Maiden or Crone?
A Circuitous Answer to a Common Question: Why Does a Poet Start Writing Fiction?
It seems to me that the issue of genre has gained as much prominence in our day as it had back in the eighteenth century. When we are not obsessing over the demise of yet another independent press or lying awake pondering the respective merits of the en-dash and the semi-colon, we wonder whether we are writing prose poems or lyric paragraphs, essays or literary non-fiction, and how the category we ultimately select will dispose readers to view this work. My daughter Rachel insists that all kinds of writing are the same. Flaubert had a similar take on the process, proclaiming that “good line ceases to be either prose or poetry,” and I suspect that, at the level of the line, they may well be right.
But what happens when you get beyond the line … and then beyond the paragraph … and then beyond the page? The verticality of poetry – which insists on the kinaesthetic fusion of thought, perception, and feeling in a single moment of time – is counterbalanced by the horizontal unfolding of narrative, and we get pulled more and more into prose territory. There’s a different tension in work that has a plot; it wants to keep moving. The writer resists this linear compulsion by amplification: she tries to freeze time and take in every aspect of a scene, every nuance of emotion. She digs in her heels to resist the drag forward.
When I was younger, I hated this about novels. They seemed so sloppy to me: so shapeless, and repetitive, and full of unnecessary explanations of everything. What a poet might allude to sideways in a single metaphor, a novelist felt compelled to explicate for two pages. It drove me nuts! Did novelists think readers were stupid? Or were they just in love with the sound of their own voices? I preferred short stories where this tendency was reined in, and writers aimed for concision and elegance, implication and resonance, rather than exhausting every possible aspect of their subject. For similar reasons, I preferred chamber music to symphonies, and black and white photographs to Technicolor.
But guess what? I’ve just written a novel, and so have a heck of a lot of other poets I know. In fact, sometimes it seems that nearly every contemporary Canadian novelist started off as a poet. In alphabetical order, here are some examples: Atwood, Bemrose, Cohen, Harvor, Hay, Itani, Jiles, Kulyk-Keefer, Michaels, Musgrave, Ondaatje, Redhill, Steffler, Urquhart. Feel free to add names to this list. Don Coles has written a novel! Genni Gunn just came out with Raincoast! Mary di Michele has one coming out with Penguin! It makes a great parlour game, especially when the lists for the GG and Giller are announced.
Well, the mention of book awards suggests one obvious reason poets might turn to prose: to gain readers. Fiction sells (somewhat); poetry doesn’t. So are poets simply selling out to find an audience? Still feeling like the nerds they were in high school, are they seeking the approval of the popular kids? You have to concede that it’s nice to be read. It’s also nice to be able pay the rent. Even poets get older, and accumulate families and responsibilities. You can’t feed your children on those fluorescent orange cheese cubes they give out at book launches.
Oh yeah, and about those children. Here’s another reason a poet might turn to fiction. She got older! Life got messy. It stopped resembling chamber music with the introduction of blaring brass (those babies at 2 am) and insistent percussion (mortgage payments, root canals, and other kinds of pressure). Exquisitely apt poetic motifs became harder and harder to discern among the clamour of daily life. Poetry – lyric poetry, at any rate – could no longer make itself heard. “I,” it ventured tentatively. “I?” it inquired, wistfully. “I!” it shouted, resentfully. But nobody was listening.
To speak personally (as though I haven’t been doing so all along), lyrics now seemed to me frighteningly self-confident and well groomed. Lyrics had perfect hair. They did not go grocery shopping with an empty wallet and pablum smeared on their shirt. When lyrics got depressed, they did it properly, with a bottle of scotch, in the middle of the night, because of the state of the world. They did not break down in broad daylight in the middle of the unswept kitchen floor because the baby has better clothes than they do, for God’s sake, and when was the last time anyone gave them a real compliment anyway? No. Lyrics concentrated, they paid attention; they followed the thread of their thoughts into the labyrinth of the heart. They did not gibber, and chatter, and apologise for the mess.
But the other side of this loss of focus was a new fluidity of being that was very liberating. From being a perfectionist who could never do two things at once (I couldn’t even listen to music while marking essays), I had become an eight-armed domestic goddess who habitually talked on the phone while reading the paper, making a salad, feeding the baby, and picking up blocks. I could even type with a baby on my lap! (At least until she peed on me.) And this experience of life as multivalent, diffuse, woven of several simultaneous and not-necessarily-related experiences, seemed more germane to writing long, loosely connected sequences than to tight cohesive self-contained units. Mimesis is not simply a matter of content; form also imitates life.
Concomitant with these multiple activities was a sense of having multiple identities. I had been changed so profoundly by motherhood that I wasn’t able to write as a lyric subject. In a real and necessary way, I had been absorbed into others, and only the lives of others now sustained my interest. Of course, the lyric subject is only an illusion; a fiction of intimacy set up to gain the trust of the reader. The lyric subject is one character. But I suddenly realized that if I wrote a novel I could have two characters, or three, or more.
I have always loved make-believe. As a child, I begged friends to enact complex plots; I wrote scripts and cast my little cousins in them; I daydreamed through long summer afternoons when my parents would have preferred that I’d been involved in some healthy outdoor activity. As a “mature” person, first a scholar then an editor and then a teacher, I’d given all that up – except for the crowd-pleasing histrionics of the lecture hall and the reading tour. But through writing a novel, I rediscovered fantasy. Going into my little office now was like entering a time-machine or the holo-deck on the Star Ship Enterprise; as soon as I opened the door, the ringing phones, flooding washing machines, whining children, faded into another dimension and the world of my characters took over. People always groan about the years and years of effort that go into writing a novel, and there is that. But honesty compels me to admit it is also enormous fun. Because it’s an escape.
Where poetry resembles archaeology, excavating deeper and deeper into yourself beyond the personal to the universal, until you go beyond what you think to discover what you really know, fiction takes you out of yourself by letting you be OTHER people. And those people force you to learn completely new things! If one turns out to be a stamp collector or a Buddhist monk, then you’d better get yourself post-haste to the library and learn all you can about those subjects. It’s an odd feeling when a character compels you down some path you’ve no personal interest in whatsoever, like taking up your husband’s hobby for the sake of the marriage. When poems make you learn something there’s this intense excitement, like someone’s given you the key to the meaning of life. When novels make you learn something, it lacks that urgency but offers in its place a piquant curiosity – because it’s not really about you at all.
Of course a novel “expresses” you as much as a poem does, and if you want to drive yourself crazy, you can even play critic and figure out the meaning of all those nifty themes and images and decide which characters represent which parts of your own psyche. But this game, though amusing, is deceptive, because fictional actions and people are like their counterparts in dreams: over-determined, slipping from one metaphor to another, contextually dependent, a code of the unconscious and not the conscious mind. And because a novel is so much longer than a poem, there’s just way too much code to break.
If novels are so much fun, you ask, why do I still want and need to write poems? Well, I began with Flaubert’s observation that, at the level of the line, the work of a poet or a novelist is pretty much the same. But what he doesn’t acknowledge is that there’s both more syntactical latitude and more delightful exploration of sound and rhythm inherent in the poetic experience. The precision of lyric verse requires fairly rigid parameters; it sets up its own rules, operating according to what medieval writers called decorum. The need for not only every cadence, allusion and image, but also every sound and rhythm to work together in such close proximity means that the possibility of getting everything to cohere is actually greater in a poem than in a novel. The result is that the potential satisfaction, the sense of rightness, is always greater too.
So, obviously, what you need as a writer or a reader at any given moment will determine which form you will find yourself reaching for. For myself, the best analogy I can make is to those optical puzzles I adored and was mystified by as a kid – the ones where you can see either the crone or the maiden; either the candlesticks or the profile. Over and over I would attempt to hold both images simultaneously; over and over I would try and fail. It’s like that now. It’s not a question of which genre is better, poetry or fiction, it’s that I can only work in one at a time; I can only sustain one vision.
Ultimately, that’s why I wrote a novel. Someone else might have written a long poem from this particular story and in the voices of these particular characters, but it wouldn’t have had the sense of moving in time, of compulsion, of cause and effect, that I felt prose fiction offered. Once I saw the thing as a novel, I couldn’t see it as anything else.
And then, just as soon as I’d I finished writing it, I was seduced into writing another manuscript of poem
©copyright Susan Glickman 2004