Novels vs. Poetry

I don’t mean that title seriously — hierarchies trouble me. I don’t understand why it’s necessary to declare one thing better, or more essential, than another. Why, when one discusses one’s preference for, say, Anne Sexton over Sylvia Plath, it’s done in a manner that disparages Plath’s craft. This is not about “compare & contrast.” This isn’t about the “critics.” And this is not about good writing versus bad writing. This is about us — the poets/writers/readers. Why can we only praise one thing by belittling another?

My primary allegiance, what I strive to advocate and promote, is poetry. But I love novels. They feed a different part of me, I would never want to do without them. I go through jags when I can’t concentrate, I only have a brain for poems — writing poems, reading poems and essays on poems. But then there are other times, like now, when it’s novels I crave.

My first pregnancy was like this: I read a lot of novels, and wrote hardly at all. And now, in the last 3 days, I’ve read Salman Rushdie’s new novel (magnificent!), Fredrica Wagman’s Playing House (twisted & utterly compelling), and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson (awesome, the best thriller I’ve read in years!). [Ed.’s note: Don’t ask me how I’ve managed to find the time to read so much, I’m mystified myself!] I wonder if it’s because my subconscious is aware that all too soon a new baby will be here and I won’t have more than fifteen minutes put together to read for a while, and so I’m bingeing now, building up my fiction reserves.

This pregnancy I have no intention of neglecting poetry — I have quite a stockpile of poetry books to read, to which I added two books from Caketrain yesterday: issue 2 from 2004 and afterpastures, by Claire Hero, which won their 2007 Chapbook Competition and has just been released. My bookshelves are a bursting treasure trove. And while I don’t seem to have the capacity to read novels and books of poems & poemstuff at the same time, I’m glad that I needn’t choose either/or, that I have both wells to draw from.

13 responses to “Novels vs. Poetry”

  1. I enjoy both novels and poetry and also have difficulty mixing and matching in my reading. When I was pregnant with my daughter I hardly read at all, though I began again once she was born. I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

  2. There is a distinct difference between poetry and novels. Poetry is free of form while novels are highly structured. We can learn so much about one’s personality just by observing his or her personal preference. Personally, I prefer short stories over both. I guess short stories incorporate the best elements of both novels and poetry.

  3. Oh dear God, I have been too far from the blog for too long — how have I missed the fact that you’re pregnant?! So many, so many congratulations!!! Hooray!!!

    Novels! One day, I will be able to read one again. Sigh.

  4. I love poetry. There was a particular time in my life when it was like someone just turned on the rhymes. I think God decided to impart a spiritual gift because poem after poem began to pour out from my pens. Thanks for the post.

  5. Emey, how nice to meet you — thank you for reading! The correlation between non-reading & pregnancy is interesting to me. I wonder what it means.

    Oh, Leafless, are you throwing down a gauntlet?! Yes, there is a distinct difference between poetry and novels (and short stories, which I find unsatisfying, to make a wildly general statement to which there are of course exceptions), and structure is one of them, but poetry is hardly “free of form”! Far from it.

    Well, yes, Emma, you HAVE been gone too long, but I suppose you’re allowed to have a life, and a very full one at that. :o) Being a bookseller gives me a particular impetus to read novels, because folks always ask, “So, what have you read lately?” and if I don’t have an answer I feel like I will give every independent bookseller in the nation a bad rep — may you read one again soon!

    Divorcefire, how wonderful to hear! Thank you for visiting!

  6. You know, Marie, this is very interesting — what pregnancy and the desire to read narrative have in common, and what needs poetry fills, and why you find short stories unsatisfying.

    The first one — pregnancy and narrative: Novels are stories of lives — birth to death, with stops in between, and there you are, beginning a life. Okay, maybe there’s more to it than that, but this is a comment, not a dissertation.

    Poetry? All that experience distilled, the way words matter so much. The experience of reading poetry is about connections made in almost magical ways. I don’t see how anyone could do without that.

    As for short stories, like all forms, there’s something great about the short story too. Maybe it’s just not the time in your life to need it. I’m sure you’ve heard that thing about how the short story is probably closer to poetry on the continuum between poetry and novels — words and images count a lot in short stories. And they have that flashing/magic thing poetry does where meaning sometimes erupts out of words. I used to think of short stories as incomplete novels, but the more I read them, the more I realize I was a dolt.

  7. ooo Lily, great comments! I definitely think you’re onto something here.

    I’m sure I’d love your short stories, Lily, and I do have a few favorite short story authors: Turgenev, Mark Helprin, Michael Byers, Alice Munro…

  8. It might be dissertation material after all. What happens, exactly, to our brains while our bodies are busy making babies? I have re-read every “Clan of the Cave Bear” novel during each of my 3 pregnancies, as well as re-reading all of my other favorite, light, long works of fiction. Though I’ve returned to some non fiction and some heavier fiction after the birth of my babies, I have to admit that all my old favorites, Lawrence, Dostoevsky, Kafka, have been abandoned completely in favor of Helen Fielding, Sophie Kinsella and the like. I’ve found myself wondering if “serious” reading will ever return to my life, and wondering what, exactly, “serious” reading is. What to Expect for the Rest of Your Life?

  9. Love your comments, Sara! I think fatigue is a big factor here. Our brains are tired tired tired. Being pregnant, and being a mom while pregnant, is, as you know better than I, exhausting. And your “light” reading tends to deal with issues and themes very close to your life. I have every faith that you will return to your old favorites. Some day.

  10. Congratulations! A nice kind of surprise. My son’s birthday is Thanksgiving week, which is the week after our wedding anniversary (husband’s and mine, that is). Then my birthday is right around Mother’s Day. Does bunch up the holdays but not a big deal.

    I’m reading The Other Boleyn Girl (or is that Sister?). Just finished The Gathering.
    The Atonement before that. Now I’m due for a good true crime book.

  11. Diane, thank you!

    I think it’s “Girl” but I always forget that one. I loved Atonement, but haven’t gotten around to The Gathering yet — have to kinda gird myself for that. Think I’m going for pure fun next, Curse of the Spellmans…we’ll see.

  12. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation πŸ™‚ Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Mss.

  13. Great blog entry and comments. I did a search on poetry vs novel And found. Love novels such as the gathering and David Mitchell’s works, and short stories of Helprin. How do I get into poetry more?? πŸ™‚

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