The Nighttime Novelist...accomplishes more in about 240 pages than a dozen other "how to write" or "craft your novel" books have ever done.

--Helen Gallagher/Blogcritics




Sunday, April 17, 2011

What Novelists Can (& Should) Learn from Poets

I used to say that short stories and poems have more in common than stories and novels, and to a certain degree I still believe this to be true. Both the story and the poem live and die by compression, by their ability to maximize meaning by finding precisely the right way of saying a thing so that extensions of meaning open up for a reader off the page, whereas novelists are wont to expand rather than compress, to put extensions of meaning right on the page, even to digress—-one of the defining features of the novel, after all, a gift from Mr. Gutenberg and his marvelous contraption.

But the reason I say used to say is that I wouldn’t want to encourage novelists to buy into the idea that their work is, or should be, any less focused or precise than the shorter form. I occasionally hear even writers I admire--who should know better--claim that novel-writing allows them to be less concerned with the word-by-word than stories because of the novel’s space to digress. Which sounds to me not just misguided but lazy; a novel’s digression must be as purposeful as anything else in the book, must have a reason to exist, must have an energy and forward movement and focus that propel the story and keep the reader’s attention, no matter how quiet or seemingly ancillary the moment to the overall arc of the book.

More, there’s the misconception that expansion and digression are the means by which a complete fictional world is made, though of course this isn’t the case. Nothing makes this point like attending a public reading: the oral tradition that the novel supplanted remains very much a part of poems and stories, which lend themselves to readings more readily than novels because they can be contained in a single performance, whereas the novel forces the author to read selections, to give context for what they’re reading, etc. There’s little to compare to the effect of a fantastic poem being performed, or experiencing that compressed, complete world of a short story read aloud from start to finish. And when you hear a great reading, it’s clear that the worlds produced by a poem or story are really no less complete than those of a great novel, which is what I admire most about the forms: poets and short story writers create full worlds, and they do so not through mere economy--which wrongly implies stinginess--or even through word count at all, which is a concern for Microsoft Word, not the person using it. They create full worlds through precision.

Given that April, in addition to being the cruelest month (hello, Tax Day), is also National Poetry Month—and given that technology is increasingly changing the way we think about, compose, and deliver narratives in our 140-character world—-this is an excellent time for fiction writers to turn their attention to the short form and to consider the ways practitioners of the form use precision of language, image, and ideas, even white space, silence, and omission, to create complex worlds in a minimum of space.

To that end, I’d like to offer the following (highly subjective) list of poems that every fiction writer can learn from…or at the very least, that this particular writer has.
Carolyn Forche, “The Colonel”

Forche’s much-anthologized poem—-which appears regularly in flash fiction anthologies, too-—is a full novel compressed into three hundred perfect words. Note how simply, or seemingly so, Forche delivers story and conflict, backstory, the character and setting (which go hand-in-hand, as they should: the eccentric Colonel’s “pleasure” palace with bars on the window, pistol on the cushion beside him just in case, glass shards in the walls for torture and intimidation…even the way she indicates Latin American Dictator by differentiating a cop show on television “in English” versus a brief commercial “in Spanish,” or by the mangoes, or the sentence construction, “Something for your poetry, no?”). Maybe my favorite moment is the way Forche makes clear the very real danger faced by our narrator, which comes through in a single, simple gesture: “My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing.”

Robert Browning, Fra Lippo Lippi

Browning’s dramatic monologues are much funnier, and much more contemporary, than you might think if you just vaguely recall his name from your Norton Anthology. What seems especially contemporary is the way Browning uses the not-said in his storytelling as much as the said. “Fra Lippo Lippi” is the story of a lusty, earthy, drunken friar, also a talented painter, who’s run into trouble for sensualizing the body, exalting the physical, in his paintings. In fact the Prior recognizes his own niece as a model for one of the women in the Friar’s paintings and points her out on the canvas, distressed, as “the female with the breasts”. This line doesn’t intend to tell us that females have breasts--which of course we know--but tells us that hers, as painted by Lippi, do something to [ahem] catch the eye. We don’t need them described to us, don’t even need to look at the painting for ourselves. What doesn’t get said about them tells us everything we need to know. Says it all.

William Carlos Williams, “Portrait of a Lady”

Another poem where what’s not-said plays a crucial role in our understanding. The speaker of the poem is trying his best to woo a woman, and is failing miserably, which we understand by the way he reacts to the woman’s reactions. We don’t ever hear the woman’s reactions for ourselves, don’t even see her in the poem, but she’s a present force throughout—I picture her standing there, listening with her arms crossed, foot tapping impatiently, having none of it. And I know that’s the case by how increasingly flustered and frustrated the speaker becomes as he goes down in flames.

Denise Duhamel, “For The One Man Who Likes My Thighs”

Sentiment is very hard to get at in both fiction and poetry…how do you convey genuine emotion without coming off as maudlin? How do you provoke real human drama without tipping into melodrama? How to take a subject matter that might come off as cliché, having been done before, and make it feel real and urgent and vital? Duhamel’s poem about a woman’s complicated relationship with her own body—-on a fine line between self-deprecation and self-loathing, filled with those heartbreaking concrete details that make us understand the speaker’s embarrassment and feel it for ourselves—-finds just the way to do it. And it’s the sympathy we feel for the speaker that makes the last turnaround in the poem feel not just triumphant but cathartic.

William Stafford, “Traveling Through the Dark”

Conflict need not be loud, explosive, or even external to reveal the urgent stakes of a story…all we need is a single, tightly-focused moment of clear internal conflict to bring a reader in and then, in one sweep, to flatten him. Case in point, Stafford’s gorgeous poem about a moment of moral dilemma, so real it puts you right there on the side of the road with the speaker. And makes you strangely complicit in what happens.

Elizabeth Bishop, “The Man-Moth”

Certainly there are better poems qua poems from Bishop, but what I love about this one isn’t just the classic B-movie monster we get in the title character, rendered in creepy, sympathetic detail down the weird licking of the eyeball, and the great Gotham City imagery of the poem, but even more so the story behind the poem: a misprint in a New York Times headline rendering “mammoth” as “moth-man.” What the actual story referred to, who knows—not that it matters. “I’ve forgotten what it was that was supposed to be ‘mammoth,’” Bishop later told an interviewer. “But the misprint seemed meant for me. An oracle spoke from the page of the New York Times, kindly explaining New York City to me, at least for a moment.” Which is how all good story ideas arrive…as that thing that catches your attention for just a moment and launches the imagination in a new direction.

Robert Frost, “Birches”

I don’t know anything about the writing of this poem, but the thrust of the poem suggests a lot, to me, about the creative process. The speaker begins by thinking about the trees, the particular bend of their branches, which has his imagination thinking of children climbing the trees…leading to his own memories of climbing birches as a boy and this nostalgic, rather wistful meditation on what changes over time, what stays the same. Thus the simplest of conceits to begin the poem—-thinking about a tree—-leads to surprisingly personal emotional connections and explorations for the speaker. This is a particularly effective poem, I find, to bring into the creative writing classroom to illustrate the degree to which this is the same process, ideally, we all go through when beginning a story. Our own remembrances come into play, we begin to connect to the conceit in personal ways, and before you know it the story we originally thought was about (pirates/space aliens/birch trees) we come to see is actually about our exploring (our parents’ divorce/our fear of being alone/nostalgia for our youths). When the work suddenly becomes about something bigger and more resonant than we at first anticipated...those are the moments you live for as a writer. When the work comes alive for you, and for your reader.

Again, this is but an incomplete, personal list…but I hope you enjoyed the poems, and maybe read one or two of these for the first time here. And I’d love to hear if anyone has poems to recommend which've resonated with you in your work as a fiction writer.

Happy National Poetry Month!


  1. Great post, Jody!

    I'd add James Wright's "The Assignation" as a poem that influenced my work. I couldn't find the full text, unfortunately.

    Also, as an aside, there actually is a "Moth-Man" legend in West Virginia. A 6 ft. tall bird/moth with glowing red eyes and a 10 ft. wingspan. Maybe we were talking about that the other day? And as an aside to the aside, how cool that a whole poem bloomed from a misprint!

  2. Thanks for the comments, Jess. :D

    I do love that Man-Moth story behind the story...and the poem itself.

    And I'll look up the James Wright!