Of poets and novelists

Canada has a proud literary tradition of poets who go on to write novels. Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Anne Michaels, and Michael Ondaatje are just a few that come to mind.

This phenomenon is comparable in part to the one in which many writers start off with short stories before penning a novel. Short story writers often practice their craft under the misconception that short stories are somehow easier to writer than novels.

This condescending view holds that fiction writers have to serve some apprenticeship in the short story form before they can tackle the immensity of a novel. Thankfully, this attitude is going by the wayside, in no small part to Alice Munro’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature on the basis of her short stories.

As someone who has published a novel but never a short story, I respect the fact that the two prose forms are very different, require distinct approaches and skills, and are equally challenging to pull off successfully.

When it comes to poets becoming novelists, it’s a different story, if you’ll pardon the pun. Many writers consider poetry to be the hardest literary genre, with its emphasis on compression, form, and the right word in the right place at the right time. Margaret Atwood has said that writing a poem depends on inspiration to a much greater degree than on perspiration while writing a novel is the opposite.

I’ve always thought writers who shift from poetry to novels do so not so much because of a desire for artistic progression as out of impatience with the less-than-marginal place poetry occupies in our culture. In this theory, poets get tired of not being heard and so they turn to a more popular form that allows them to better communicate with their readers.

In my case, I started off writing poetry before fiction but the way things worked out, I was able to publish a novel before a book of poems. However, I haven’t forgotten my roots. One of the fathers in my novel Sons and Fathers is a poet, and poetry plays a key role in the story. Two of the characters, Alan and Eli, meet in a creative writing class where they each bring in a poem for peer review. Another main character, the budding journalist Michael, writes a damning review of Eli’s first poetry chapbook. Eli courts his future wife Sophie first by singing “Kublai Khan” at the top of his lungs on McTavish Street on the McGill campus before eventually writing her poems of his own which Sophie politely accepts. (Ah, those crazy poetic types: why couldn’t they just buy flowers?)

Three poems or fragments of poems appear in Sons and Fathers. And, perhaps more subversively, I bricked a number of short, never-before-published poems into the prose, like the victim in Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado.”

These former poems converted to prose include lines such as: “Words are not stunt doubles for emotion” or “with time spreading out in front of her without a wrinkle or a worry.” Part of one scene, in which Allan and Eli are walking in Manhattan, was originally written as a poem, and will be appearing again as a poem in my upcoming book of poetry Catullus’s Soldiers, but only after a number of astute editorial interventions by my editor Robyn Sarah!

In many ways, although Sons and Fathers is clearly prose fiction, I see it in part as a bit of a love song to poetry and the role it plays in our lives.

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