Poet vs novelist
May 30, 2014-
The word ‘novel’ carries for me a weight as ominous, all-consuming and unforgiving as any Job encountered. I was 17 when I decided to write stories as big as cathedrals, overflowing with the kind of memorable and audacious characters Walker Percy, Ernest Hemingway and Saul Bellow created. I stayed up all night, writing description, dialogue, plot curlicues, stories within stories, convinced that anything fewer than 10 pages was wasted time. One wrote the way Thomas Wolfe did, I thought, with fury and hubris, translating everything one read, experienced and felt into glistening, unswerving prose. I didn’t need drugs, cigarettes or caffeine; writing was my drug of choice. And the novel was the high point of literary achievement.
Over the next 20 years I wrote novel after novel, all of which were rejected by publishers. They were about my experiences growing up in a family of Russian-Polish Jewish immigrants and various troubled relationships. But content was never more than an excuse to display my talents over hundreds of pages. I never doubted my talent. If talent was the circus, then I was its ringmaster and audience, applauding its every move. No single book inspired me more than Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. The gorgeous onslaught of highbrow thought and febrile emotion was conveyed in a poetry of intense, nonstop filibustering language unlike any I’d ever read before. Who remembered or cared what novels like his were about? Percy’s The Moviegoer was about a guy who went to movies and fell for his cousin Kate, whom he tried to save. One didn’t need much more plot than this. To me Bellow’s Augie was about great drive and a love of the English sentence and being a writer at the height of his creative passions. It was about writing a masterpiece.
In between novels I wrote poems, mostly to console myself for the novels’ failures. Mysteriously, all my heartache, worry and grief went into these poems, which felt more like private notes to myself than professional attempts at literature. Even more mysteriously, most of them were getting published. I worked hard on them, to be honest, perhaps even harder than on my fiction, paying attention to the heft and balance of each word and idea. With my fiction I focused on chapters and overall conceptions, while in poetry I crawled along in the trenches of each sentence, examining every word for a sign of a deeper significance. Each finished poem felt realised, arrived at directly by way of an inner struggle between whatever emotion had inspired it and the nuanced thought needed to both express and propel its forward movement.
Was I on some level granting permission to the poet that the novelist was being denied? In any case, The New Yorker, the place I most wanted my fiction published, started taking my poems when I was 28. When one, Like Wings, generated a great flurry of letters, I immediately explained to anyone who dared compliment me that, yes, it was very nice, but just wait till the story I was working on came out. That would be a real record-breaker.
Finally, in my late 40s, after a new round of rejections, I gave up writing fiction and began to concentrate full time on my poetry. This, after some 30 years of struggle. It was a memorable, if not happy, day.
I’ve often suspected that the novelist in me resents everything the poet writes, maybe especially the very desire to write poetry. Claiming such a division of purpose may sound dubious at best, because how can one person harbour envious feelings toward himself? But, as my friends and students all learned soon enough, complimenting one of my poems often meant insulting the failed fiction writer within me, and I suspected that my feelings of accomplishment in poetry were tinged with a noticeable under-taste of nostalgia and regret. It’s probably not too surprising that the name of my book of poems that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 is Failure. I thought the subject was my father’s business failures but have good cause to think otherwise now.
Perhaps the more interesting perspective is that of the poet in me toward the novelist. Courteous and cautious, the poet is something of a gentleman in his behaviour toward the fiction writer. He tends to be deferential, even encouraging. The fiction writer could be equally successful if he just tried a little harder. The fiction writer, on the other hand, never wanted anything to do with the poet. His sole ambition was conquest and domination.
In some ways this relationship reminds me of my two sons. It’s a complicated relationship born of great love and intense competition. But there, necessity arbitrates a truce of sorts. They need each other on some keenly felt primal level and know it. The novelist can’t stand the idea of needing poetry, however much he likes nice-sounding language. Perhaps sharing the same brain is more provocative and internecine than sharing the same DNA and household?
Twelve years ago, I began work on a long poem about a subject I’d tried dealing with in several novels, my experience while working in a welfare building in San Francisco in 1969. I decided to combine this idea with new material about a pogrom in Poland in which 1,600 Jewish men, women and children were murdered. The many narratives and characters required balancing techniques I’d learned in writing all those failed novels.
Winning the Pulitzer Prize had ended the rivalry, I thought. The poet in me was triumphant. I was never meant to be a novelist. But when I finally finished the book in the spring of 2013, my editor suggested calling this long poem “a novel in verse.” I protested somewhat but finally gave in; both my identities were too exhausted to continue the struggle.
It’s hard not to smile when I hear myself explaining to people that The Wherewithal is a poem that uses some novelistic techniques. The novelist seems to be taking all this in his stride. He knows that the poet got the book published, and that the lines are broken into stanzas, not paragraphs. He’s even being, well, something of a gentleman about it. Forty-two years is a long time to struggle to do anything. And the poet is more than willing to share credit, if credit is due. In fact, we are on our best behaviour. Maybe, after all these years, we’re finally learning to cooperate, or at least
live like brothers.
—©2014 The New York Times
Published: 31-05-2014 12:27