Sunday Salon

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersI was reading a piece by Salley Vickers yesterday about certain people’s reservations when it came to novels written by poets.  Vickers’ wonders why this should be, given that [t]wo of our greatest poets, Thomas Hardy and D H Lawrence, were also fine novelists.
Well, I have to be honest and say that as far as I’m concerned Vickers couldn’t have chosen worse examples to make her point.  I do like Lawrence’s poetry, although I’m no lover of his novels, but I was once heard to remark to my Literature tutor that while Hardy might have been only a second rate novelist he was definitely a third rate poet, and I’ve never been persuaded to change my opinion on either count.
However, I do share Vickers’ wonderment at such a general condemnation.  I can think of several poets whose novels I read with a great deal of pleasure.  I’ve written a number of times about Sophie Hannah’s excellent prose works, both in her thriller mode and as a short story writer, and she is a very fine poet. Then what about May Sarton, Maya Angelou, Ted Hughes (if you haven’t read his prose for children such as The Iron Man and How the Whale Became you have missed a real treat)?  For the most part, these are writers who really know how to weigh the importance of each word.  There is nothing superfluous in their writing.  And, most important of all for me, the music is right.  The ‘sound’ in my ear is as good as the story in my mind.
Perhaps my favourite poet turned writer, however is Anne Michaels, whose novel Fugitive Pieces is one of the most sensitive books I’ve ever read. I have waited for years for her to write a second novel and now her new book, The Winter Vault, has turned up on my library pile. The weather forecast for the next few days is appalling, rain, wind and general misery, awful if you happen to be going away on holiday but perfect for settling down with a book that will almost certainly need time and loving concentration.  This is a real treat in store.
What do other readers think about Vickers’ basic question?  Do you agree with her or with her unnamed sceptic?  And do you have favourite writers who work in both modes?  I’d be interested to know.

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Published in: on July 26, 2009 at 8:18 am  Comments (10)  

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  1. I think Wendell Berry would shoot that argument right out of the atmosphere! But I have to say that AS a poet, I find it extremely hard to make the transition to writing fiction. I’m great at writing creative nonfiction, but I’ve found it hard to write cohesive fiction. That doesn’t mean that I won’t do it someday, but so far I’m sticking with poetry!

  2. I love novels written by poets…the language is always so beautiful. A relative new novelist who was first an award winning poet is Owen Sheers (he wrote Resistance which I reviewed here on my blog). I know there are other writers I’ve read who were first poets, but I can’t think of them now!

  3. Nick Laird is an award winning poet and a well-regarded novelist and I read recently that he says he needs a different mind set for the two. I think you can tell when a good poet becomes a novelist because they retain a lyrical voice. However I think it may be a problem for some since they are used to pondering over every word and consequently find it difficult for a piece of long prose to flow.

    I agree about Ted Hughes. I like his poetry and some of his prose. I thought Sylvia Plath superior though – I found her prose more engaging in the long term.

    I love both DH Lawrence and Thomas Hardy’s prose – but not really read much of their poetry.

    Others I like are Margaret Atwood (although I think her prose is superior to her poetry) and Simon Armitage (I like his poetry better), Helen Dunmore and Blake Morrison (all good).

    Finally there’s Joe Dunthorne. I’m afraid I’ve not read either his poetry or his prose – but I’ve heard such great reports that I want to – soon.

  4. Oh yes, Wendy, I loved ‘Resistance’ but I haven’t read any of Sheers poetry. Sarah and Clare, you have both given me real food for thought and (blast you both!) added to my TBR pile. Clare, it’s interesting what you say about getting a long piece of prose to flow, because having read the first 60 or so pages of ‘The Winter Vault’ I can see that that might be a problem here. I don’t feel it’s working as successfully as ‘Fugitive Pieces’ did. It’s early days though.

  5. I’m actually fond of Hardy’s poetry and novels, so he’s a good example for me. Thanks for the tip about Ted Hughes — I’d love to read some of his prose!

  6. I just wanted to pop in and say hello again … having found you at your new location. Welcome back to my feed reader!

    P.S. And I quite enjoyed the HP6 film !!

  7. I don’t really read enough poetry to comment with any kind of authority, but I do love novelists that are also known for their poetry. Two that immediately come to mind are Sebastian Barry and Marge Piercy. Helen Dunmore is another example. There is something lyrical about their prose that I feel has its roots in poetry.

  8. I don’t have any reservations about reading novels by poets, but then I love Hardy’s work. Another very accomplished noevlist and poet I’d recommend is David Malouf.

  9. Well I love Hardy, and admire some of Lawrence too. But I agree with Wendy about Owen Sheers — I also loved Resistance. And of course Sebastian Barry though I don’t know his poetry — I do know his plays which are wonderful. And very belated welcome back Ann — so glad you are blogging again.

  10. Malouf isn’t on my bookshelves at all DVR so I must do something about that, but I do love Dummore, Piercy and Barry’s novels and had never really recognised they were poets as well. I shall have to look into that further.


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