, woah. That's, srsly, & I don't say this lightly, the single most clueless thing I've read in a moon or twelve. It gets everything wrong about fiction. Could not be wronger. Does not understand fiction, that lad, or, to say what unpopular these parts maybe Wood do, how it works. Him make Corey learn read, I guess.

mgushuedc said...

Well, the novel is inconceivable in a culture with no major writing or print technology, Fahrenheit 451 to the contrary. I think Ed Dorn said somewhere that poetry is an archaic technology, like oil lamps. It's still used, but for a different purpose.