Word for Word: Who’d be a poet? Ask Clive James

Many novelists seem to crave the higher calling of poetry, but, ‘showing more talent for prose, are condemned to fame and wealth’

Clive James: believed that his prose might find better favour “because people don’t know that it’s writing – it doesn’t bother them. Poetry always says that it’s writing.” Photograph: Hazel Thompson/New York Times

Clive James: believed that his prose might find better favour “because people don’t know that it’s writing – it doesn’t bother them. Poetry always says that it’s writing.” Photograph: Hazel Thompson/New York Times

 

The poet and novelist Dermot Bolger once suggested that the difference between a book of poems and a novel was about £5,000. Despite this financial gulf, many novelists seem to crave the higher calling of poetry, but, “showing more talent for prose, are condemned to fame and wealth”, a fate, as Clive James writes, that “most poets avoid”.

James himself is a literary polymath, moving easily between nonfiction, novels and poetry, although he believed that his prose might find better favour “because people don’t know that it’s writing – it doesn’t bother them. Poetry always says that it’s writing.”

Launching Gerald Dawe’s fine new collection, the novelist Richard Ford remarked on what he felt was the unusual move of having a novelist launch a book of poems.

“I’m, of course, just happy to go on the record as being a reader of poems. Novelists read poems. Whether poets ever read novels is a matter of conjecture.”

Ford has credited poets as being among his most important teachers, including Donald Hall and the recently deceased Galway Kinnell. “Poems can seem easy to do when they are so appealing to read. But when you sit down to do them, they aren’t easy,” he says.

Claire Keegan deems the short story as lying just beneath poetry, literature’s highest form.

In fact, novelist-poets are not uncommon. According to the dual player Margaret Atwood, poetry comes from a different area of the brain, one that’s closer to music and mathematics. Of late, much has been written about John Berryman, owing to the centenary of his birth. He wrote an unfinished novel poignantly entitled Recovery. Its subject was a drying-out alcoholic, and the poet’s own drinking didn’t permit the novel’s completion.

Some novelists have been sufficiently taken by poets to make them the centre of their novels; David Park’s The Poets’ Wives looks at the lives of William Blake, Osip Mandelstam and a fictional Northern Irish poet from the perspective of their wives; Adam Foulds’s novel The Quickening Maze took the fascinating poet John Clare as its subject.

It’s believed that poor reviews of his novels Jude the Obscure and Tess of the d’Urbervilles prompted Thomas Hardy to focus exclusively on writing poems.

The journey between forms was similar for the Pulitzer-winning poet Philip Schultz. He laboured for many long years over several novels, none of which saw the light of day. Between these efforts Schultz consoled himself by writing poetry. The New Yorker, where he so desperately wished for his fiction to be published, started taking his poems. Following a welter of rejections for his novels, he finally succumbed to his poetic fate.

These two competing identities eventually found a balance when Schultz’s editor suggested bracketing his most recent work, The Wherewithal, as a novel in verse. The critical success of that title belies the poet Michael Symmons Roberts’s comment that “the verse novel (like the rock opera or the sound sculpture) is the awkward child of successful parents, destined to disappoint both of them”. Maureen Kennelly is director of Poetry Ireland

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