Years ago, I wrote a snooty piece about how poetry was the highest of all written forms, that its demands on the reader and the writer far exceeded the rigour required of the novelist or the "ordinary" consumer of prose. My focus was on the precision and density of the made thing, the poem, how exquisitely wrought it is and how no other creator of text has to work as hard as the poet. I quoted W. Somerset Maugham, who said that poetry is the crown of literature. I noted that in a poem there is no excess baggage. Each detail is both familiar and unfamiliar. At the end of it, the reader nods and says yes, yes, this is something I have seen too. Or, holy shit, what on earth was going on in her brain to make her produce that literary carnival? Poets salivate jealously over how their contemporaries string together a few choice words, how they distil an idea down to one crisp image.
Reading (and writing) poetry, I said, took a certain acuity that most people do not have. My exact words: “It takes a superior mind to read poetry in the same way it takes a superior mind to ‘read’ an abstract work of art.” I also wrote that “… unlike fiction, poetry often has a purpose that extends beyond the literal: nudging (or shocking) the reader into revelation, insight, and a deeper understanding of Truth and Beauty.” I chastised the institutional prejudice within the literary community, the practice of placing of fiction on a pedestal in the glamour-filled realm of Prizes. What was so great about connecting the dots, about fleshing out the action of some story, which may not be that original in the first place? Didn't some academic once claim that there are only thirty plots, everything else being a variation on one?
What if I've changed my mind? About poetry being the hardest and most demanding form to write. What if I've discovered, as I did walking around in the labyrinth of fiction these past few years, that being a novelist is fucking hard work?
One day, a few years ago, I wrote a novel. The day lasted seven weeks. In those seven weeks, 75,000 words spilled onto the page, many of them merely place holders to come back to. Some of those pages bored me to tears. Some of them took me to places that shocked me. I showed it to someone who said it was nice. It meant that I had to work harder.
What I have discovered: Writing a novel is like wandering through a many-roomed house, starting from the vestibule and working your way through all the nooks and crannies to the back door. Every time you get through it, you start all over again. You can't help it. You keep wanting to change the wallpaper, rearrange the furniture, reface the cabinets. And you've got a whole posse accompanying you, people you know well, but not that well. You feed and clothe them. You keep a close watch on their emotional state. You're so busy leading, you don't even notice that you're almost at the kitchen, the last room in the house. You make a bee-line for the backyard, letting the screen door slam behind you, when something begins to tug at you. You realize that you dropped something along the way, a glove or your wallet, and you know you have to go back to retrieve it. You re-enter the front door, retracing your own footsteps; you're accompanied by that same posse, a likeable bunch who seem to be acquiring a thicker skin of humanity the longer they travel with you. And now that you've found what you lost, you figure it wouldn't hurt to take another walk through the house, just to check on things one more time, just to be sure the lights are out and the kids are in bed.
Next week, I will post the original essay from 2011: “The Crown of Literature is Poetry."