In recent years, as I have become more exclusively a poet, I have occasionally found myself part of an uncomfortable conversation with my fiction writing friends. After some small talk about what we’re working on and further discussion of habits we use to facilitate writing, my fiction writing friend declares, somewhat mystified, “Yeah, I don’t really get poetry,” or “I don’t really understand what poets do.” Tone is, of course, everything in these conversations, and as often as not, my fiction writing friend makes this admission rather sheepishly. Upon further exploration, I find that my fiction writing friend does not “have favorite poets” or “read poetry.”
You might say—as my fiction writing friend is essentially saying—Oh, well, to each his own. To which I say, Not so fast. I am guessing a majority of poets could join me in naming ten favorite fiction writers. Why is this the case? I do not consider myself exceptionally well read. But—quite apart from my intrinsic enjoyment of fiction, nonfiction and plays—I understand that all genres of literature have something to offer the working poet. For instance, the fiction writer possesses a familiarity with the cadence of everyday speech, a conception of overarching time (and an awareness of when subversion of chronology can be most effective) and a firm grasp of character and perspective. All of these tools are useful in the construction of verse, as well, especially in narrative work or persona poems.
Is it simply the case that poetry has nothing to teach fiction? Does the influence cut only in one direction? My wife, a fiction writer who reads poetry and has favorite poets, and writers like her, would agree that continual exposure to poetry offers a number of advantages to fiction writers. Poetry is concerned, perhaps above all, with stretching the language to the furthest extent of its signification properties. Like fiction, it is concerned with the meanings of words, but in a manner freed from the urgency of narrative expectation. Yes, things happen in poems, but as often as not action takes the form of an idea or worldview being articulated, rather than a subject accomplishing things. As with fiction, these developments are nonlinear and—if honest—include many false starts.
I suspect what makes poetry difficult for my fiction writing friend is just what makes poetry difficult for a larger audience, namely, that the poet inhabits the intersection of the concrete and the abstract. The analogy to abstract painting has often been made…something is being described by that blotch intersected with crisp lines, but those looking for allegorical interpretations—with protagonists and an arc—will be disappointed. For a variety of reasons, I prefer to think of the poem as analogous to another art form that includes both the concrete and the abstract, modern dance. The dancer’s body is concrete, but so long as we are not watching pantomime, the dancer’s body imbued with motion inhabits the realm of abstraction. It “means” many different things at different times, and often several things at once. Abstract development invites interpretation, but it is also, in the end, irreducible. The only way to convey the meaning of a dance is, alas, to be there in the audience (the dimensionality is lost, even, as dance is “captured” on film).
What would it mean for a fiction writer to incorporate poetry’s plasticity of language and awareness of abstraction into his or her fiction? Wouldn’t it result in schizophrenic storytelling untethered from the traditions of character development and sequential action? Wouldn’t it result, in short, in fiction becoming poetry? Of course, this is a hysterical claim. The poet who reads fiction still manages to write poetry, and the fiction writer who reads poetry will still manage to write fiction. And—perhaps this is my only contentious claim—a fiction writer who reads poetry will write better fiction, more alive to the possibilities of diction, more awake to dimensionality, perhaps even more potently economical and convincing in its movements. This all entails effort, of course, but no fiction writer I know has been averse to hard work. The first time I attended a modern dance performance, I was somewhat incredulous that what I had seen was particularly meaningful. But as I attended subsequent performances, I began to realize that what I was seeing had a physical and emotional vocabulary, a meaning, and even, a beauty. To my fiction writing friends who do not “get” poetry, I say Try harder. Your fiction will thank you for it.