Thinking About Poets Writing Fiction


I finished reading Michael Hulse’s new translation of Rilke’s anguished novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge this past Valentine’s Day. (This is the fourth translation  I’ve read of the novel.) Written in seventy-one luminous fragments, the novel coheres into a brilliantly lacquered mosaic. As expected from this meditant of meaning, of memory, the novel is full of menacing imagery, anxiety-wracked explorations of the self, of knowledge, and, most of all, seeing:

I am learning to see. Why, I cannot say, but all things enter more deeply into me; nor do the impressions remain at the level where they used to cease. There is a place within me of which I knew nothing. Now all things tend that way. I do not know what happens there.

Though Malte bemoans his own failure to see with the clarity of a poet, he does, in fact, observe his surroundings with incredible precision and lyricism:

What such a small moon can achieve. There are days when everything about one is luminous, light, scarcely defined in the bright air, and nonetheless distinct. Even the nearest of things have the shades of distance upon them; they are remote, merely sketched in rather than bodied forth; and all things that do indeed partake of the distance—the river, the bridges, the long streets and the prodigal squares—have absorbed the distance within themselves and are painted on to it as upon silk. Who can say what a slight green vehicle on the Pont Neuf might be at such times, or some red bursting forth, or even a mere poster on the fire wall of a pearly-grey group of buildings. Everything is simplified, rendered into a few exact, bright planes like the face in a portrait by Manet. And nothing is of slight importance or irrelevance. The booksellers along the Quai open up their stalls, and the fresh or faded yellow of the books, the violet brown of the bindings, the more commanding green of an album: all of it is just right and has its worth and is a part of the whole and adds up into a fullness where nothing is lacking.

And this from someone who is learning to see? If so, then we all have a lot to learn. Every miniature here is painstakingly rendered and is issued forth from an inveterate self-doubter, who is, nevertheless, still incredibly observant. Indeed, the final sentence in the passage above is a perfect summary of The Notebooks because every vignette here “is just right and has its worth and is a part of a whole and adds up into a fullness where nothing is lacking,” that is, in this novel.

Besides the undeniable power of this novel (its formal inventiveness as well as its anguished obsession with death and ghosts are just some of the highlights), it set me to thinking of other poets who have written fiction. There is Anne Michaels who, after writing a trio of poetry books: The Weight of Oranges, Miners Pond, and Skin Divers wrote a powerful novel, Fugitive Pieces. Itself reminiscent in form with The Notebooks, it charts a Jewish child’s escape to Greece from Poland, and his subsequent growth into a poet. Ten years later, without publishing any poetry books, Michaels wrote the equally wonderful novel The Winter Vault.

There are other poets who seem to have largely given up poetry for fiction. For instance, Charles Baxter, in his essay, “Rhyming Action, rather comically describes himself as an “ex-poet.”

My friends the poets like me better now that I no longer write poetry. It always got in the way of our friendships, my being a poet, and writing poems. The one thing that can get a poet irritated and upset is another poet’s poems. Now that I do not write poetry, I am better able to watch the spontaneous combustion of poets at a distance. The poets invite our contemplation of their stormy lives, and perhaps this accounts for their production of memoirs. If you didn’t read about this stuff in a book, you wouldn’t believe it.

Tongue firmly in cheek, Baxter doesn’t let fiction writers off the hook:

Their souls are usually heavy and managerial. Prose writers of fiction are by nature a sullen bunch. The strain of inventing one plausible event after another into a coherent narrative chain tends to show in their faces.

And there are writers who, like Thomas Hardy (William Gass considers him to be a stronger poet than novelist), somehow manage to competently write in both forms. Off the top of my head, there’s Michael Ondaatje (most famous for The English Patient), Renee Gladman, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Rikki Ducornet.

And there are poets who’ve “dabbled” with the novel with spectacular results like John Ashbery, who, with James Schuyler, wrote A Nest of Ninnies. And I’ve yet to read Robert Creeley’s novel, The Island, recommended to me by Eugene Lim, a fine writer in his own right.

So, who are some other poets who have written novels? And vice-versa. I’m especially interested in writers who have given up one form for the other.

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35 thoughts on “Thinking About Poets Writing Fiction

  1. Out of curiosity, John, how does the Hulse translation stack up against the other three you’d read? Is is as good as the Stephen Mitchell?

    On the main topic, D.H. Lawrence was a talented poetry/prose switch-hitter throughout his life.

    Melville made the transition to poetry after his disappointments in prose, but I’ve never been able to read & enjoy that much of his verse…

      • If we all started confessing what we hadn’t read, we’d all look pretty lame, I’d bet. I know I would!

        Lawrence’s poetry is wonderful, especially his “nature” poetry, which I put in scare-quotes because the word applies only technically, the stuff is so visionary/apocalyptic. He’s Blakean, tho’ not in any derivative sense at all. Give it a try!

        And yet I’d still give a small edge to his prose, because I’m just more of a prose guy, I guess…

    • I enjoyed Mitchell’s translation. As for which is better, I’d say it comes down to taste. Mitchell takes liberties that some, like Burton Pike (who also translated The Notebooks), would say doesn’t adhere to Rilke’s style. Pike’s translation might be considered almost a transliteration. I’d say Hulse’s fits somewhere in between.

      William Gass posits in Reading Rilke (an excellent examination of the particular difficulties of translating Rilke) that “J.B. Leishman, more than anyone else, has given us our poet, in English, and Herter Norton has rendered the prose)…” I sat at the library and read Norton’s version a while ago, so I’ll have to go back sometime and see what I think of it.

      As for Melville, I would imagine that for many people their first efforts in creative writing were poems. Like Melville, Gass also wrote execrable poems before turning to fiction. As interesting as that is (and I’d certainly love to hear more about such cases), I’m even more interested in successful poets who either wrote a one-off novel (like Rilke and Ashbery) or gave up writing poetry altogether for fiction (like Michaels and Baxter), and vice-versa.

      • That’s funny, I was just thinking about old Herter Norton as the archetype of the clunky translations of Rilke that i didn’t enjoy. I wasn’t thinking about him by name, but just as “that guy who translated all of the Rilke that was in the those old W.W. Norton paperbacks” (Norton-Norton? coincidence?) with their dull covers, back in the day. I remember comparing the Herter Norton translation to the new Mitchell translation in the bookstore I worked in at the time (trying to decide which edition to pilfer, er, I mean purchase). I vastly preferred the Mitchell, but not because of any knowledge of German (in which I can maybe order off a menu or ask directions to the bathroom), but just ’cause it “sounded better.”

        I’d like to read that Gass book…

  2. Despite how much love people (rightly) have for Louis Zukofsky, no one I’ve ever met (save one) has read his exceptional short novel LITTLE. Which is in the collected prose that Dalkey put out.

    I just picked up Philip Larkin’s two novels, JILL and A GIRL IN WINTER, intending to finally read them. I’ve no opinion on them yet as I’ve only peeked so far, but even if they’re bad they’re still surely of some interest, being by Philip Larkin.

    Others:

    H.D. wrote a few novels.

    And of course Robert Penn Warren.

    WCW’s GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL.

    Jack Spicer wrote a detective novel (THE TOWER OF BABEL), as well as another novel, WASPS. I don’t know if he ever finished either of them. I haven’t read them, though I’ve wanted to track them down. (Seriously, a Jack Spicer detective novel? How can that be boring?)

    Allen Tate wrote a novel. Haven’t ever seen it anywhere.

    Charles Reznikoff. Randall Jarrell, who wrote a ton of different things, including children’s books.

    James Dickey! Who had some success with a novel or two.

    John Berryman started a novel. I don’t know if he ever finished it or if it’s available.

    Sylvia Plath…

    Greg Corso. Jack K., who I guess is more remembered now as a novelist (?).

    Amiri Baraka, THE SYSTEM OF DANTE’S HELL. I’ve never met anyone who’s read it.

    Ed Dorn, whom I always meant to read more of, until Stephen King’s excessive praise scared me off. (That hasn’t been fair of me.)

    Andrei Codrescu writes both and is he more one than the other? And Maxine Chernoff writes both fiction and poetry–is she more one than the other? (I think of her as both, but I’ve also never read anything by her!)

    Yuriy Tarnawsky writes both fiction and poetry.

    Robert Ashley–surely one of the greatest living American poets–wrote a novel (unpublished) that formed the basis for his most recent opera, QUICKSAND.

    …I usually find more interesting novels by poets than poetry by novelists. One exception who comes to mind is Jacques Roubaud, who’s primarily a novelist but also a great poet.

    And Gertrude Stein. But she’s always been something in between.

    David Antin, too. (I guess he’s not really a novelist, though.)

  3. The youngish American poet, Aaron Kunin, has written an utterly fascinating novel, The Mandarins.

    And the poet Robert Kelly has published fiction intermittently throughout his long career. I especially love his short story collections.

    • If Renee Gladman’s description of Kunin’s characters being the “Unheimlich children of Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde” is accurate, then his novel sounds like something I should read.

  4. A great post! It can enlarge a work, I think, to look for the poetry in the prose and the prose in the poetry.

    Stuart Dybek began with poetry (if I’m not mistaken) and has since solidly landed in short stories. In “Coast of Chicago,” beautiful stories of varying lengths– flash fiction, mid-range, and the “long story” (I say this because it’s perhaps not a novella) — all stand side to side.

    Stephen Dobyns does fiction, poetry, and essays.

    Russell Hoban once wrote a collection of poetry. But after that it was fiction all the way. He’s been pumping novels out like crazy over the last ten years.

    And Richard Brautigan– boy oh boy, did he do all kinds of things.

      • I tend to think of Davenport more as a fiction writer and essayist who occasionally wrote (and translated) poetry.

        By which I intend no slight. His long multi-voice poem “We Often Think of Lenin at the Clothespin Factory” is extremely good. And I like how his translations read, although I can’t judge them as translations.

        His fiction itself is very poetic.

        For anyone who hasn’t read him, I’d recommend starting with either TATLIN! or THE JULES VERNE STEAM BALLOON (which is a bit easier to get into).

  5. The young Welsh poet Owen Sheers wrote a stunningly good novel a couple of years ago, Resistance. It’s an old old idea: Germany wins the war; but what he does with it is exceptionally good. It concerns a remote Welsh valley where all the men have left to join the resistance (and probably been killed, though we never know this for sure), so the women are left to cope with the day to day harshness of farming life plus the arrival of a German patrol.

    He has recently written another short novel, White Ravens, a retelling of the second book of the Mabinogion, which is also partly set in a remote Welsh valley during the Second World War, and his evocation of the place and the time is the best thing about the book.

  6. Hi John,

    Laura Riding has some tremendous short stories– PROGRESS OF STORIES (1935) is one of my favorite collections.

    And Nathaniel Mackey has been working on a project of epistolary jazz fiction for a while which is fantastically titled FROM A BROKEN BOTTLE TRACES OF PERFUME STILL EMANATE– there are at least four installments now…

    Have you seen the Sontag essay “A Poet’s Prose,” by the way?

    • Man, Mackey’s another person I’d forgotten, and I’d attended his reading at last year’s &Now Conference.

      Will have to check out Riding. And Sontag’s always good, so I’ll have to look for that essay, too.

      Percival Everett’s written one book of poetry. Don’t know how good it is.

      And then there’s Borges. Though he’d written poetry all his life, when his eyesight began to fail he shifted away from his fictions and criticism to poetry.

  7. This is actually the post that got me thinking about Jack Driscoll before going to comment on Shya’s post. Jack was a poet for years before turning to fiction. He had four books of poetry then started writing fiction. He has a collection of stories (one of the best collections ever put together, in my opinion), and four novels. And last I heard he was putting together another collection of stories, and was even considering a return to poetry.

  8. Looks like Gilbert Sorrentino, whose posthumous novel The Abyss of Human Illusion I just finished and enjoyed, had published a book of poetry (The Darkness Surrounds Us (1960)) before his first book of fiction (The Sky Changes (1966)).

    • Sorrentino’s Splendide-Hôtel is something of a poem, being an extended meditation on Rimbaud and WCW:

      http://www.dalkeyarchive.com/book/?GCOI=15647100558410

      http://tinyurl.com/yep8n4a

      And many of Sorrentino’s novels follow more poetic constraints. The most obvious example might be Gold Fools:

      http://www.greeninteger.com/book.cfm?-Gilbert-Sorrentino-Gold-Fools-&BookID=42

      “Three teenage boys, Nort and Dick Shannon and their friend, Bud Merkel, find themselves in the middle of the forbidding Gila Desert on an adventure that will, they hope, lead them to the fabled riches of desert gold. Their guides, the grizzled prospector, Hank Crosby, and the leathery old cowpoke, Billee Dobb, accompany them through blistering heat, savage sandstorms, and the dangers posed by the evil Del Pinzo and his sinister Indian companion, Zapto, men who want to the treasure for themselves. In this brilliant, witty, yet fond burlesque of boys’ adventure books, noted American novelist Gilbert Sorrentino tells the story in interrogative sentences, forcing the reader to answer the very questions of the narrative itself.”

  9. Walter Abish’s first book, Duel Site, was a poetry collection. He followed this up with the famed Alphabetical Africa and then other books including the PEN/Faulkner award-winning How German Is It (Wie deutsch ist es).

  10. Sorrentino published seven books of poems: THE DARKNESS SURROUNDS US, BLACK AND WHITE, THE PERFECT FICTION, CORROSIVE SUBLIMATE, WHITE SAIL, THE ORANGERY, and SELECTED POEMS, a revised version of which incorporated eighteen years’ worth of uncollected poems written after the collection’s original appearance, as well as a book of translations of the fragmentary work of Sulpicia, who lived in the first century BC. He often spoke in interviews of his sense of the “marriage” between poetry and prose (making up “one plausible event after another” was never on his agenda), and despite the long-held belief that his primary prose influences were Irish modernists like Joyce and O’Brien, his four early works of prose, in particular, decisively reflect the influence of WCW’s prose.

    • Thanks for all those titles, Marge!

      For anyone interested in seeing more by Sorrentino on WCW, see:
      http://tinyurl.com/yje6w2b

      (And SOMETHING SAID is overall a very valuable collection.)

      See also IMAGINATIVE QUALITIES OF ACTUAL THINGS; the title is of course a quote from WCW, and the book applies a lot of WCW’s thoughts directly to fiction.

      …And it’s a brilliant book to boot, amazingly fun reading.

      And see also this interview:
      http://tinyurl.com/yd7lpsm

      John O’Brien: Has William Carlos Williams influenced your fiction?

      Gilbert Sorrentino: In general, my fiction has been influenced by the prose of Williams. My prose, I think, has been more influenced by verse than it has been by other prose, except for the prose of Williams. Thematically, I don’t think my first two novels were influenced by any other novels. “Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things”—what I wanted to do with this morass of phony artiness that exists in New York and other places—was directly influenced by “The Apes of God.” That was Lewis’s brilliant assault upon the Bloomsbury of his time. “Imaginative Qualities” and “The Apes of God” are totally remote in every other particular except in the desire to level the falseness and wretchedness, misery and self-seeking and greed of the artistic world.

      The artist generally has been driven back on himself. This is an old and boring story. He hasn’t got an audience. He writes for other writers’ approval, yet not necessarily thinking of other writers as an audience. I never think of an audience, really. I think of my own pleasure, my own fun, if you will. When I read over what I have written and see something that strikes me as being marvelously subtle or beautifully structured, I think of friends of mine who might read it and see it. I get pleasure in thinking that they might see it. But to think of somebody in a bookstore, somebody I don’t know getting it, is beyond me. I imagine it happens. People read my work and get something from it, are pleased by it, or are moved to laugh or cry or get sick. Some guy wrote me after reading “The Sky Changes” and said that after he had finished it he went and threw up. Terrific criticism.

      (interview continues, very good reading)

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