In the autumn of 2009, I promised my agent I would sit down during my Christmas Holidays and sort out my novel Petrol. It needed editing, having grown to an unwieldy (for me) 80,000 words. In late November, when I wasn’t quite finished my teaching work for the term, I was tempted to have a quick look. I piled my fat manuscript on the kitchen table and as I began to read, I realised that I simply couldn’t bear it — there was too much of it. I pushed the paper pile to one side, opened my laptop and began to write from memory. The first chapter poured out as two first-person dramatic monologues but then I put it away and got back to my teaching work.
I’d always wanted to write a verse novel although I’d never really liked that definition: it sounded confined and finicky somehow; there wasn’t a sense of flow, the ‘vivid and continuous dream’ that John Gardner speaks of in On Becoming A Novelist. What I had just written did flow and I had derived an enormous amount of pleasure from those stolen moments. In a fraction of the words used in the original chapter, I felt I had finally nailed the feeling.
It felt transgressive too, pushing aside the manuscript that sat like an ugly stained mattress on the kitchen table, along with all the voices telling me there was no money in poetry, hardly an audience and that it was time for me to write a ‘big’ novel. I’d got into a balloon, cast off the sandbags and there was no going back. After Christmas, when the novel had been reduced to a slim 10,000 words in between intense sessions of watching the entire boxed set collection of The Wire with my daughter, there was nothing any of the gainsayers could say to stop me. I’d been flying and years of writing poetry had taught me that inspired writing always punches above its weight. It had only taken me two weeks to write but the story and characters had been growing since 2004 inside the pupa of the large ungainly novel. I knew this was the best version possible.
Petrol was published in 2012 by Peter Jay of Anvil Press who described it as a ‘novella disguised as a prose poem’; no one agrees as to what it is. Some say it’s fiction, others poetry. I dropped the description ‘verse novel’ when I abandoned line breaks, opting for prose blocks because I liked the look of those black squares arranged on the white page. I’ve called it a prose poem, a narrative poem, and lately I’m trying out ‘noem’, which is my own neologism although it sounds a bit like ‘gnome’ so I stress the last two letters and hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious.
So what is a poem? And what is a novel? And why do some people think poetry and narrative are or should be mutually exclusive? Countless intellects have set out to define poetry, but no one really succeeds in coming up with a scientific definition. Can there be a strict definition for the novel either, apart from length? How much does length matter? One of the many reasons I suspect that I’ve always preferred writing poetry to prose is that when I’m writing poetry I don’t keep finding myself obsessively checking the word count to see if I’ve done my morning’s quota: in poetry the word count is irrelevant.
Despite the impossibility of defining poetry, poets never stop trying. The internet is abrim with countless quotes from W.H. Auden’s statement that a poem had to be as soundly constructed as a motorcycle to Robert Frost’s simple ‘a fresh look and a fresh listen’. In his book How to Read a Poem, the poet and critic Edward Hirsch quotes Osip Mandelstam saying: ‘if a poem can be paraphrased then the sheets haven’t been rumpled, poetry hasn’t spent the night’.
But surely the same thing can be said for a novel? It’s the way you say it, the quality of the writing that matters. Although, for me, poetry is language at its purest and most distilled, I also find that quality in the finest stories and novels. Wuthering Heights and Ulysses are two novels that read like poetry. Ulysses is difficult because each page requires the attention that is normally given to poetry. Readers of novels seeking to get lost in a narrative find themselves in a strange lyrical country where the point of view won’t stop shifting.
Once upon a time all the great narratives were told in verse because our oral roots required literature to be memorable; sound and image were part of that (and still are today). As late as the nineteenth century Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott were writing best-selling narrative verse. Narrative and poetry were believed to have parted company at the birth of modernism; the prestige of that Johnny-Come-Lately, the novel, grew and grew. I often come across students who feel that in order to be successful, they must write a novel regardless of their own inclinations and abilities. Does everyone have a book in them? Why not a poem? Fifteen years of teaching have taught me that everyone has a poem in them. And it makes sense that something so ancient with its roots in prayer and lamentation should come naturally.
Whether it’s filed as poetry or prose, I look for memorability and intensity. In September 2013, I read with the poet Patrice Vecchione at Bookshop Santa Cruz and was captivated in particular by this tiny poem:
The day my happy high-heeled mother
bent to light the oven for my birthday cake
and came up, gasping her hair in flames
I saw the world for what it was.
And later those years when she turned
drunk and mean, I remembered.
‘A Foretelling’ collapses one life into a nutshell, supplying everything that a good narrative needs — a powerful image, musical language and immaculate pacing. I read it to my fiction students when I got back from California and after I’d read it to them a few times, I knew it off by heart and so I carry this little nugget and teaching aid around in my head.
Every now and then a rise in the popularity of poetry is announced; sometimes it’s little more than marketing hype as poetry publishers always struggle to survive. But poetry is thriving online where it’s free. I can’t complain: I’ve discovered many more poets although I always buy the books once I’ve made the discovery: I never feel I’m properly drinking in the poetry until I have an actual book in my hand. Flash fiction and prose poetry are on the rise too, the best of them interchangeable; but I think this is because the best flash fiction has to be poetry, it has to have depth.
This flowering is attributed to technology although we can’t be completely sure about this, remembering that it was Baudelaire who originated prose poetry in the 19th century. Many of the original Grimm tales were much shorter before the brothers began to extend and embellish according to shifting tastes. I don’t doubt, however, that technology is part of the change. I wrote Petrol straight onto my laptop; previously, I always wrote poetry by hand. That golden rule was thrown out like another ungainly sand bag when I needed to speed my thoughts to the keyboard and see the prose block, the mise-en-page instantly before me as I typed.
More worrying is the claim that the current popularity of poetry and short fiction is due to shorter attention spans. Our minds and methods are changing and I see the changes in myself, even though I still read physical books, in using the internet for research.
Only time will tell the true consequences but before the shorter forms are dismissed as lightweights, I would like to point out that poetry and the short story actually require more attention because every word counts. One might be able to skip bits of a novel. But whoever heard of anyone speed-reading or skipping parts of a poem or a short story?
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