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.